Computers & Texts No. 16/17
Table of Contents
Winter 1998

BBC Shakespeare on CD-ROM: Julius Caesar

Julie Sanders
Keele University

[Julius Caesar Title Screen]

HarperCollins's new BBC Shakespeare Julius Caesar CD-ROM offers students an impressive quantity of audio-visual material: the box promises more than 60 minutes worth in fact. But such material has its price: in this instance less in terms of financial outlay than in terms of memory requirement. This is a greedy CD in terms of memory, requiring as it does a minimum of 8MB RAM. This could be a drawback for likely users. My own Macintosh computer on which I frequently use comparable performance-base CDs was not powerful enough to run this and indeed only two computers in my university library had the capacity to do so. Manufacturers and producers of teaching material of this nature need to consider questions of hardware accessibility as well as impressive statistics for the purposes of publicity. How many schools, colleges, or universities - surely the target institutions of such packages - have the machines capable of running them?


A related point concerns the nature and quality of that memory hungry audio-visual content. The majority of this CD (it being a BBC Education tie-in product) is taken up with thirty-five minutes of the BBC Time-Life production of Julius Caesar. Most schools-based English departments, as well as colleges and universities, will have access to this 'classic' (as the publicity terms it) production in video format and whilst I recognize the value of teaching the text alongside the moving pictures of the words in performance, the paperback version of the text (provided in the pack) in the hands of an individual in a classroom watching the video on a screen or monitor would seem just as, if not more practical as a teaching mode. Only one or two students could do this at any one time in relation to a computer screen. The BBC clearly wishes to promote its production - elsewhere on the CD snippets of the Shakespeare Shorts series aimed at Children's BBC viewers as an introduction to Shakespeare in workshop form are available for view - but there are dangers in offering just one production's interpretation of the play. Students may accept this monolithic account as the whole or even the only story possible to produce from the raw text. It is of course also relevant to note that the aims and objectives as well as the individual production decisions of the BBC series have come under serious fire in the academic fraternity of late and that this CD-ROM in many respects offers a controversial approach to Shakespeare as 'classic' in a problematically unquestioning or unreflexive fashion. Less space might have been required to offer a selection of performances and interpretations that could have opened up rather than closed down the possibility of debate.

[Screen Shot of Act 3, Scene 1 with Video]

Fig. 1. Julius Caesar 3.i. with a video clip from the BBC performance.


Julius Caesar is, of course, one of the National Curriculum prescribed Shakespeare texts at the present time and it is the intimate detail in which GCSE students study a playtext which this CD-ROM seeks to emulate and advance in its practice. Word 'hotspots' are provided for particular vocabulary to be researched and explored. Background material on a wide range of themes is offered: from Shakespeare's life to the nature of early modern theatres to modern day production decisions. The accompanying material in the pack is also aimed at a younger schools-based audience. The paperback text provided is the rather straightforward and intellectually un-nuanced Alexander text (Higher Education teachers are for more likely to employ the Arden, Oxford, or Cambridge texts) and the Teachers' Notes are undoubtedly aimed at GCSE pupils with their simplistic character outlines, speech-bubble cartoons, and at times surprisingly bald constructions: 'On the Ides of March, Portia was feeling nervous because . . . .' HE lecturers might choose simply to ditch this aspect of the pack but even then, whilst I see this CD-ROM could be a useful investment for schools (although I suspect that teachers can produce far more inventive teaching situations and possibilities for themselves than this package actually offers either in terms of printed or disk-based material), I doubt its value for institutions working beyond even the most basic level of the text.

Degree-based students require a less word-based and text-bound research tool than this offers. It would be useful, for example, to compare different performances of the same scene, whereas here only one interpretation is available. A degree student would also need more in the way of critical analysis. Just one contemporary literary critic's and one contemporary historian's work is included in the section on critical accounts and even then with no sense of the schools of thought they are operating within. Indeed, this aspect of the material struck me throughout as rather conservative and dated. We get Samuel Taylor Coleridge, A.C. Bradley, and G. Wilson Knight (where are the feminists or the New Historicists?) as critics and Jonathan Dimbleby (filmed some time ago judging by the hair and the outfit!) as political commentator. The atmosphere is of a 1970s Open University parody sketch. In a similar vein, interviews with the late Sam Wanamaker about the Globe theatre are included but nothing on the reconstruction as it now stands and operates as a performance space. We get one still photo and an architect's model instead. This seemed a missed opportunity: surely film of Mark Rylance and the Globe company in performance might have been included to bring the issue of Shakespeare right up to date.

[Screen shot of the character of Cassius]

Fig. 2. The character of Cassius with hypertext links to the play.


The CD is well put together and it is easy to find your way around - the subject hexagon is particularly helpful in this respect for flicking between different areas. This is the extent to which the CD is 'interactive' (another of its bold claims). The quality of sound and image is excellent: I merely regret the dated nature of those images. A more powerful machine would have been able to run it faster than I could. In summary it is a worthy if somewhat staid and conservative tool for schools-based learning but too simplistic and quite simply outmoded for anything at a Higher Educational level.

[Table of Contents] [Letter to the Editor]

Computers & Texts 16/17 (1998). Not to be republished in any form without the author's permission.

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