new! digital facsimiles, Shakespeare apps & performance, close reading Othello & theater

Greetings! If you are, like me, waiting for the big blizzard to come and bury us all, might you like something else to read? Or if you are far away from the panic and are sick of everyone talking about it, might you like something else to read? I have you covered! Here are 3 relatively recent pieces I wrote—I hope you enjoy them and share them.

“When Is A Source Not A Source?” (link)

This past November, I gave a presentation at the Stanford Primary Source Symposium, the theme of which was “The Phenomenology of the Source.” My talk focused on a question that has been bothering me for a while now: how do we treat digital facsimiles of early print as source material? I’ll give you a preview of my rousing conclusion:

So, when is a source not a source? If we go by what we see evidenced in how researchers treat the materials they use and how they create digital resources, digitized facsimiles are not source material. But if we look again at the structures and affordances of digitized facsimiles, we see that treating them as transparent windows onto source material is inadequate. Ignoring the ways in which digital facsimiles are themselves primary sources keeps us from asking the questions we need to of how they are shaping our research. We all use digital facsimiles. We should all be asking the same questions of those works that we do of the paper and parchment works that we handle: what do we see, how did it get there, who made it, what does this object want to tell me, and what does it want to keep secret? By asking those questions, we can only improve the research that we are already doing, and we can improve the quality of resources we have to work with.

The whole talk, and my slides, are deposited in the Modern Language Association’s Commons Open Repository Exchange (CORE). I hope you’ll go read it and let me know what you think. It’s a topic I’m actively exploring, so if you’d like me to come and give a presentation for your group, I would be happy to do that!

Sarah Werner, “When Is A Source Not A Source?” Stanford Primary Source Symposium, Stanford University, November 14, 2015.

“Performance in Digital Editions of Shakespeare” (link)

If you were watching me on twitter last year or two, or if you came to see me at MLA15, you’ll know that I spent a lot of time being confused by digital editions of Shakespeare. One result is this article I wrote for the forthcoming Oxford Handbook for Shakespeare and Performance, edited by Jim Bulman. The abstract gives you my take on the limitations of what is currently out there:

A growing number of apps and iBooks seek to take advantage of digital technologies to incorporate photos, videos, and audio recordings into editions of Shakespeare’s plays, touting these additions as a boon for understanding Shakespeare. But any promise of transforming how editions can draw on and connect to performances of the plays has not yet been met. Instead, such promises run smack into the limitations of technology, money, rights, and imagination—all hampered by a failure to understand what purpose linking to performances might serve and undermining pedagogical aims of teaching students to interpret Shakespeare on their own.

Oxford’s standard author contract allows contributors to share drafts of their pieces, so I’m happy to be able to share the whole thing with you on my site. (The contract also allows depositing in a repository 24 months after publication, so this will eventually make its way over to CORE as well.)

Sarah Werner, “Performance and Digital Editions of Shakespeare,” The Oxford Handbook for Shakespeare and Performance, ed. James C. Bulman. Oxford UP, forthcoming. Preprint.

Othello and Theatrical Language” (link)

I don’t write about it often on this blog, but I started off my scholarly career as someone invested in how we think about Shakespeare and performance, and it’s still something I get to write about on occasion. This article, for Paul Yachnin’s Shakespeare’s World of Words, explores an argument that I’d been stewing on for a while: we need to think about how the conditions of early modern theater are part of the set of tools that Shakespeare used to make meaning in his plays. It also comes in part out of the last time I was teaching Othello—a play I have a love/hate relationship with—and thinking about how cleverly the play manipulates its audience. My (lengthy) abstract:

The opening scenes of Othello are remarkably unclear about who is being discussed and what events have transpired before the play’s beginning. There is a plethora of pronouns being used without clear referents, and even in the moments of apparent clarity, meaning turns back in on itself: a “he” that seems to refer to Brabantio slips a few lines later to seem to refer to Othello. The bulk of unnamed referents revolve around Othello himself, who does not appear onstage until the second scene of the play and who is not named until the third scene, although he is talked about incessantly. Without a body to attach a subject position to, or a proper name to act as a stable referent, the audience has no way to think about this being other than through the litany of epithets that Iago and Roderigo use. But given that Iago has said, repeatedly, that he is not what he seems to be, the audience does not have a firm footing from which to understand the action.

What makes this disorientation effective is that the audience’s position mirrors that of Othello’s in the course of Iago’s trickery. What can we know when we’re not sure whether we can trust what our eyes and ears tell us? Nothing is stable in this play, from Iago’s “I am not what I am” to the handkerchief to the time scheme of the story. The degree to which the play destabilizes not only Othello but the audience itself—a destabilization that is central to the play’s considerable power—depends on its successful manipulation of early modern theatrical conventions and its recognition that theatrical practice is a nuanced language that can be turned to the playwright’s devices just as well as English can. Othello is a play that investigates the problem that all people face—how to judge people, how to trust a story, how to know when something is or is not true—and that it is able to investigate that truth in the theatre precisely because it is theatrical language that allows us to look at the question.

I negotiated a new contributor’s contract with Bloomsbury that allows me to share my piece on my site 6 months after it was printed, so I am delighted to finally be able to post this here for you! I really loved this piece and the occasion it gave me to read Othello closely and repeatedly. I hope you find it useful in your teaching and research.

Sarah Werner, “Othello and Theatrical Language,” Shakespeare’s World of Words, ed Paul Yachnin. Arden Shakespeare. Bloomsbury, 2015. pp 171-86.