Guest post – Shakespeare, social media, and everyday creativity

Over the past five weeks I’ve been working with Holly Reaney, as part of the University of Birmingham’s Undergraduate Research Scholarship programme. Holly has just completed the first year of her BA in English at UoB and has been helping me explore the wide and wonderful world of Shakespeare and the internet. Each week I’ve given her a project or prompt to explore and she’s then gone away to see what the world wide web uncovers. Below is a summary of her work in her own words. Thank you Holly for all your help!


Shakespeare, social media, and everyday creativity

The undergraduate research scholarship is a scheme offered to non-final year undergraduate students in the College of Arts and Law at the University of Birmingham. The scheme aims to immerse and engage students in academia as well as enabling them to gain valuable experience in the undertaking of academic research. It was as part of this scheme that I had the opportunity to carry out research for Erin Sullivan, specifically focusing on the applications of Shakespeare in social media.

The first two weeks of my research focused on two major social media-based performances of Shakespeare’s plays: Such Tweet Sorrow (2010) and A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming (2013). Co-produced by the RSC, these adaptations attempted to push the limits of theatrical performance, aiming to make Shakespeare more accessible to the wider public. One of the unique aspects of the social media performances were their ability to occur in real time. Such Tweet Sorrow occurred continuously over five weeks. However, due to the length of the project and the vast amount of content which was produced as a consequence, it was sometimes difficult to follow. This challenge was combatted in A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming as it only ran for seventy-two hours.  Over the course of A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming, 3,000 pieces of original content were released by over 30 original characters. This created a diversity of narrative and effectively established a very complete world of auxiliary characters. The vast amount of content showcases the wide range of creative abilities as well as the ingenuity which Shakespeare has inspired. In both of these performances the RSC achieve the aim of making Shakespeare accessible. Both performances serve to bring the play quite literally into the hands of their audiences, enabling them to interact and alter the performances in a way which is impossible on stage.

The second aspect of my research focused on audience-created responses. These responses occupy a wide a range of forms, such as memes and gifs on Tumblr, tweets from ‘Shakespeare’ or community based Twitter pages, and whole narratives in the form of fan fiction. All of these online communities attract similar audiences: young adults and teenagers with a vague interest in Shakespeare and who are active online participants. Tumblr is a primarily visual site, with the most circulated images being pictures of Benedict Cumberbatch in his performance of Hamlet or Richard III, Tom Hiddleston as Henry V and David Tennant as Hamlet or Richard II. These photos (excluding Tom Hiddleston as Henry V) were accessed through the National Theatre live performances, a system which enables select performances to be broadcast by a massive audience. The sharing of the photographs and gifs further increases the audiences for these performances (even if they have not seen the live piece) as the images serve to illustrate the original text in the context of these specific adaptations. However, only those who know the original text can appreciate the images in this way.


Another element I researched with regards to audience-created responses to Shakespeare was fan fiction. Fan fiction is an interesting and creative way for audiences to respond to the narratives which interest them. It provides a way for audiences to develop a community based around similar interests whilst also offering an extremely versatile creative outlet. The inclusion of ‘comments’ and ‘kudos’ or ‘reviews’ and ‘favourites’, depending on which site, enables interaction between fan fiction author and reader, the opportunity to share criticism and to develop a community of like-minded individuals. Writing in a modern day setting, with the accompanying modern language, proved to be extremely popular on the creative front. There is a trend that these ‘modernisations’ tend to be based upon the plays which revolve around younger characters, such as Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night. This could be because their situations are the most romantic or that they hold a level of relatability for the authors (teenagers suffering with love, anger, depression etc.). Prequels and sequels also heavily feature in the works, and these are possibly the works that are the most connected to Shakespeare, with some painstakingly obeying Shakespeare’s original writing style, featuring iambic pentameter, rhyme schemes and verse.


Another form of audience-created responses are visual adaptations of Shakespeare. Web series hold a much broader appeal as they follow a linear narrative which aids understanding for those unfamiliar with the original play. By reimagining the original scripts in the vernacular the plots are made easier to follow and the occasional yet seamless integration of Shakespeare’s original lines ensures that the connection to the original text is maintained and honoured, whilst also not being inaccessible. Due to the open platform which is YouTube, levels of professionalism varied from the heavily produced and funded Titus and Dronicus to the completely amateur A Document in Madness. As with all modern adaptations, and internet adaptions, the plots are altered. In the case of Monty and Jules, the adoption of a university setting means that the feud is between two rival fraternities as opposed to the families. In this case the adaptation of the plot to the 21st century setting is exceptionally well done. The avoidance of murder and suicide was especially well executed as they still communicated the consequences of what in the play are the murder and suicides but managed to avoid the involvement of the police or similar legal authorities, something which often impedes believability of modernisation of Shakespeare’s plays. The modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s plays, especially that on the internet platform, is definitely well suited to the video form – especially the mix of vlog style and video calling used Monty and Jules – as it communicates an intimacy and believability which is often lost when productions are attempted on other online platforms.

Overall, Shakespeare and the digital world appears to be based around accessibility and community. Audiences are engaged and interacted with in ways that are impossible on a traditional stage. The online world gives everyone’s voice a chance to be heard and way for their own creativity to be displayed.

Guest post by Holly Reaney, BA English (University of Birmingham).

Shakespeare, Britain, Brexit

Pretty much glued to news sites and social media feeds this morning as this new phase in UK politics unfolds. Three years ago I was writing about how the London Olympics used Shakespeare to celebrate British diversity, and how the politics that followed were failing to live up to those ideals. But now things are looking even worse than I feared. Watching Farage & co. on the news I can’t help but think of this brilliant and now terribly prescient cartoon by Steve Bell that I wrote about in the essay. Shakespeare will of course survive this sinking ship, but I’m honestly not sure what’s going to happen to us.

