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Accessing Shakespeare Digitally and by Digit

On Tuesday, Feb. 28, Eric Johnson, the director of digital access at the Folger Shakespeare Library (FSL), and Peter Novak, Professor of Performing Arts at the University of San Francisco, spoke about their efforts to make Shakespeare accessible through not only digital humanities initiatives, but also American Sign Language (ASL).
The venue in Voorhies Hall, home to English and the UC Davis Humanities Institute among the event’s many sponsors, was packed with undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and staff all interested in new ways to approach the infamous bard.

Founders Room at the Folger Shakespeare Library

Johnson of the Folger first led the audience through a series of technical slides introducing the library’s resources and did a fine job explaining how the FSL has built databases and search engines to mine manuscripts that they or others have digitized.
Too early to be protected by copyright, these texts are freely available for those who want to make copies, and this accessibility allows libraries like the FSL to scan manuscripts and place the images on the web. For older manuscripts, digitization helps preserve delicate documents because scholars don’t always need to handle the original documents and also helps scholars who cannot visit institutions that house them.
While the FSL’s digitization efforts are certainly one of their more valuable attractions for scholars, they do even more. They also house anything published about Shakespeare in the last few centuries.
Scholars interested in translations and adaptations of Shakespeare use the database to access this information. For example, Johnson showed us how to search for Hungarian translations and performances of Hamlet using the FSL’s “Hamnet” library catalog. Want to know how many times Hamlet has been performed in Hungarian? Try Hamnet yourself: here.
There are also teaching and research resources, performance announcements, and volunteer opportunities, and a plethora of other helpful tools on the site as well. Go ahead, visit the site, and have a little fun learning more about the bard.
Novak then discussed his efforts to make Shakespeare more accessible with American Sign Language (ASL). Novak spent two years translating and then performing Shakespeare’s comedy, Twelfth Night, as part of the ASL Shakespeare Project.
Twelfth Night is a story about a shipwrecked woman who disguises herself as a man and all sorts of cross-dressing and gender bending antics ensue. It’s hilarious and well worth seeing performed on stage. Novak and his colleagues encountered many difficulties as they translated the play from English, a language that derives meaning from word order, into an embodied language without strict syntax rules. They also had to figure out how to convey music–Twelfth Night contains a great deal of music–and they ended up performing it as poetry. They also had to come up with ASL names for the characters. Malvolio, a pretentious butler who denies the charismatic drunkard Sir Toby Belch his “cakes and ale,” and who has a thing for his mistress, Olivia, has the best name: a mixture of the act of brushing dirt from the shoulder and dismissing someone.
I’ll leave you with this little factoid: the ASL sign for Shakespeare is literally “shake” and “spear.”
Cordelia Ross, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in the Department of English

This page was last updated: March 6, 2017



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