Shakespeare is well served by the Internet. Searches facilitate appreciation and understanding of his plays by creation of vivid historical contexts and performance histories. Experience of the historical references behind the plays’ themes, plots and characters can be evoked visually for those to whom the material may be remote and alien. Recreation of the past recalled in these scripts is possible by search of the Internet’s stills of portraits of historical figures such as Richard II and Richard III, from the National Portrait Gallery (U.K.) and of historical locales such as the Roman Forum or Leeds Castle, used in the BBC video of Henry VIII. Images are readily available not only of original settings such as the Tower of London, or Renaissance Venice but also displays of stage scenery and costuming in performances in historical or modern guise, in Olivier’s Henry V and Orson Welles’ Julius Caesar, and seen in stills and clips from such classic films and tapes of live productions. These items can mostly be found by searching YouTube. Such excerpts serve as textual illustrations, via teaching procedures presented in such websites as Shakespeare’s Staging: Shakespeare Performance and his Globe Theatre.
As for scripts, texts of Shakespeare’s collected works on the Internet are of varying value, from the British Museum authoritative collection of Shakespeare in Quartos and the Gutenberg Folio to modern versions such as the MIT Shakespeare collection and that of Open Shakespeare. The problem with many modernized collections on the web is that they date from the nineteenth century, because copyright laws deny use of current editions. Web collections are often deficient of the insights of modern scholarship. However, Google Books has dared to transpose to the Internet partial versions (or “Previews”) of many excellent modern single-play editions in such series as the Oxford, Cambridge, and Arden. These editions are also listed on the Internet at minimal prices via Amazon, Abe Books, and other publishers.
Through search for the names of plays and for any related historical people, places and events, the web also affords invaluable information about the history of plays’ own background and theatrical history. It gives information about web reprints of published interpretations of the historical or iconic figures on which the plays are based, such as Cleopatra or Falstaff. (See Paul Kendall, Richard III.) Other data on how these approaches were adapted comes from sources to the dramatic counterparts, as seen in Geoffrey Bullough’s Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare; via bibliographies about how these plays were staged in Shakespeare’s times and performed for later centuries, from sites such as Shakespeare’s Staging of U.C. Berkeley; and by access to the range of scholarly and critical commentary on these plays excerpted in many entries of Google Books. Most of this material is available through Google Books, or by name searches after citing Wikipedia, YouTube, Flickr. There are more specific sources provided by institutions such as the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Furness Shakespeare Collection, and the Victoria and Albert Theatre Collection.
For detail about Shakespeare’s literary and theatrical precedents, the much-censured Wikipedia provides a preliminary source and illustrations, in entries that are increasingly precise and reliable by providing professional authorities in their footnotes and bibliographies—but should not be left unvalidated by further research. Wikipedia’s visual materials are extended in its associated Yorck Project, which offers relevant illustrations, with the advantage that this collection (unlike Google Images) certifies that its contents are legally out of copyright, at least by U.S.A. law about the public domain (operative in material antedating 1923). This access is being accepted by U.S.A. collections, particularly libraries of academic institutions. Among these groups another helpful visual collection is that of San Jose State University’s World Images photographic collection, which explores historical artifacts, many relating to Shakespearean figures, including classical ones in plays like Julius Caesar and Troilus and Cressida. The best source about English historical and theatrical personalities is provided by the British National Portrait Gallery website, but its disadvantage is that copyright claims are enforced, as by other major art galleries like the Tate and commercial groups such as Getty Images and Bridgeman Art Library. Flickr also copyrights its images. However, this may not preclude passing class use, and in student papers.
For performance history there are numerous collections, including the Cleveland Press collection at Cleveland State University; the University of Illinois collection of historical actors; the Furness Shakespeare collection; the Victoria and Albert Museum Theatre Collection; and the Shakespeare Centre’s RSC archives. Modern collections of still images and reviews are available from the University of Victoria (Canada) mostly from modern, local productions, including background material. Post-1960 British productions are covered by images and data in the AHDS Performance collection. For videos of recorded live performances, YouTube has clips from modern Shakespeare productions, of variable quality; fragments of classic film and stage productions, and many amateur ones, distilled by groups such as Bardweb. Material from YouTube is not stable as copyright challenges often suspend access to excerpts from classic films and videoed stagings.
For printed scholarship and criticism, the much-debated Google Books reprints provide access to partial selections from many significant books, and fragments of others, but coverage is unpredictable. Intense searches, via local library access to scholarly collections such as JSTOR, may provide full access to some sources. Moreover, Abe Books and other distributors, even Amazon, permit purchase at cheap prices of copies of significant texts—including single-play editions—from $1 up! College libraries may provide free internet access to texts for registered readers, as a result of contracts with groups purveying scholarly and reference material such as Questia Media Inc. and Credo Reference.