Copyright Steve Bell 2013/All Rights Reserved



Valuing sadness, past and present

March was a big month for me – my first monograph, Beyond Melancholy, came out with Oxford University Press. The book focuses on the different ways in which Shakespeare and his contemporaries understood and thought about sadness, and how this influenced explorations of identity and self-experience. While my digital Shakespeare research is in many ways a world apart from this work on the history of emotions, there are some important connections in terms of how new technologies shape how we feel and how we experience our own sense of self. I wrote the short essay below for OUP’s blog last week, and while it’s mostly about Renaissance sadness, you’ll quickly see that 21st century digital technology has made its way in too…


In September 2013, the American comedian Louis C.K. talked to chat-show host Conan O’Brien about the value of sadness. His comments emerged from a discussion about mobile phones, and the way they may distract us from the reality of our emotions. ‘You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away, the ability to just sit there. That’s being a person.’

For Louis C.K., a large part of that ‘being there’, of being a person, is about being sad. ‘[S]ometimes when things clear away, you’re not watching anything, you’re in your car … it starts to visit on you. Just this sadness. Life is tremendously sad, just by being in it.’ And the best response to this, he suggests, isn’t to dodge the feeling by picking up a mobile phone, but rather to look at it head on, ‘and let it hit you like a truck … Sadness is poetic. You’re lucky to live sad moments.’

Four hundred or so years ago, around the time of Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth I, John Donne, and King James I, people also talked about the meaning of sadness, and whether or not it brought any value to life. While few would have described the experience of sadness as ‘lucky’, many did suggest that, in the right contexts, the emotion could be seen as useful, productive, and even enlightening. Think of Shakespeare’s King Lear on the stormy heath, whose extraordinary sorrow helps him see life from a different point of view, to acknowledge the suffering of his impoverished subjects and ‘to feel what wretches feel’.

If we read much of the literature of this time – and perhaps any time – we discover a world of agonizing, and yet somehow also constructive, pain and sorrow. Emotion is repeatedly represented as an extension of the self, meaning that as characters start to know their feelings, they also start to understand themselves and the world that they’re a part of. At the same time, if we read much of the more formal and explanatory writing on emotion from this period, we get a rather different story. Here, writers frequently characterized emotion as a ‘malady’, a ‘perturbation’, and even a ‘disease of the soul.’ For emotion was believed to cause motion in the mind and body, which could destabilize rational thinking and jeopardize the harmony of the self.

Frontispiece to 'The use of Passions'
The unruly passions.

This was nowhere truer than in the experience of sadness. Of all the emotions recognized and discussed at this time – or of all ‘the passions’, as they were called then – sadness or ‘grief’ was widely regarded as the most dangerous and damaging. Countless writers emphasized the physical ailments sad feelings could bring. ‘There is nothing more enemie to life, then sorrow’, the humanist and diplomat Thomas Elyot wrote in his best-selling medical regimen The Castell of Health, and the theologian Thomas Wright likewise advised readers in his The Passions of the Minde in Generall to ‘Expell sadnesse farre from thee; For sadnesse hath killed many, neither is there any profite in it.’

Medical physicians agreed, identifying the passions as one of the six ‘non-natural’ factors dramatically influencing health (the other five being diet, sleep, exercise, environment, and, to put it delicately, ‘evacuation’). Linked to the cold, dry humour of melancholy (literally meaning ‘black bile’ in Greek), sadness was seen as the harbinger of numerous bodily troubles, including stomach aches, light-headedness, heart palpitations, and wasting illnesses, which, in their most extreme forms, might even cause death.

Indeed, while we might now think that dying of sorrow is a rather sentimental idea fit only for the stage, in the seventeenth century ‘grief’ was regularly included as a cause of death in the London Bills of Mortality, which were one of the earliest forms of municipal record keeping. Though many of the Bills no longer survive, if we look through those that do remain, we can see that during the years 1629-1660 more than 350 people in the city of London were believed to have died from extreme sadness. Elyot and Wright’s comments, it seems, were not idle threats.

J. Graunt, Natural an political observations.
11 deaths from grief in 1632.

And yet, despite the palpable dangers posed by sadness at this time, many writers still suggested that it had important benefits, and even a kind of ‘poetry’, to harken back to Louis C.K.’s twenty-first-century observations. First and foremost, these writers insisted that there were different sorts of sadness, which had different effects on the mind, body, and soul. ‘Grief’ was not always identical to ‘melancholy’, which was certainly not the same as ‘godly sorrow’ or ‘despair’ – both of which had much more to do with theology and the immortal soul than physiology and the medical body.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, these different sorrows didn’t mean the same thing irrespective of the sufferer. Even a dangerous grief could be productive if the person experiencing it deemed it so. In the literature and historical records of the period we can find numerous instances of people defying the advice of doctors, priests, family, and friends, and persisting in sorrow due to a belief that it revealed something important to them about their own sense of self.

Many scholars have suggested that culture offers people ‘emotional scripts’ by which to make sense of and act out their feelings, but looking at responses to sadness in Renaissance England we can also see how people engaged in what I call ‘emotive improvisation.’ These wilful, and often defiant, responses took sufferers ‘off book’ and towards new ways of understanding emotional experience and self-discovery. They show us what happened when people ‘put the phone down’, as it were, and let life hit them like a truck.

– See more at:


Big Campus, Big Data

A few reflections on an e-learning conference that I attended and presented at yesterday in Birmingham, hosted by a company named Talis that makes student-oriented learning tools. It was a really interesting programme, and I learned a lot – not just about e-pedagogies and emerging digital tools, but also about how university libraries work and the large-scale planning that goes on behind the scenes.

I’ll come back to that later, but the main thing I wanted to address is the huge conversation that was had throughout the day concerning student data and analytics. I make pretty heavy use of my university’s ‘virtual learning environment (VLE)’, i.e. online teaching platform, so I was already aware of the way these tools gather data on student activity. As an instructor I can readily see when students log into the VLE, how much time they spend on it, how many times they’ve posed in the discussion forums, how much time they spend watching lecture videos, how many of the readings they access…. The list goes on. And while some of this information can be useful, particularly if a student really goes off grid and we’re trying to figure out if s/he is making any contact with the course, for the most part I avoid looking at the data. This is because 1) I typically don’t have a specific question in mind when doing so and 2) I don’t think my students know that I can see this and I don’t know how I feel about that. It’s like looking in on someone through a two-way mirror when they don’t realise they’re being observed.

