Computers & Texts No. 11
Table of Contents
March 1996

Review: Shakespeare's Life and Times

Ian Gadd
Pembroke College
University of Oxford

It began with Shakespeare wearing an earring; it ended with a furious Ophelia killing Hamlet in a sword-fight for daring to suggest that she should "get to a nunnery". Such is - or rather, such can be - Michael Best's Shakespeare's Life and Times.

I should perhaps explain. Shakespeare's Life and Times, a Hypercard-based CD-ROM program, begins with the so-called Chandos portrait of Shakespeare - a view of him not as immediately well known as the Droeshout image of him (taken from the First Folio of his works in 1623) that is otherwise ever-present in this CD-ROM, from the program icons themselves on the desktop, to the background of the opening menus, even to the navigational buttons at the bottom of every screen. As the title declares, this is very much a Shakespearean-derived narrative, albeit in hypertextual form.

It is perhaps unsurprising that Shakespeare is the central motif. Whilst it would be a little cynical to suggest that the iconic value of Shakespeare makes him an excellent choice for a budding medium looking for academic credence, Shakespeare does provide a lucrative starting point for a CD-ROM study of the period. Best, an English academic at the University of Victoria, Canada, and an avowed advocate of the electronic medium, argues that his program can help solve a common teaching problem:

Few students are fully aware of the many ways the [plays and poems] can be enriched by a study of any one of the disciplines related to English studies (biography, stage history, social or political history, the history of ideas, the literature of Shakespeare's contemporaries, and so on). The problem they face, if I ask them to do some background research on their own, is that they often don't know enough to know what they want to work on. Either I had to be highly prescriptive, directing them to specific topics, or if I gave freedom of choice, students would all write about something they had recently encountered in the class. (From the accompanying Instructor Guide)

The program follows the standard Hypercard format, with the viewer being presented with a 'card' on the screen, giving certain information, as well as offering other 'cards' to link with. Best has provided something of a linear narrative should you wish to simply begin with the first 'card' and move through 'card' by 'card' to the very last, but much of the inter-referential power of the program would of course be lost. Moreover, the program is keen to exploit its non-bookish parameters. Aside from the obvious hypertextual structure, we are given two dozen musical interludes, six extensive readings from the plays and poems (including from Jacques' 'Seven Ages of Man' speech in As You Like It), as well as six Quick-Time movies of various dances and plays.

Contextual material

Initially, it is Shakespeare's life and works that form the central spine of the program - the first sections that one progresses through are a biographical study of Shakespeare, split up in to those seven ages of Jacques, readings of which preface each section. Almost at once, however, it is rather the 'context' for the narrative that draws one away - into areas as diverse as printing, Elizabethan language, politics, London economic life, women, Renaissance music and architecture, and classical modes of literature, and so on. The links multiply, and there are remarkably few areas of seventeenth century life that are not dealt with, if only in passing. Behind it all - and only a link or two away at any one time - are the various appendices, including a long list of questions to consider about the period and Shakespeare himself, an extensive (and adaptable) bibliography, a selection of maps, and, of course, full (and well-glossed) texts of the plays and poems. There is also a powerful, if somewhat complicated, concordance package attached as well. In addition, one can bookmark certain interesting 'cards' and can even create new 'topics'. Overarching it all, there is a map which shows where you have been and where you are still to visit. Several hours of relatively fevered clicking between 'cards' still left some areas unexplored.

Staging Shakespeare

One of the most intriguing parts of the CD-ROM is an attached DIY stagecraft programme that allows you to pick any one of half-a-dozen plays and quite literally stage it yourself. You can select any passage, and then bring on your characters, making them move about, changing their postures as you do so, as well as adding props, opening trapdoors, closing curtains - all frame by frame. Whilst there is no true animation as characters simply dissolve from one part of the stage, and reappear in another (which is just as well, as it would probably overcomplicate matters as well as being rather gimmicky), one can easily experiment with the various 'blocking' of characters. You can (if you wish to be so subversive as to follow the 'bad' quarto of Hamlet) make Hamlet appear as if he reading from a book as he famously muses on life and death (as well as reminding yourself that he is being overheard by the King and others), and, yes, you can even let a fed-up Ophelia exact a rather bloody revenge upon Hamlet amidst a noisy clash of swords. To be sure, there are limitations on props and scenery, although the purpose is - as is made plain by the Globe-esque stage that you work with - to try and work within much the same limits as a company of the period would have had to.


In conclusion, so long as it is used as a link in that great 'hypertext' of research itself, Shakespeare's Life and Times proves itself to be remarkably useful and thought-provoking. It is aimed very much at the last year or so of secondary school or the first year or so of college and is designed specifically as a teaching tool rather than necessarily an end resource - 'a halfway house, a link intermediate between the classroom and the library' in Best's own words. It also offers something of a well-needed 'halfway house' between literary studies and other disciplines, most notably history. Of course, personally one might wish for more on a certain topic, or that an extra link here or there were added, or that more of the images and quotes were footnoted, or that '© Michael Best' weren't quite so omnipresent on some of the photo-images. Nonetheless, it is comprehensive and, at times, enlightening - even this second-year English Literature postgraduate found it useful! (see screen shots)

[Table of Contents] [Letter to the Editor]

Computers & Texts 11 (1996), 18. Not to be republished in any form without the author's permission.

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