How ironic. Coming to discover more about literature’s next step into the World Wide Web, we found ourselves descending not into a buzzy computer filled office but into a dimly lit kitchen, complete with the offer of cookies. Declining this, for fear of spraying the team with their own baked goods during questioning, we got down to the ins, outs and implications of a new Wikipedia-type website offering:

Huddled round the table were the brains behind the Open Shakespeare project, a website developed under the auspices of the Open Knowledge Foundation. The OKF is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to promoting the use, reuse and redistribution of information, aiming to provide the public with open access to valuable resources. Rufus Pollock, Fellow of Emmanuel College, has been working with current university undergraduates to develop the Open Shakespeare website, an initiative dedicated to, “bringing together technology and the text in interesting ways”. Shakespeare’s works in their entirety have been uploaded to the website along with tools allowing users to explore the texts and home in on specific interests. Viewing different editions side-by-side or the capacity to search for particular terms, words or characters aims to shed new light on works that have, let’s face it, been exhaustively analysed.

One of the principal innovations of this particular project is the opening up of an interactive online community where Shakespeare buffs of all kinds can engage in the collaborative exchange of ideas on the works of our most revered cultural hero. To this end, the website provides the means to annotate the Bard’s plays, offering a plethora of individual interpretations and criticisms. But what are the virtues of a democratic Shakespeare? Variety, perhaps, seems the most obvious answer: “In a community like this, contributors may have read a lot of different critical editions, meaning a Medievalist, for example, could comment alongside an early modern specialist”, explains Colette Sensier, a third year English student. This creates a melting pot for different readings and helps to add a depth of appreciation to such a fertile body of work.

Variety does not mean, however, that works which are commonly considered a national heritage will be inundated with vapid ‘spam’. There is method in the madness. A type of peer review system is intended, allowing people to disagree and edit each other’s comments; “though we want anyone to be able to edit, that does not mean we want a cacophony”. Aware of a generation raised on Facebook, the team are making filtering and tagging tools readily available in order to refine users’ searches based on author and content. This type of innovation epitomises the efforts of the team to tap in to the contemporary mindset and overcome the phenomenal restrictions of printed texts.

So, is the arrival of new editing tools such as Open Shakespeare another nail in the coffin of the traditional publication? Pollock admits that there can be “an antagonistic relationship” between the printed word and high-tech tools such as his, but suggests, “at the same time they complement one another.” Adam Green, a NatSci physicist, adds that few people can abide reading a large amount of text on screen and that he doubts he’ll ever stop buying books, claiming he would be “horrified at the prospect of the entire English faculty sat doing statistical analysis”. Creativity is certainly not absent from the functions of the website however. A device, which Pollock terms “an anthologisation engine”, will enable browsers to draw together selected passages or entire plays for printing, so generating a personalised compilation. This may be of particular interest to the thesps amongst us, as the specification tools will be an indispensible asset in finding audition speeches.

Such personalisation harks back to the printing industry of Shakespeare’s day, when a “nominal fee” could be paid for the replication of a desired document, without fear of contract or copyright laws. The future of projects like Open Shakespeare rely upon this kind of freedom to edit and redistribute material, and one of the team’s primary motivations is to circumvent the inaccessibility of the majority of literary criticism. As copyright protection on older critical essays expires however, there is nothing to stop their inclusion in the website’s collection. Modern licensing laws are, after all, being forced to change in light of the ever-increasing freedom which technology affords. Comparisons with the music industry are hard to avoid: the proliferation of file-sharing and the evident shift away from traditional sources of revenue may well emerge in the literary sphere, as authors and publishers adapt to changing circumstance. In any case, Pollock explains that the current system of publication is “fundamentally not working,” perhaps because audiences have had a taste of a much greater level of freedom in other areas of cultural consumption. User-defined payment surfaced in the music business with pioneering bands such as Radiohead. This system of interactive financial remuneration encourages an artistic meritocracy.

The Open Shakespeare team is optimistic that contemporary authors will become increasingly happy to engage with these new developments. Perhaps Open Rushdie next? The innovative ideas of the group are slowly being realised as a result of the dedication of the volunteers, but the scale of their ambition means that their goals will only be fulfilled with the help and involvement of others, in everything from programming to critical commentary. Volunteers wanted please.

To get involved, contact