So the very interesting thing to emerge early in the conference yesterday (the very first session, in fact), and to keep coming up throughout the rest of the panels, was the fact that educators, librarians, HE/FE managers, commercial providers, you name it, are thinking more and more about this data, and how to collect, analyse, and use it. There’s clearly some powerful opportunities here. Student clicks on digitised reading lists can help libraries figure out how often certain books or articles are being accessed, and this in turn can help guide purchasing. Counting swipe card entries at the library can help us figure out periods of peak demand, and then tailor opening hours accordingly. Minutes watched in instructional videos can show us which recordings are finding an audience, and which are being overlooked. Data is of course a form of evidence, and evidence helps create usable knowledge.

So far, so good. All of this is pretty old hat and I hope and assume that we’ve already been doing some of this at my university for quite some time. The thing that caught me a little off guard, though, and that now has me thinking, is the fact that much of the data that people were talking about yesterday is de-aggregated and de-anonymised. It is individual-specific, and one of the many possible visions proposed is that we could call up a student’s record in our system and, alongside his/her photo, get a summary and visualisation of his/her digital learning activity. The fuzzy slide below shows one of a few examples I saw during the day of a single student profile – all the little graphs in it document things like a student’s swipe card usage, log ins to the university student system, log ins to the VLE, books and articles accessed – basically, anything that produces digital analytics.

Now after seeing all this, I realised that I was incredibly naive not to anticipate this sort of data collection and analysis. But, there you have it, I was. And while I do see the possibility for some of this analysis to be of benefit to students, I have reservations about tracking the activity of individuals and building it into their student records. One thing that I found encouraging was the fact that Jisc, the UK organisation dedicated to developing the digital potential of teaching and research in the country, has been consulting with the National Union of Students on an informed consent policy for students (and presumably something like this should be in the works for staff too, especially given the recent news about staff tracking at Univ. of Edinburgh?). But I couldn’t quite get a sense of how robust those conversations have been, or the extent to which they’re genuinely collaborative versus instrumental (my next step will be to find some time to read through Jisc’s code of practice on the topic, kindly tweeted by one of the delegates). I also wasn’t particularly impressed by the slightly flippant attitudes expressed in the more informal bits of some of the presentations, but as they were a bit more off-the-cuff I’ll avoid reading too much into them here.

A couple other observations from the day – first, that academics can be frustrating for library staff to work with, especially when they don’t fully think through the practical circumstances of education. There were several comments suggesting that we often just don’t get it – we assign obscure and difficult to find readings; we are over-precious about our teaching practices, sometimes to the detriment of students; we don’t make the time to work with colleagues in the library to set up a learning environment that benefits everyone. I think these are all fair criticisms, as long as we recognise that they’re not one-size-fits all. A lot of academics – most, even! – do care an awful lot about their students, even if they show it in different and at times inscrutable ways.

Which brings me to my second observation. There was quite a lot of comment about academics assigning readings that are not as accessible/affordable/scalable/popular as others, and some sense of frustration that they don’t take a more practical route. I can understand this, especially in huge lecture classes in which demand for key texts is going to be very high. But I also think it’s important that we remember that books aren’t always easily swappable ‘products’, with one working just as well as another. They are forms of knowledge, and sometimes very unique and inimitable forms at that, and it’s essential that we design our courses in a way that puts that knowledge first. Of course, if we really can’t find a way to create access to that knowledge for our students, then we need to find a different solution, which might mean a different book, or a single (and legally) digitised chapter of that book, or an apologetic notice to students at the start of the course that they’ll have to buy that book themselves. But it’s so important to me that we never start putting knowledge second, and tools and products first. Good news though – I think everyone I met and spoke to yesterday at the conference would agree. The more all parts of the university listen to one another, and work together, the better we’ll get at identifying and achieving our common goals.

Two final points before I finish, both with pictures. First, although I thought the topics and discussions at the conference were great, this event like so many would have really benefited from greater diversity in its plenary speakers. Of the 11 people I saw on the main stage, 10 were men.

And second, the final joy of the day was getting to go searching in the Library of Birmingham for the Shakespeare touchtable that our MAs helped create, and to spend more than a few minutes enjoying its delights. Brilliant work you guys!!


Staying focused: streamed theatre and me

I’ve been thinking about attention this week. Not the kind that other people give to you, but the kind you create yourself. Focus. Concentration. Absorption. Immersion.

I’ve been thinking about it because sustained, unbroken attention is something that doesn’t always come naturally to me, especially when I find myself sitting in the darkness of a theatre after a long day’s work.

This is ironic – and embarrassing – for a Shakespeare scholar to admit. In years past, when I counted myself more a cultural historian and literary critic, I could just about get away with it; theatre was great, but it wasn’t my bread and butter, so it was almost okay if I secretly spaced out or even nodded off for a bit every now and then.

But now that I’m putting theatre at the heart of my next research project, I’m feeling a little more self-aware. And intrigued. To a certain extent I’ve started training myself to be more alert, to see going to theatre more as work (in a good way — usually). At the same time, a significant proportion of the theatre I’m watching is by online streaming, meaning that several of my ‘nights at the theatre’ are actually me, sitting on my bed with headphones, looking at a screen.

This, I’m finding, proves a particularly formidable challenge for someone prone to breaking focus. With no audience around me to enforce a sense of shared theatre etiquette, a number of new and previously impossible styles of theatre-watching start to emerge. Turning to Twitter occasionally to see what other audience members are saying. Multi-tasking to save time and energy on tired evenings – eating dinner while I watch, maybe even making it. Petting the cat when he climbs on my lap, curious what I’m up to. Saying a quick hello to my husband when he comes in from work. And, if the streaming is on-demand rather than live, pausing every now and then to take a break, or maybe even watching the production over a couple of days in chunks.

