Archiving Shakespeare on YouTube

The videos collected here are just a small sample of the hundreds of thousands of videos tagged under ‘Shakespeare’ on YouTube. This site does not claim any rights over the videos but simply offers another way of viewing them, outside of the busy, unwieldy interface of YouTube.

However, the collation and annotation of videos outside of their original context raises questions about the provenance of videos (here divorced from their user channel or from the related content that appears alongside them) and of ownership too. What is the usefulness of archiving Shakespeare materials in this way? Luke McKernan’s BardBox has already done a terrific job in annotating Shakespeare videos in what remains a subjective sampling. Bardbox and this site do allow for a neater arrangement of videos (we can determine content under descriptive categories) and more targeted or niche viewing than YouTube itself allows. In her superb video book, Learning from YouTube , Alexandra Juhasz describes the platform and its network as facilitating chaos rather than order: “YouTube serves the decentering mandate of post-identity politics by creating a logic of dispersal and network. Yet it fails to relink these decentered fragments in any rational or sustaining way. There is no possibility to make collectives through its architecture. Information cannot become knowledge without a map, a structure, and an ethics”.

For Shakespeareans, YouTube’s participatory culture offers exciting opportunities that are now beginning to be seriously and critically pursued. Yet the unbounded volume of material is daunting. It places limits on the capacity of the individual Shakespeare researcher to undertake quantitative evaluations of even a single text. In the crowded mediascape, how will we build a composite sense of the reception of Shakespeare? Is such a goal even possible or desirable? And even if we were to succumb to archive fever, the possibility of compiling a full record of, say, Hamlet on YouTube, would most likely prove an endless, if not impossible, work.

Material on YouTube is after all ephemeral – it can be removed by the individual tuber; or made private; or, in cases where it is deemed to have infringed copyright, removed by YouTube itself. Here the issue of ownership crops up. Since YouTube’s culture of mash-up involves borrowing from existing media content, often using the “remix” as a means of commenting, sometimes in a critical fashion, sometimes in a celebratory fashion, on that content, uploads may infringe copyright on several fronts. YouTube’s algorithm uses content identification systems to detect the use of copyrighted images from such commercial media giants as Viacom and Universal. The implications of this for digital literacy and pedagogy are explored in Virginia Kuhn’s essay “The YouTube Gaze”, where she addresses the challenges posed by a hierarchical and inflexible attitude to the culture of mash-up and remix, one that fails to take account of “fair use” of such content (for example, for academic purposes). While condemning pirating, Kuhn calls for a more nuanced understanding of online video creation, where copyrighted material may be featured. For Shakespeareans, this aspect of YouTube culture poses some ethical as well as pedagogical problems – while we might want to direct students to the rich array of online Shakespeare production and to participate in production themselves, part of their education is about learning to recognize intellectual property and to provide proper citation in their work. How, then, are we to respond to those videos that infringe copyright? If we use them in our teaching or research, are we complicit in that infringement? But to silently comply is, as Kuhn argues, to limit our capacity to be active participants in the media and to “critically engage” its images, machineries, and politics. These are just some of the issues that YouTube Shakespeare involves and that the field of Shakespeare studies needs to begin to grapple with.

Sonnet in motion

I am interested in the extent to which You Tube Shakespeare can be used to re-activate attention to the form and language of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. This is one of example of user-generated uploads available through the platform that use kinetic and also animated typography to visualize the text of a sonnet word-by-word or line-by-line. Chrisdavey’s short, originally made as part of an assignment for a graphic design module to design an ident for BBC television, is just thirty seven seconds long. The type moves very quickly – perhaps too quickly – but the pace is arguably appropriate, conveying the movement, if not quite the metre, of a sonnet that is itself about the swift passage of time. The effect of the moving type, which is scored to a piece of unidentified synthesised music, is similar to that achieved by sites such as Tagcrowd or TextArc, where words and word frequency can be conveyed visually and emphasised through larger or different fonts. Here, the font effects foreground the lover-poet’s “remembrance of things past” or visualise a thought that the poem’s lines verbalise: so the words in line 5 (“Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow”) do indeed seem to flow, like water drops or more appropriately tear drops. One potential impact of such text effects is to disrupt a traditional reading of the text from left to right. The eye is drawn to the appearance of the word but also the interaction of words. This is the Shakespearean sonnet in motion.

Sonnet 12 on the Avon

This upload opens with a close up shot of water, which the user indicates, was taken “from our boat on the River Avon, a few hours downstream of Shakespeare’s home town of Stratford-Upon-Avon”. The text is given a score as well as the feint ticking of a clock. The sense of the Shakespearean sonnet form of three quatrains and a closing ryhming couplet is compromised by the editing that has occurred, with fourteen lines cut to just five. But if this upload may not be the best recommendation for students wishing to learn about the organization and rhyming scheme of the sonnet, it does constitute an interesting interpretation and remaking of the poem. Indeed it may be picking up on the extent to which, as in other sonnets, the dilemmas and frustrations posed in the three quatrains are insufficiently resolved by the concluding couplet. An upload that is all about kinetic text and visual effects? Perhaps. But in their emendations, the creators have produced an appropriate shortening of a sonnet that is itself about the shortening effects of time.