Christie Carson and Jacky Bratton, eds. The Cambridge King Lear CD-ROM: Text and Performance Archive.
Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. ISBN: 0 521 63640 X.
Michael Best
University of Victoria

Best, Michael. "Review of Christie Carson and Jacky Bratton, eds. The Cambridge King Lear CD-ROM: Text and Performance Archive." Early Modern Literary Studies 9.1 (May, 2003): 10.1-17 <URL:

  1. The Cambridge King Lear CD-ROM in many ways is exemplary of what has been accomplished in electronic texts, and of the challenges that are yet to be met successfully. Any modern edition of King Lear faces multiple complexities: textual problems alone test the capacity of the editor to make sense of the arguments for conflation or deconflation, and the wonderfully complex history of adaptation and reception that followed its first publications are a challenge to represent in a manageable format, whether in print or on screen. The large storage space offered by a CD-ROM raises expectations. Why not have all the variant texts, a range of criticism, the sources Shakespeare used, useful reference works, graphics of the original texts and of performance? Why not video clips? Potentially, an electronic edition can become an entire library or encyclopaedia, well beyond the resources of mortal editors, even if they are working in collaboration. For this CD-ROM, the editors have wisely chosen to set boundaries, and to limit the scope of the project by focussing on the play's performance history. The electronic medium is, after all, especially friendly to the extension of the text by multimedia materials of the kind associated with performance. They further, reasonably, limit the illustrative materials to performances in English, and substantially those in the UK.

  2. A discussion of the texts available on the CD-ROM immediately demonstrates the impossibility of fully separating form and content. The central text is called, appropriately, the "Finder Text"; it is necessarily a conflation of Quarto and Folio texts, with the justification that a combined text of some kind is necessary as a kind of backbone for the CD, where users can find whatever text they are looking for, whether it originally appeared in the Quarto, the Folio, or both. Thus the nature of the text is decided by the requirement of the medium, rather than for purely scholarly reasons. The Finder Text is edited by Christie Carson and Jay Halio; in addition, the CD-ROM provides modern editions of both Quarto and Folio texts (both edited by Jay Halio in the Cambridge series). The CD-ROM also includes black and white images from both the Quarto (from the copy in Trinity College) and the "Hinman selection" from the Folger Shakespeare Library.

  3. The subtitle of the CD-ROM, "Text and Performance Archive," is borne out by the extensive list of texts from later adaptations of the play: The History of King Lear by Nahum Tate (1681), King Lear -- A Tragedy edited by Nicholas Rowe (1709), David Garrick's text as recorded by John Bell in 1774, William Charles Macready's text of 1838 published by Lacy in 1857, and Charles Kean's text, 1858. It is a further indication of the monumental nature of the labour needed to produce the archive that these later texts are reproduced by permission of Chadwyck-Healey -- which means that they bring with them all the problems of the Chadwyck-Healey textbases. [1] They are the result of data input rather than editing, so are in a much more raw form than the more directly Shakespearean material.

  4. The editors of the CD-ROM -- whom we might almost think of as "general" editors -- have thought carefully about their role in preparing and presenting the extensive materials. With becoming modesty, and in keeping with much current thinking in editorial theory, the editors aim simply to present the material rather than to interpret it:

    We have created a storehouse of materials that seeks to map the many lives of King Lear, without telling the user what to think about that territory. At the centre of this enterprise is the suggestion that the user explore one fundamental issue: the fluidity of the text over time. The archive challenges the assumption that there is a preferred reading or interpretation of this, or any, dramatic text. (Introduction and User's Guide)

  5. Thus they aim to avoid the lure of the authoritative text: "Nothing about the disk is final or in any way aims for a definitive reading. Every attempt has been made to allow for as many uses as possible." The objective is admirable, but their statement has one inaccuracy, since the disk is indeed a fixed artefact, and, like a book, must wait for a second edition, or pressing, for changes and improvements. Fortunately, there are few inaccuracies that I found; but I will comment further on the problem of the finality of a CD-ROM later in this review as I discuss the software that is used to display the texts and graphics.