Although I’m a little embarrassed to fess up to these practices, I know I’m not alone. I’m not the only one on Twitter after all. Which is why it was all the more surprising, and challenging, and interesting, when online audiences were invited last week by Complicite’s Simon McBurney to turn off our phones.

The show we had tuned in to see was a live performance of The Encounter, streamed online courtesy of Complicite and The Space from the sold-out Barbican Theatre in London (and available on YouTube until the end of today here). This one-man show tells the story of a National Geographic photographer’s journey into the Brazilian rain forest, and his consciousness-bending experiences while there. It is told through the use of immersive, ‘binaural’ sound technology, with all members of the audience – in-person and online – wearing headphones throughout the entire performance.


McBurney started casually, shuffling along the stage and then addressing the audience in his khaki shirt, baseball cap, and jeans. ‘Ladies and gents, um, we’re just still waiting for some people to come in, apparently the bars are more attractive than the theatre. If you could please, while we’re waiting, turn these off [holds up mobile phone]. Tonight is a livestream, so I suggest anybody at home, who’s watching this also turns these off.’ And I did. No live tweeting during the production, no stopping and starting (not really possible in this case), and once things got going I even turned out all the lights. I did still eat dinner while watching it, but I was lucky enough not to have to cook it.

I don’t know if this single focus made the experience better or worse or the same. Though I won’t go into the details here of the production itself, I should say that it was genuinely extraordinary, and I certainly didn’t feel limited or kept at a distance during my encounter with The Encounter. At the same time, I still experienced plenty of moments of mental interruption, not least as I got to thinking about my own sense of sustained attention and what helps and hinders it. But I did really benefit from the challenge of trying to pay attention to a streamed performance at home in a way that was similar to how I might do so in a theatre. I did my best to perform a social code, even when no one was checking up on me (aside from my fellow audience members on Twitter).

So all this was in my head when I made my way down to London for another theatre event at the Barbican last weekend: Forced Entertainment’s Table Top Shakespeare. This series of 36, one-hour productions saw six actors taking turns as they told the story of each of Shakespeare’s plays using a box of household objects. Beatrice as a bottle of sunscreen, Claudius as a container of flea powder, Hector as a jar of Tabasco sauce, Cleopatra as an old china dish. Look below to see Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane.


I went down to London to see four of these experiments in storytelling live and in-person, after watching about the same number online last summer when they were broadcast live from the Berliner Festspielen. I remember seeing snippets of a few one day during the work week, then hearing more from a friend a few days later, and finally settling down outside on a sunny, late Saturday afternoon to watch A Midsummer Night’s Dream. While I watched, I took notes – not on paper, as I normally would in the theatre, but published online through Twitter, where I also looked out for the comments of others. A couple of examples:

Close to a year later, I’m left wondering what kind of theatrical experience that was. I know for a fact that I was doing lots of other things while watching, though I do think that I was also paying attention, and really focusing, while navigating my way around those other things. And speaking with others online during the performance did, in some ways, make certain moments and insights more memorable for me.

Being physically present, down in the depths of the Barbican Pit on Saturday was a materially more immersive experience, and I did feel like the co-presence of the somewhat surprisingly packed audience around me did focus my mind and senses in ways that I missed last summer. But I’m not going to lie – in hour 3 I moved to a cooler seat at the edge, and I let my mind wander and even drift off for a few drowsy minutes. This had everything to do with stamina rather than interest. And I don’t know what this all adds up to, other than a growing preoccupation with how I watch theatre – whether in an auditorium, a cinema, or at home, sitting on my bed.

How do these different practices affect my appreciation of what’s before me, and my absorption in it? Do we need to develop a shared protocol for at-home viewings if we want streamed theatre to achieve a certain kind of emotional and sensory effect? Should we turn our phones off, or are they doing something new and helpful for us that we should embrace rather than shun? There are over 1,000 comments on the YouTube page for The Encounter, and despite McBurney’s plea I’m sure that a good portion of them bear a time-stamp from the night of the livestream. Is this a sign of our ever distracted, ever fragmented times, or a mark of a new and maybe even enhanced way of watching theatre, or perhaps some combination of both?

Banksy and digital art – making it and saving it

Banksy’s newest piece of street art has caught my attention twice this week – first for the work of art itself, and the powerful way that it incorporates digital media, and second for the clearing away of the work, and the way it’s being saved for the public digitally.

So let’s start with the work of art itself. It turned up last Saturday across the street from the French Embassy in Knightsbridge. At its centre is the iconic illustration of Cosette from Les Miserables, but with yellowy tears running from her eyes, and gas from a nearby canister clouding her body. Most have read it as a critique of the French government’s use of tear gas in refugee encampments in Calais.


This isn’t the first time Banksy has used his work to speak out against the treatment of immigrants and the dangers of xenophobia – for other examples see here and here. It is the first time, though, that he’s included a piece of digital technology that invites viewers to take his image a step further, and to have a look for themselves at the media footage he’s responding to.

Photo: AP/Alastair Grant
Photo: AP/Alastair Grant

That’s right, a QR code. One of those black and white little squares that you really only see in marketing materials these days. In his book The Emergence of the Digital Humanities, Steven E. Jones takes a swipe at these pieces of low-fi, quasi-digital kit, largely for their ineffectiveness (who actually takes the time to scan them?) but also for their feeble and rather outdated gesture towards some other dimension known as ‘The Digital’. I pretty much agree – I downloaded a QR reader to my phone a few years ago when we got an app-based walking tour in Stratford, but it never really worked that well, and eventually I deleted it in order to make space for something else. But Banksy’s use of the QR code really caught my eye, and got me thinking about how it really can work, provided that the thing it connects you with is something genuinely interesting, useful, unexpected, and important.

