Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 March 2007
In his keynote address on the Future of Shakespeare at the inaugural British Shakespeare Association conference in Leicester in September 2003, Jonathan Bate argued that future scholarly editions of Shakespeare would be online, because only the digital environment can show the depth and complexity of the scholarly project. This acknowledgement of the influence of the online environment follows a period of resistance to and upheaval in the development of the digital dissemination of Shakespeare’s work. What this statement acknowledges is the emergence of a series of what have been termed second-generation projects in digital editing, projects that have learned from the mistakes of the past. The question remains, however, of what form the online edition in this new stage of development will take. This essay attempts to bring that question, which has been debated for too long among only a small group of specialists, to a wider audience.
The history of digital editing is relatively short but filled with activity and drama. Given that many of the early digital projects were created on cd and are only available in the collections of those who purchased them at the time, it is important, at this crucial juncture, to document work that might otherwise disappear without a trace. The development of the online edition owes a great deal to these early experiments in that they mapped out the difficult and complex terrain of the digital world. The contested questions of copyright, intellectual property and ownership of the final edited texts has meant that even in the open environment of the Internet there remain only a handful of serious attempts to address the issue of what a scholarly online edition of the plays should look like and how it should function. In this essay, I will outline the nature of the crossroads we currently face by placing it into its historical context.