  6. The desire of the editors to be as unprescriptive as possible is admirable from the point of view of most scholars, but may present some problems for more naïve readers. The remarkable extent of the resources comes with the usual problem of the electronic medium, where it becomes all too easy to lose one's way. There is a good argument to be made that one editorial responsibility in the medium is to provide what Patrick Finn has called "pathways" [2] as examples for readers, so that in due course they can develop their own. The critical articles provided with the disk might have been pathways of this kind, but their intention is rather to survey performance in different countries -- which they do very well -- not to provide ways of assembling and using the materials on the CD-ROM itself.

  7. The editors divide the materials on the disk into three categories: primary sources, editorial and critical material, and reference materials. Primary sources include a substantial library of illustrations of performance, as well as the actual texts; editorial and critical materials include standard critical apparatus in the edited texts, plus some essays on the performance history of King Lear; and the reference materials provide information on actors, directors, and theatres, culled from The Cambridge Guide to Theatre. As befits an archive that concentrates on performance, the disk provides several essays on Lear in different periods and continents: Jacky Bratton has written a comprehensive overview of the performance of the play in Britain from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, and there are additional valuable essays on Shakespeare as performed in North America (Christie Carson), Australia (Philippa Kelly), and in languages other than English (Dennis Kennedy).

  8. Of greatest interest to most users will be the primary sources, the texts and the illustrations of performance. The most useful thing about the texts is that they are in one place together: the edited text of Shakespeare's play are substantially the same as those in the Cambridge print editions, and the later adaptations provide nothing beyond the unquestioned usefulness of a searchable electronic text. Together these texts provide a small library in much the same way as did the earlier Arden Shakespeare. The illustrations are a resource of a different order.

  9. Two challenges await the editors of such a collection: availability, and copyright restrictions. Records of early productions are sketchy and incomplete, and many early illustrations are inspired by the play rather than by a production. The CD-ROM includes a good sampling of early performances, from David Garrick as Lear in the eighteenth century to Henry Irving in 1892. Later performances are, understandably, more profusely represented, and, as the editors comment, "There is such an abundance of materials that some sort of collection policy had to be determined." They focus on mainstream theatre in the UK, Stratford, Ontario, and New York until the last two decades, where they do include some representatives of "fringe theatre, festival theatre and experimental theatre."

  10. The actual quality of the images is somewhat disappointing. They appear to have been scanned at a minimal 256 colours, and the sharpness of focus leaves much to be desired in many cases. Even the black-and-white pictures, which ought to be very comfortable at 256 shades of grey, are grainy and often pixelated in ways that are clearly not the result of the fuzziness of the originals. One wonders whether the quality of the images has been made deliberately of poorer quality so that there is no risk of them being used clandestinely.

  11. How useful all this material will be depends in part on how easy it is to find what one is looking for, and how intuitive users find navigation. One important feature of the CD-ROM is that it will run on both major platforms, PC and Macintosh, which still has a significant presence in education in several countries. The software that makes this possible is the DynaText reader, a product of Electronic Book Technologies. It is an unfortunate reminder of the moving target that electronic publishing now faces, particularly in the medium of the CD-ROM, that the company has recently folded, and its products sold to another group that seems less interested in DynaText. And there is no doubt that DynaText will need continual maintenance; it failed to work satisfactorily on my Macintosh running OS X, even in the "Classic" environment. The good news is that the data on the CD-ROM is coded in SGML, the older sibling of the now-standard XML, so that it can be adapted to other readers and technologies.

  12. The most powerful capacity of DynaText is the way it permits searches on all the materials on the disk. On the Internet we are accustomed to being able to search sites we visit, but a CD-ROM is rather different, and there are few really effective software solutions for providing adequate searches. DynaText shines in its ability to perform searches over the whole archive, and to present the results of the search effectively. DynaText also features a way of taking notes from within the program that some readers will find useful.