As the video above shows, Banksy’s QR code links the viewer to media footage of the very event he is critiquing, and in doing so it layers art with reality, painting with video, street art with newsfeed. It is multimedial and multiexperiential, inviting us not only to revel in his satirical comment, but also to witness a few, harrowing minutes in the lives of people just 100 miles away from London. In a strange way, Banksy’s painting makes this live footage become ‘real’, rather than the other way around. By inserting it into the well-heeled streets of Knightsbridge, by giving it context outside of the numbing repetitiveness of the nightly news, by making it a part of a conversation, it focuses viewers’ attention and creates new impact.

It’s interesting too that the best video documentation of the painting that I’ve found – the piece embedded above – was created specifically for Facebook by the social media outlet AJ+, and doesn’t exist separately as an independent URL. It’s meant to be shared, and unlike the versions that I found on more traditional news sites, it actually mixes in the video footage opened up by the QR code. Plus, it forgoes the heavy, didactic narration of the news presenter and chooses instead to frame the piece through music and single lines of written text. The effect, for me, is far more engaging, exploratory, immersive, and powerful.

Now, the coda – like so many Banksy pieces these days, this one has already come down (or at least part of it – while the bulk of the image was painted on a piece of easily removed plywood, the tear gas can is on the base of a stone wall). Given the price that Banksy’s works now go for, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it makes its way into a private collection. But before the removal occurred, a man from Google came with the company’s Streetview kit to digitally record and document it. In a few months, and certainly a few years, this may very well be the only high-quality, officially archived ‘copy’ of the work available to the public. So what started off as a mixed media piece on the streets of London might ultimately end up as an entirely digital one in the clouds of the internet, increasingly managed by the empire of Google.

This blasted heath: Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth

Last month I wrote the following post for Oxford University Press’s blog, as part of the launch of the New Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. I’m very pleased to re-share it here as part of DigitalShakespeares.

Black Cuillin by Graham Lewis. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

How many children had Lady Macbeth? The great Shakespearean critic L. C. Knights asked this question in 1933, as part of an essay intended to put paid to scholarship that treated Shakespeare’s characters as real, living people, and not as fictional beings bounded by the creative works of which they were a part. “The only profitable approach to Shakespeare is a consideration of his plays as dramatic poems, of his use of language to obtain a total complex emotional response,” he wrote. Head-counting in Dunsinane was merely a distraction from the language of the play, which Knights might well have called “the thing itself.”

And yet, the question has often proven irresistible in performances of Macbeth, despite Knights’s now (in)famous denunciation. Indeed, in the opening scene of Justin Kurzel’s sumptuous new film version of Shakespeare’s bloody tragedy, we learn that its answer to Knights’s question is at least one. No words are spoken, but beneath a slate blue, striated sky, a toddler’s funeral is taking place. The grieving Macbeths, played by the majestically charismatic Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, each approach the body, taking turns to gently balance a posy on the child’s still hands, and then cover his tiny eyes with coloured stones. Their kinsmen silently watch on, each swaddled in blankets against the brutal Highland winds, before eventually lighting the funeral pyre.

Were he here today, Knights might well have seen such a choice as a painfully literal take on the marital strife that later pushes the Macbeths’ relationship to breaking point, but the truth is that the spectre of child loss has long haunted interpretations of the play. Lady Macbeth’s fierce avowal in the first act that she has “given suck, and know[s] / How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks” her has repeatedly led readers, directors, actors, and audiences to wonder what has happened to this child – a question made all the more relevant by Macbeth’s anxious lines about dynasty and inheritance in Act 3. He might have seized the throne, but he still holds “a barren sceptre” and wears “a fruitless crown”.

In Shakespeare’s own lifetime, child mortality was harrowingly common. At the worst of times, as many as one in three babies died in early modern England before their first year, and many more fell victim to illness during their childhood years. By the time he wrote Macbeth, Shakespeare himself had felt the terrible grief of child loss; his young son Hamnet had taken ill in 1596 at the age of eleven, and by August of that year he had died.

Shakespeare didn’t leave any writings that reflected directly on the death of his son – in fact, he didn’t leave any writings that reflected directly on any aspects of his life – but he did represent the world-shattering pain of losing a child in his history play, King John, which he wrote that same year. Here, the bereft Constance refuses to stifle her sorrow for her son Arthur, who has been taken from her and will eventually be killed. Her furious grief becomes the one comfort and companion she can count on in her life: it “fills the room up of [her] absent child,” “puts on his pretty looks,” and “stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.” Even when he is gone, it keeps his memory alive.

In Kurzel’s film, grief likewise proves a potent, world-altering force, conjuring visions in its protagonists’ minds and cloaking the bleak, moody landscape with a heavy loneliness. This landscape itself becomes a powerful character in Kurzel’s reading of Shakespeare’s play, and the winds and fogs circling around it literally atmospheric. Like the great auteur Akira Kurosawa, who carefully selected the “fog-bound,” “stunted” slopes of Mount Fuji as the filming location for Throne of Blood, his Japanese-language adaptation of Macbeth, Kurzel turns the physical world – in this case, the steely Scottish Hebrides – into a central piece of his storytelling.

Aided by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, best known for his work on True Detective and its malevolent, Louisiana skies, the “blasted heath” of this Macbeth is something brutal and beautiful, awful and awesome. Though the film is set in a feudal, medieval Scotland, visually and emotionally it owes most to the Western. Loss, pain, and emptiness are its hallmarks, death its constant refrain. We know at the start that it presents us with a world hostile to young life, and by the end we witness how it eradicates older generations too.

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Guest Post – The Eye of the Camera in Filmed Theatre

It is with enormous pleasure that I welcome the first ever guest blog post on DigitalShakespeares. Over the past summer, Mary Odbert, one of our wonderfully talented MA students at the Shakespeare Institute, has been acting as a research assistant on this project, and she very graciously agreed to write up some of her final thoughts on the work she’s been doing. As you’ll see, much of this has involved watching and studying a selection of Shakespeare broadcasts, so, without any further ado, here’s Mary!


