Studying Shakespeare traditionally has been limited to reading the plays and consulting scholarly opinions.

“But Shakespeare is a performance art,” says Peter Donaldson, head of MIT’s literature faculty. “If we want our students to appreciate how Shakespeare speaks to people all over the world who have no connection to Elizabethan England, they should be able to see how people have been performing his works all these years.”

So Donaldson developed the MIT Shakespeare Electronic Archive, which makes it possible for students to get online access to a wealth of materials that relate to performances dating from the early 17th century to the present. Reading the text online, students can click on lines and view drawings, prints, and photographs that let them see actors’ poses and expressions, the costumes, the staging and the props. A few film adaptations also are in the archive, and a project is under way to incorporate all Shakespeare films published on DVD. Shakespeare classes started studying some of these performances this term. The archive also includes the texts of the earliest surviving sources, and plans are in place to provide access to playbills, prompt books and reviews.

Donaldson began working on the archive in the early 1990s, and today he directs a team that includes programmers and content specialists from MIT and collaborators from rare book libraries and other universities. Part of his motivation, he explains, is MIT’s emphasis on active learning. “The digital medium lets students discuss and compare different interpretations in class or online and create their own multimedia commentaries on the plays,” Donaldson says. “Studying Shakespeare shouldn’t be a matter of learning about some unchangeable ideal that has been ratified by experts. With access to all of this material, students can come away with a much richer experience.”

Alas, poor Yorick

For example, says Donaldson, if students want to study the delivery of Hamlet’s “Alas, poor Yorick” – the Shakespeare line that has most frequently been represented in art – the archive gives them access to a hundred images that show a striking variety of interpretations. “We often think that Hamlet is alone with the skull when he speaks these lines – as students can see from Richard Burton’s 1964 film, where he is standing alone in a spotlight. But in fact Hamlet is talking to Horatio and the gravediggers, so another production might make this a very beautiful moment where Hamlet isn’t overcome with horror but is recalling the human surroundings of his childhood. Seeing this kind of variety gives you an awareness of the range of responses you can have to Hamlet’s speech.” The archive also contains a number of parodies. “A lot of comedians did this routine,” says Donaldson.

It surprises many students, he says, “to see Sarah Bernhardt doing Hamlet, a role she played many times in her life. One clip shows her at the 1900 Paris Exposition performing the Hamlet duel scene. She was middle aged and had lost a leg by that time, so she is dueling on a wooden leg.”

The archive also lets students see the tricks actors used to emphasize a moment. One Hamlet picture, for example, shows the 18th century actor David Garrick wearing a bizarre wig that might, Donaldson explains, be the spring-activated headpiece that Garrick’s wigmaker claimed to have made. “The story is that Garrick used it for Hamlet’s response to the ghost’s statement that his story would make ‘each particular hair to stand on end/ Like quills upon the fretful porcupine.'”

To Be Or Not

The earliest surviving texts for about half of Shakespeare’s plays exist in two or more versions, which sometimes can be very different, and the archive lets students compare them. “Hamlet survives in three forms; one is two thirds as long as the longest,” says Donaldson. “One edition, compiled and published by Shakespeare’s colleagues six years after his death, reads, ‘To be or not to be, that is the question,’ which we accept as the standard. But another source that dates from when Shakespeare was still living reads, ‘To be or not to be, aye, there is the point.’ There is a lot of difference between something being the question and something being the answer.”

The source of this variety, Donaldson explains, can range from Shakespeare’s own rethinking, to changes he made in collaboration with his actors, and to all the vagaries of text transmission. “Seeing these variations helps students understand the complex story behind the creation and transmission of Shakespeare’s works.”