  13. As an access point to the complex of texts and materials the CD-ROM provides, the conflated Finder text works well as a jumping-off point for those looking for specific information about a section of the play, especially since only the most sophisticated of readers will recall which passage comes from Quarto, which from Folio. In the Finder text, different colours indicate hyperlinks to additional materials. One oddity is that one "colour" is the standard black of the transcription, so that the reader must move the mouse over the text to discover whether there is a link (the cursor changes to a pointing hand). It is a convention of DynaText as it is employed here that each link opens a new window. This is clearly a preferred option in most situations where the hyperlink leads to an annotation, but if the annotation in turn refers to the text, clicking on it opens yet another window with the Finder text, so that after half an hour's exploration it is possible to have many windows open, several of which present the Finder text. Some variation in the appearance of the windows would be helpful, since a single sentence will appear in a window that is identical to the one(s) that hold the whole of the Finder text.

  14. Another difficult decision for the editor/designer of an electronic edition is how to present the text. The original codex permitted digestible chunks of text to be presented on physical pages, but the electronic text is in essence pageless. But a long scrolling window is a navigational nightmare, as the scroll bar moves in tiny increments as one moves through the text, and it is disconcertingly easy to click too often on the scroll bar and to get lost. Division by scene might seem to make the material more manageable, but scene breaks have been added in many places by modern editors, and in any case vary from a few lines to many print pages. The Cambridge Lear takes the approach of putting the whole text in one long scrolling window, but while this has the advantage of simplicity for the designer of the software, it creates significant difficulty for the reader.

  15. There is no diagrammatic map of the contents of the CD, in the fashion of an Internet site map, but DynaText provides a table of contents visible at all times on the left of the screen. The table of contents provides major section headings that can be expanded to show subheadings and subsubheadings. Clicking on any of these headings takes the reader to that point in the active window. Most readers will be familiar with this convention, which has been adopted in a much simpler style by many Web pages. The one disadvantage of this format, in terms of navigation, is that it assumes a linear and hierarchical structure -- but the power of the electronic text is that it can be much more than linear. Thus, for example, clicking on an item in the table of contents will often take the reader to a specific spot in the long scrolling window, rather than (as is standard in modern Web interfaces) to a new window. There is also no intuitive way to get from the graphics of a specific performance to any discussion in the critical articles, or relevant entries in the reference materials on the disk. In fairness, I should say that in many cases there are effective links the other way.

  16. Many of these problems may be limitations of the DynaText software. DynaText was designed originally for long linear texts like service manuals, so the effect is to make the hypertextual structure of the archive more linear than will be convenient for many users. The SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language) that DynaText uses is by its nature hierarchical, and it is no surprise that the navigational tools reflect this structure. The tendency for windows to be undifferentiated, and to proliferate confusingly, is also probably an unavoidable effect of the software. Readers who have become used to some of the more sophisticated interfaces being developed with standard Web browsers may find that the interface has already become somewhat dated and inflexible.

  17. Cambridge University Press has taken some risks in developing this, and other literary CD -ROMs. The press is working against a disconcerting paradox; their publications are aimed at the scholar (who may not be fully computer-fluent), while the younger students who would find the medium second nature will be faced with an embarrassment of riches, and are unlikely to be able to find their way through the maze of information to discover what they really need. The quality of the actual materials, however, is such that a teacher willing to set specific "treasure-hunts" for students, or able to take the time to set up pathways for students to follow will find that the CD-ROM provides many riches. The editors of The Cambridge King Lear CD-ROM have amassed an astonishing amount of useful and scholarly data in one place. The limitations of the work have to do more with the still-evolving medium of the electronic text, and the choice of software that makes the archive less usable than one might like. It is my expectation that the data will survive this generation of e-texts and associated software, and be available for many years as the medium evolves.


1. I have written on this topic elsewhere in EMLS: see http://purl.oclc.org/emls/03-3/bestshak.html#fn1.

2. Patrick Finn, "Reforming the Information Age: formalism and philology on the Net." Mots Pluriel et grands thèmes de notre temps. 19 (2001). <URL: http://www.arts.uwa.edu.au/MotsPluriels/MP1901pf.html>

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2003-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).