The Eye of the Camera in Filmed Theatre

Shakespeare’s presence in the digital world has opened up innumerable new modes of thought in both creative practice and criticism. In the process, a fledgling art form has emerged somewhere between the stage and the cinema in the form of the live theatre broadcast. It has been my pleasure this summer to work with Dr. Sullivan on her exploration of this new medium. To me, the most fascinating aspect of the live theatre broadcast is the means by which the camera affects the broadcast spectator’s experience of the theatrical production.

The camera’s control over our perspective may be written off as an understood necessity in the context of film. Its angles, distances, and movements are accepted as part of the calculated art of filmmaking and the spectator experiences the film through the lens for better or worse. However, in the case of a theatrical broadcast film, this trust in the camera is somewhat ruptured by the film viewer’s awareness of the in-theatre audience. While, on the one hand, in-theatre audiences are restricted to a single perspective by their physical stasis, they are nonetheless in control of their more specific focus. Although unable to cut to close-ups on facial expressions or wide birds-eye-view shots for dramatic effect, the in-theatre audience controls where they look and when. The spectator’s bodily autonomy may be obviously self-evident to anyone who has ever turned their head to look at something, but it’s a luxury which registers as taken for granted when the camera operator makes a choice you wouldn’t have done.

The Globe On Screen and The RSC Live use a fascinating array of camera techniques from self-contained framing to a complete avowal of the theatrical space, all to varying effect, but all nonetheless representative of specific stylistic choices. As a space wherein the theatre itself is as much a part of the experience as the production on its stage, The Globe On Screen tends more toward wide shots which include the building and the in-theatre audience. This choice is also partly driven by necessity simply due to the practical layout of the building. Apart from a straight shot from the front and center of the yard, there is essentially no angle which doesn’t inevitably include audience members in the background.


As a result, the films maintain a diegetic distance from the plays themselves, always reminding the viewer of the constructed nature of the drama. This result is by no means a reflection on any inability of the actors to engage the spectator into their world. In fact, this is often successfully the case for the standing spectators in the yard sharing the space of the characters. But by including the in-theatre spectators’ experience in the film, Globe On Screen adds a layer of non-diegetic reality between the diegetic scene on stage and the engagement of cinema spectators. Rather than watching the play itself, Globe On Screen viewers watch The Globe put on a play. In its own almost voyeuristic mode, The Globe On Screen film puts its viewers in a position of watching an audience watch a play.

globe 2

The RSC generally takes a more cinematically-minded approach in their broadcasts. With more lighting technology and elaborate sets, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre has more tools with which to explore their own style of mise-en-scene in the filming process. Their films feature camera work which does more to exclude the audience from the frame, therefore keeping the diegetic engagement less disrupted for the broadcast spectators. High angled shots swooping down into powerful close ups enhance the impact of emotional moments. While the camera still enacts a certain authority over the film viewer’s point of view, moments like this exemplify the ways in which the camera provides perspectives otherwise impossible to the in-theatre audience.


In some ways, the divide in new opportunities for experimental effects between The Globe and its indoor counterpart is one which echoes back to the days of the Blackfriars Theatre in the early modern period. To a certain degree, it almost feels as though The Globe’s focus on original practices perhaps hinders its development in the filmic realm. Then again, to read The Globe’s approach more as a documentary of the theatrical experience rather than embracing the temptation to see it as a film adaptation of the play recasts the work as a success within its own multi-generic classification. Meanwhile, The RSC continues to experiment and discover as much with their live broadcast techniques as they do with their stage adaptations.


After analyzing this series of films, most from The Globe and The RSC along with several from The National Theatre for good measure, it seems clear that the entire notion of the digital broadcast of the stage production still has a great deal of development to come. This is not to suggest the films thus far haven’t been excellent, because they absolutely are! But it seems that the theatres are now reaching major turning point wherein the film is evolving beyond its point-and-shoot origins to embrace the artistry available to the cinematic mode. Rather than capturing the action on stage at its bare minimum with a static camera at the back of the audience, the filmed stage production is roaring to life as its own unique art form. The best parts of the shared theatrical experience, teleporting spectators from around the world into London’s Wooden O or the pride of Stratford’s riverside, blended together with the best of the cinema’s compositional techniques to create an unmatchable Shakespearean experience.

Guest post by Mary Odbert, MA Shakespeare Studies (Shakespeare Institute).

Brilliant Birmingham

A new academic year’s around the corner, which in addition to chilly weather and a pleasing number of beer and cider festivals means more trips for me up to the Shakespeare Institute’s home base, the University of Birmingham. Most of the daytime is spent in meetings, making plans for the semester to come, but around the edges of those days comes time to explore the city, to eat amazing food, to talk to people, and to head off to the theatre when night falls. In the past week I’ve been able to see three very different and very brilliant new plays, each fronted by the wonderful Birmingham Rep. They’re not all digital, and they’re certainly not all Shakespeare, but each seems relevant, in one way or another, to some of the ideas I’ve been thinking about on this blog.

Charles III by Mike Bartlett, on national tour. An imagined history play that opens with Prince Charles taking the throne after the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth… it’s not so much a Shakespeare adaptation as it is inspired by Shakespeare’s craft and style. Written mostly in verse, and with three interweaving plotlines, Bartlett’s play echoes questions about power and kingship that surface across Shakespeare’s history cycles while still feeling very much like a new and separate creation. The verse itself is, perhaps inevitably, strikingly different from Shakespeare’s own — lyrical passages or poetic phrasings are rare, with Bartlett instead favouring a more functional, prosaic, and often very funny brand of iambic pentameter. The Shakespearean inflections build as the play progresses, most notably in the characterization of the three male royals: Charles emerges as a Richard II-eque anointed king, William as a seemingly inscrutable and ultimately rather crafty Bolingbroke, and Harry as, well, Prince Harry/Hal. The result is smart, provocative, and surprisingly profound. Like Shakespeare’s plays, Charles III is packed with philosophical and political debate, but it’s never straightforwardly ideological. It voices royalist and republican views, but it resists taking sides in its examination of what monarchy represents in the twenty-first century. How do we reconcile the glitz, the celebrity, and vapidity with the history, the ceremony, and tremendous energy that goes into keeping the idea of monarchical power, in such reduced shape and form, alive? Is this a ‘golden age of monarchy’, as Charles ironically calls it, which ‘bothers no one, does no good, and is / A pretty plastic picture with no meaning’? If so, what’s the point?

