‘Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?” Shakespeare wondered in his play “Henry V.” “Or may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?” Since the curtain rose this month on a new Web site that puts all of Shakespeare’s plays at our fingertips, those lines might need tweaking.
“Can this laptop hold the vasty fields of France?” we will ask. “Or may we cram within this plastic phone” not just the helmets of Agincourt, but Hamlet’s ghost-haunted castle, Cleopatra’s barge and Portia’s watery Venice? All that and much more, it seems, thanks to the incessantly innovating search engine Google.
The “cockpit” and the “wooden O” are of course poetic turns of phrase for the circular or octagonal Globe Theater in London where Shakespeare’s players strutted and fretted their hour upon the stage four centuries ago. And the question at issue — though Shakespeare was surely never in doubt — was whether a small, bare platform could somehow be made to accommodate a great battle or a thousand other teeming scenes.
It could and did, through the transforming marriage of Shakespeare’s words and people’s imaginations. But as Google’s wizards point out, those words weren’t always so accessible. The bard’s contemporaries had to “duke it out” for the best view of the Globe’s cramped stage and the best chance of hearing even “shreds and patches” of that magical dialogue.
Centuries later, the miracle of mass printing put the vasty fields of King Harry’s France and the streets of Julius Caesar’s Rome between the covers of books, within everyone’s reach. But it also created new problems. What should the eager Shakespeare fan buy? A one-volume doorstop containing all 37 plays? Single editions, decked out with notes and glossaries? And which edition? Arden? Oxford? Riverside? Pelican? Bevington? The cast of thought required was enough to pale the native hue of resolution to the point of buying nothing at all. And that didn’t even begin to take into account the numerous — and expensive — audio recordings.
This is where Google came in. The booming company has taken its share of knocks lately, being accused, among other things, of power grabbing, kowtowing to government censors in China and violating copyrights with its ongoing program to scan all the books in the libraries of Harvard, Stanford, Oxford and the University of Michigan, as well as in The New York Public Library, so that users worldwide can search them — in Google. If you were Shakespeare, you might be tempted to observe that the mighty search engine “doth appear to bestride the world like a Colossus.”
But it is hard to find fault with the company’s decision to launch a Web site, tied to its sponsorship this summer of New York’s Shakespeare in the Park festival, that allows users access to the full text of each of Shakespeare’s plays. At present, the site is operating a bit patchily while Google sorts out the global copyright status of some of the texts. It is also hard to search the site by word or phrase if you don’t know which play to start looking in. In truth, it is not even the first such site. And some, such as the University of Pennsylvania’s Online Books Page, do the same job more thoroughly.
Still, Google has the brand power to reach the masses, today’s version of the Globe’s “groundlings,” so it’s no surprise that its effort is the one to have made a splash. Here are the pluses of its site, present and planned: You get instant access to all the plays; you can sample and compare editions; you can buy the print version of any play with a mouse-click; and you can follow a link called Google Scholar for learned perspectives on the plays. You can even zoom in on the various replicas of the Globe, including Tokyo’s, via Google Earth’s satellite, and watch bits of Shakespeare in action on Google Video. His oeuvre becomes our oyster. Better yet, it’s all free.
As one blogger commented, this site may be Google’s best idea since Minesweeper. Certainly, it offers a persuasive glimpse of what the company is trying to do with its controversial book-scanning initiative. Where copyright is not an issue, there is nothing but good to be gained from opening books up to the widest possible audience.
Shakespeare is uncannily popular in Japan, which has produced some of the world’s most creative interpretations of his plays — from “Ran,” Akira Kurosawa’s movie version of “King Lear,” to Yukio Ninagawa’s Kabuki-style “Twelfth Night.” Fans of the bard here are likely to find themselves happily echoing the clown’s words in “All’s Well That Ends Well” after a peek at Google’s new site: “The search, sir, was profitable, even to the world’s pleasure and the increase of laughter.”
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