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Shakespeare in 100 Objects | Talking in Signs

By June 24, 2014 No Comments

This column frequently draws attention to high-profile digital tools and software programs that offer unique insights into Shakespeare’s plays, pulling apart the texts in various ways to offer a new angle on what might otherwise seem to be a well-traveled avenue into the Bard’s canon. But digital humanities approaches are not just about designing new tools or cutting into the lexicon from a heretofore unavailable entry point — they’re also about using fairly basic technology to curate “old” data sets in such a way that they become available to a global network that might otherwise never have access to, let alone be aware of, the objects or information they contain.

A current favorite example is Finding Shakespeare’s wonderful blog project, Shakespeare in 100 Objects. Each post, written by a different Shakespeare scholar, offers a description of a different object, item, text, or example of an every day sight that would have been commonplace to Shakespeare and his contemporaries, but which prove fascinating to modern audiences, providing valuable context for both the material and metaphorical worlds of his plays. Ranging from the literary (Edward Topsell’s History of Foure-Footed Beasts) to the scientific (a pocket dial) and even the literal (models and descriptions of wattle and daub construction) the series provides wonderfully fresh perspectives on the bric-a-brac of everyday Elizabethan life.

Taken one-by-one, each post is nigh unto a museum room in and of itself, providing one or more images of the object or item under review, describing its significance to Early Modern English subjects, and of course, situating each object within the specific context of a play. Even a set of objects as seemingly mundane (and still in use) as an inkwell receives well-considered attention. As scholar Stephanie Appleton writes of this particular model (belonging to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust featured in her post, an inkwell could be both a vital part of a literate household and a decorative object. Even such a seemingly commonplace item as this was a signifier of social status; Appleton points to Sir Nathaniel’s admonishment to Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost IV.ii.21-23 that “[Dull] hath never fed of the dainties that are bred in a book. He hath not eat paper, as it were, he hath not drunk ink.” The illiterate Dull is twice-marked by this statement – he is ignorant because he has not consumed knowledge, and he has not consumed knowledge because he is not wealthy enough / of the appropriate social class to partake in the “dainties” found on the ink-stained paper of books.

Taken all together, the 100 Objects project offers a unique tour of the various bits-and-pieces of Shakespeare’s daily life. There’s great potential here for the educators among us; each posts represents a springboard into a unique aspect of a single play, or insight into an object that may prove more than mundane upon closer inspection. And of course, it’s all fascinating reading for those of us who simply love to learn more about the world of Elizabethan England.

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