The Fan Performance: Mr Shakespeare Reads

Mr Shakespeare Reads offers a playful investment in the human face behind the texts – or at least a simulacrum of the author drawn from popular culture representations. By adding the visual gimmick of Shakespearean disguise and hairstyle, the videos develop the established YouTube genre of the vernacular Shakespeare performance. What we here is a curious animation of an authorial and textual corpus in the form of an embodied performance of the Droeshout image from the First Folio. Through the paratexts that accompanying the videos, such as the channel description (‘William Shakespeare reads “The Complete Works of Me”. Sonnets, speeches, and prose, in full Elizabethan regalia’) and the description below each video (‘William Shakespeare reading from…’), we are encouraged to view the performances as the Bard taking up YouTube’s invitation to ‘Broadcast Yourself’. Holding his book, with a copy of the Folio image on the front, ‘Shakespeare’ reads a sonnet, occasionally looking to the camera. It is no accident that thus far the series has focused on the Sonnets, for it is these texts that have proved most accommodating to the idea of the singular author as literary genius. Mr Shakespeare Reads may signify little beyond the obvious visual gag. In part, the undertaking may be about acquiring the username ‘Mr Shakespeare Reads’ on YouTube and being the first to do so. Yet, as visual registers of the mythic author, the videos posit a Stratfordian Shakespeare. As such, they indirectly engage with the authorship controversy, itself a space where the primacy of individual genius finds ongoing expression in the popular imagination. The videos are continuous with a theme-park Shakespeare, or those street-performers that don Shakespeare disguises for the entertainment of visitors to Stratford-upon-Avon, and other locations of the Shakespeare industry. As in those instances, the simulacrum of ‘the man himself’ in Mr Shakespeare Reads reflects a desire for a grounding authenticity, which permits the illusion of unmediated access to the texts. Read more about fan performance and amateur Shakespeare in Shakespeare and YouTube (

Sonnet 81


In this upload by froj2002, kinetic type is combined with what the user describes as a “motion gra[p]hics ‘reel’ using photographs of hand made type”. Of particular interest here is the inclusion of the images of handmade type. For instance, in the visualization of line 3 (“From hence your memory death cannot take”), the word ‘memory’ is emphasised and rendered in shadowy font; with line 6 (“Though I, once gone, to all the world must die”) ‘die’ is spelt out in charred match sticks; with line 10 (“Which eyes not yet created shall oe’read”), the word ‘eyes’ has been inked on to a closed eye-lid; in line 12 (“When all the breathers of this world are dead”), ‘this’ is displayed in a font reminiscent of Elizabethan long-hand; and, in the final line (Where breath most breathes, ev’n in the mouths of men”), we see ‘breathes’ as breath on a mirror. In some instances, the visuals may be of an overly literal kind. But what is interesting about this sonnet adaptation is the contrast between two visual effects, recognizable type and handmade or created text-images or between word as print and as handwritten. Perhaps this contrast captures something of the originary form of Shakespeare’s sonnets as texts that circulated in manuscript or were inscribed on to minitature portraits but were not necessarily intended to appear in printed form. It is as if the Shakespearean sonnet as manuscript is a spectral presence in this upload.

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.