Photo Credits: Tristram Kenton

Black Tonic, The Other Way Works, touring next to Bristol and Bradford. ‘Interactive theatre meets mini-break’, according to the production publicity, and that’s as good a one-line description as any I can think of. Staged in a real hotel (the Radisson Blu in Birmingham’s case), the show guides an audience of just four people through a detective story crossed with a meditation on the experience of space, time, and identity in a 24-hour, networked world. We begin in the lobby before taking the elevator up to ‘our room’, where scenes start occurring in the corridor, in our bedroom, in the room next door, in a conference room nearby, and eventually on the street outside of our window. The production makes the most of the strange no-space that corporate hotels can be: ‘we want you to think that you’re the only one who has slept in this bed’, a film on one of the room televisions tells us, that we’re in an intimate, safe, private space that exists only for us. And yet we know that this is in fact a strangely public space, that hundreds if not thousands of people have been here before us, that the labyrinthine corridors connecting our rooms lead us through alien, artificially lit spaces maintained at night by people we rarely see… in other words, The Shining was set in a hotel for a reason. I won’t give away too much about the plot, which centres around two different couples that a sinister relationship manager is trying to break up, but I will say that I found the production’s mix of narrative storytelling and ambient immersion brilliantly judged, and the acting and technical coordination truly impressive. Hiding in a bathroom with a fellow audience member and an actor, watching another scene unfold in the reflection of the mirror in front of us, was a voyeuristic and visceral highlight, as was setting my mind adrift in the soundscapes and visual beauty of the production’s two inset films. On a more techy/digital note, I left thinking about how digital modes of performance might integrate with very human, embodied, and experiential kinds of theatre, and furthermore how they can be as much about intimacy and isolation as about collectivity and the global.

Black Tonic 2015 Trailer from The Other Way Works on Vimeo.

A Translation of Shadows, Stan’s Cafe, touring around the UK. In a week of unusually difficult to describe shows, this one is perhaps the most summary-defying. But let’s try anyway… inspired by the early twentieth-century tradition of the Japanese benshi — that is, live performers who provided in-person narration for silent films (including dialogue and scenic description) — Stan’s Cafe’s new show explores the relationship between art and interpretation, showing and telling, mimesis and diegesis. In the process it also considers the relationship between art and reality, but let’s set that to the side for now… The show opens with an imaginary, modern-day benshi taking the stage, welcoming his audience, and introducing the film — Shadows — that we are about to see. The lights dim, the film begins, and so does the narration, which is energetic and amusing if fairly mundane (‘here’s a train’). The benshi‘s running commentary is rather like having the director’s track turned on while watching a DVD, with bits of trivia and anecdotes peppering the narration. He directs us in the art of reading a film (‘everything is included for a reason’), and he draws our attention to changes in camera perspective as well as the back stories of the actors. His approach is the antithesis of Susan Sontag’s ‘Against Interpretation’, which argues that critical ‘interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone’. And yet, as the play continues, he also becomes the illustration of her essay, with his increasingly controlling commentary revealing ‘a dissatisfaction (conscious or unconscious) with the work, a wish to replace it with something else’. That something else is the story and the actors as he chooses to imagine and experience them, and so Prospero-like he begins interacting with and manipulating the ‘shadows’ that we’re watching on the screen. In a tweet after the show, I described it as Lost in Translation meets Synecdoche, New York meets Mystery Science Theater 3000, and I still think that’s as good a summary as I can manage; sometimes it’s easier and more accurate to say what something’s like than what it actually is. There’s one more show tonight in Birmingham, before the production sets off for Blackpool.

Photo Credit: Graeme Braidwood

So that’s it for a brilliant week in the theatre, which clearly left me with abundant food for thought. One final note is that at the start of the week I had the chance to visit Birmingham’s new Impact Hub in Digbeth, which is a creative co-working space dedicated to building ‘a better Birmingham, one that is fairer, more democratic and more inclusive’. They have some beautiful working spaces, and some really inspiring plans, and I hope to find myself back there, as well as the Birmingham REP, in the weeks and months to come.

The Impact Hub

Othello @The RSC, stage and screen

Some thoughts on the RSC’s Othello, which I was able to see on both stage and screen this summer. In each case I caught the production at an extreme end of its run, seeing it live on stage in its early weeks (still officially in previews, I think), and live in the cinema the night before it closed. It’s worth mentioning then that some of the observations below might have as much to do with how a production evolves over time as to how it changes across media. But caveats aside, I’d like to start with a few of the ideas that stuck out for me after seeing the production in June, and then turn to the further thoughts I had after seeing it at the end of August at the Stratford-upon-Avon Picturehouse.

This production deals with race in a more interesting, complex, and meaningful way that most. It’s not just that it features a black Iago — though that of course is important. Out of a cast of 18, I counted at least 6 actors of color, a major institutional achievement in its own right (same goes for the director Iqbal Khan, and for the 6 female actors). In this far more diverse company than is typically seen on big national stages, Othello becomes not a lone black man in a sea of whiteness, but one citizen among many in a racially and culturally heterogeneous, cosmopolitan world. This doesn’t mean that issues of race disappear — far from it. Instead, it challenges us to think about how racial dynamics work when they can’t be reduced to easy binaries (black/white). It’s no mistake, I think, that the production’s most racially charged scene doesn’t actually focus on Othello, but rather is the party in Cyprus, where what seems like harmonious celebration soon descends into aggression and social conflict.


The women are really good. And I don’t mean this as faint praise, particularly when it comes to Desdemona. She is so easily an utterly naive, docile, submissive, and subservient wife — how can this be avoided in performance and her character made into someone modern audiences can feel more than perfunctory pity for? Joanna Vanderham’s Desdemona is lively, impetuous, child-like, and perhaps even childish. She is naive, but with a palpably fierce sense of loyalty and justice. She’s not okay with what’s going on with Othello, she just really doesn’t get it until the end. Emilia on the other hand tends to give actors more to get stuck into, and Ayesha Dharker brings out the complexity and subtlety in her part. One of the many strengths of her portrayal is the vulnerability she brings to the role; Emilia can easily become the cynical, worldly wise counterpart to Desdemona’s foolish waif, but here she is also complicated by her own insecurities and shaped by a moving tenderness.

Othello is not blameless before Iago gets to him, and military life is certainly not noble.
The most obvious way we understand this is through the extra-textual torture scene inserted after the party scene and before Desdemona starts her ill-fated attempts to get Cassio re-instated in his post. To be a part of military culture, this production suggests, is to be a part of brutal and even inhumane campaigns against other countries, cultures, and their people. And if we might be tempted to think that Othello is merely the distant manager of a rouge troop, we are soon corrected by his own swift and decisive turn to torture when Iago starts suggesting to him that Desdemona is not all that she seems.

Hugh Quarshie’s performance as Othello is muted and even under-powered. There is a still core at the centre of Quarshie’s Othello that makes him imposing, compelling, but also at times inscrutable. His is a quiet and contained Othello, obviously enraged by his situation (or so the torture of Iago would suggest) but also strangely affectless. No wonder Desdemona is confused. For me this got worse as the production went on, and made the second half particularly difficult to grasp. The final scene was among the flattest I’ve seen, with Othello’s ‘It is the cause, my soul’ speech unfolding a bit too much like a to-do list. Though other exchanges in the scene did suggest more passion and conviction, they never grew into something greater, and the end effect for me was a disappointing woodenness. On the night I was there, when Desdemona finally realized the gravity of her situation, pleading, ‘not yet to die’, Quarshie’s oddly sardonic delivery of Othello’s response — ‘Ay, presently’ — was met by nervous laughter in the audience. Over the course of his career, Quarshie has been famously outspoken about how the typical understanding of Othello’s emotional journey is an inherently racist one. But re-reading that journey caused its own problems in terms of clarity and power of character, leaving me underwhelmed as I left the theatre.


So, with all this in mind, what did I notice, rethink, or experience differently on a second viewing, this time from my seat in the cinema?

First, and most importantly, the camera finds nuance where the stage does not. Quarshie’s Othello was still oddly contained when viewed through the camera lens, but certain choices about his character’s emotional arc did become clearer. What I saw in his Othello this go round was an ample dose of Hamlet — his lurching from stillness to rage and back again looked more cerebral deliberation and manipulation than wooden inscrutability. When he slapped Desdemona, calling her ‘that cunning whore of Venice / That married Othello’, I was surprised to find myself thinking of Hamlet and Ophelia’s nunnery scene. Disgust and righteousness were the top notes, hurt and loss the undertones; misogyny and misanthropy were present in equal measure. In the final scene, no nervous chuckles could be heard, and the focus of the camera helped intensify and structure the dialogue that I had previously found flat and strained. To my surprise, the lines that popped out for me more than ever before were Othello’s comments on the handkerchief, and the difference between murder and sacrifice:

By heaven, I saw my handkerchief in’s hand.
O perjured woman! thou dost stone my heart,
And makest me call what I intend to do
A murder, which I thought a sacrifice:
I saw the handkerchief.

What he’s talking about here is emotion, and the way it colours his actions — something I only realize now from reading Frederika Bain’s chapter on affect and execution in the collection on emotion that Richard Meek and I brought out this year. In it Frederika shows how executions were supposed to be accompanied by minimal to no affect — these killings are just and deserved, and so they are governed by reason rather than passion. Murders, on the other hand, were marked by their lack of emotional restraint, with the unbridled feeling that accompanied them actually serving as a sign of their criminality. This is of course a historical approach to the issue, but it struck me as strangely appropriate in thinking about Quarshie’s performance. Containing emotion becomes a way of consolidating Othello’s political, social, and intellectual power; he is not a gull, or passion’s slave, but rather a deliberate and righteous judge. The problem that remained for me, however, is that I don’t believe that reason and passion are opposing forces, and I don’t think Shakespeare did either. While the camera helped me find nuance in Quarshie’s performance, I still felt that by denying Othello fuller emotional expression he also denied him his full power and complexity.


Second, the camera can make assertions in places where the stage simply suggests. There are several examples I could talk about here, but let’s just go with two. In the staged version, the added torture scene doesn’t directly involve Othello, but he is certainly implicated: first and foremost by being the leader of these men, second by shuffling around the edges of the stage while the scene is going on, and third by initiating torture himself in a later scene. In the filmed version, his complicity and command are made much clearer — at the end of the sequence we get a framed shot of Othello looking through papers in a file (the tortured prisoner’s?), a choice that specifically directs the political force and affective discomfort of this interpolated scene towards this one man. Likewise, at the very end of the production, we close with a final shot of Iago, down on his knees, laughing diabolically as the lights go out. His laughter continues to reverberate in the darkness until the lights come up and the applause begins. I have no memory of this choice from the night I saw it on stage, which makes me wonder if it simply wasn’t part of the production at that early stage. But even if that is the case, its importance is deliberately underscored here, as is Othello’s participation in a kind of warfare that is far from dolce et decorum.

Finally, I really like those floating crane shots. Basically, every time they appear in the film, there’s a comment in my notebook saying something like ‘really nice shot!’, or ‘beautifully filmed!’. Even when this is the torture scene, or Othello manhandling Emilia, or indeed the Willow song. Give me a sustained wide shot, and I’m happy. Add some visual wonder to it, and I’m positively elated. Like the stadium shot in sports, these views let me see what’s going on and anticipate action before it actually occurs. But having read Barker’s book this summer, I’m also aware of the fact that not everyone feels this way. Am I over-prizing the long shot, and the kind of perspective it allows? How many different ways are there to see, and feel, a play?