Where’s The On-Ramp: Teaching the Diversity of the Past

Three months ago, we put out a call for practical suggestions on diversifying the study of the past in the literary classroom. What motivated this request was the reality that the energizing critical work on race, gender, sexuality, disability, class, and other identity categories that has steadily remapped the contours of our fields hadn’t been reflected in our pedagogical training. How we’d learned to read didn’t match the traditional (even conservative) courses we’d been taught to teach. The survey Matthew TA’d at Princeton, for example, pitched itself as a “Great Books” class and included neither women nor people of color. Such courses, we agreed, offered a thin and misleading view of the past.

The challenge facing us, as we each started new positions at regional institutions, was how, both practically and ethically, we might learn to diversify our syllabi, to decolonize our instructional practices, to resist the exclusionary uses to which canonical texts have been put, and to think alongside students from a wide variety of backgrounds about the resources literature offers the present. In the wake of mounting white supremacist attacks on our fields and professions, such resistant pedagogy seems absolutely critical.

We say “practically” to emphasize the on-the-ground aspects of rethinking one’s curricula. How does one navigate the vast array of potential scholarly and primary texts to choose works and approaches that will resonate with students? What pitfalls should we expect?  And how do we frame our goals in talking to students, to colleagues, and to administrators? How do we find models for the kinds of classes that we want to offer?

Existing Resources

The best part of putting out that call, and of the subsequent two months of reading and conversation, has been learning about a tremendous array of resources that can help as we tackle these questions. Scholarly organizations such as the Medievalists of Color, the Society for Feminist Medieval Scholarship, and In The Middle have focused diversity and inclusivity aims at the center of scholarship and institutional goals, exposing inequities of representation and access, and a number of online resources and bibliographies offer valuable material for theoretical practical consideration. Most directly related to our concerns above is the extremely useful “ FEATURED LESSON RESOURCE PAGE: Race, Racism and the Middle Ages” compiled by TEAMS, the Teaching Association for Medieval Studies. I would be eager to learn about something similar for early modern studies.

Our work has been vastly aided by two bibliographies of scholarly work on race and ethnicity.

  • “Race and Medieval Studies: A Partial Bibliography” was collaboratively generated and published open-access in postmedieval by Jonathan Hsy and Julie Orlemanski.  A PDF can be downloaded here: https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1057%2Fs41280-017-0072-0.pdf
  • The #ShakeRace bibliography was originally developed alongside the 2015 SAA seminar on early modern race, ethnic, and diaspora studies by Hannah Ehrenberg, with Kim F. Hall and Peter Erickson. Located online here , it is still accepting contributions.

Kevin Gannon (@TheTattooedProf) also has collected a number of resources on inclusive and antiracist pedagogy in his own bibliography, here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1YZpOQWOTsps02k4FHVU_TG3eiHMPAinC6Cw10nyFn9g/.

The collection Teaching Tudor-Stuart Women Writers (MLA 2001) <https://www.mla.org/Publications/Bookstore/Options-for-Teaching/Teaching-Tudor-and-Stuart-Women-Writers> offers a number of useful studies of particular writers and resources, and the forthcoming Shakespeare and the Pedagogies of Justice looks promising as well.

We would also like to single out a handful of particular articles that merit special notice. Luke Fidler’s post on the Material Collective, “Teaching Medieval Art History in a Time of White Supremacy,”  offers an incredibly helpful framework for thinking about course planning, from selecting works to study through planning course discussions. Fidler revised the University of Chicago’s Introduction to Medieval Art course with three goals: “to craft a syllabus that would give my students a sense of the disciplinary conversations around medievalism and white supremacy, Islamophobia, and misogyny… to help my students develop skills that would enable them to recognize and respond to these issues in both popular and scholarly discourses… [a]nd, finally, [to help] them to understand the Middle Ages as the rich, diverse era we know it was.”

His approach offers a useful model for literature scholars, bridging from training students in a “concrete analytical skill” to asking them to “ generate their own robust, persuasive critiques.”

Likewise Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah’s account of adding The Ring of the Dove to Columbia’s “Masterpieces of Western Literature” brilliantly shows how making the absences within a syllabus visible might “unsettle” received “narratives.” Ullah offers mapping, metaconversation, shared reading aloud, and context as strategies that might bring students’ own skills of analysis to bear.

Finally, Leila Norako’s post at In the Medieval Middle, “On Courtly Love and Toxic Masculinity,” models how teaching troubadour poetry alongside the manifesto of the Santa Barbara Shooter allows students to better see the “potential subversiveness” of Bisclavret: “we talked about the fact that the entire court is more willing to believe a dog they just met than a woman they have known (and presumably respected) for years.” Norako offers a splendid account of this approach to literary study: “to learn about the past in order to figure out what we have inherited from it and, in doing so, make ourselves better equipped to identify concepts and paradigms that do more harm than good.”

Moving Beyond Resources: What Is the On-Ramp?

As even this brief catalog makes clear, the challenge of developing a diverse, anti-racist, and inclusive pedagogy does not lie solely in a shortage of resources. Critical work on race, gender, and sexuality is particularly well cataloged, and teaching resources focused on approaches to particular texts abound, particularly in medieval studies, thanks to the work of TEAMS, the Material Collective, the BABEL Working Group, Medievalists of Color, and other organizations. (Again, if similar resources exist for early modern studies, please let us know!)

What’s more difficult, particularly for new, contingent, and heavy-load faculty, is navigating and synthesizing this material into forms where it can directly influence their own classrooms. The challenge of mastering these many swift-moving fields often leads to a kind of pedagogical lip service, including a text or two by women or about race, while leaving the basic contours of traditional curricula unchanged. Alternatively, instructors may not anticipate student responses to a new text or reading, leading to troubling or problematic conversations that result in deeper classroom polarization or unexpected concerns. Teaching difference requires skills beyond reading the scholarship, and too often our most marginalized students bear the cost of pedagogical experimentation.

Given these challenges, we wonder, what are the on-ramps to more inclusive teaching? How might we make it easier for a busy teacher to find the mentors, models, and methods they need to do this work? How, in particular, might nonspecialists gather and utilize the ideas developed in the critical literature, in field-specific conferences, and Twitter threads? How, in other words, might we best share tactics for teaching the past inclusively, for decolonizing our pedagogy, and for exposing students to the wide range of difference present in earlier periods?.

We’re eager to listen to and support any efforts along these lines. Specifically, we think, there is a need for resources that help those scholars who are willing to put in time to navigate the tremendous theoretical and practical work across multiple disciplines essential to how we think about identity across the period. How might we best build on others’ insights and refine our own practices?

Sharing Contributions

To that end, we hope continued sharing of syllabi, lesson plans, lecture plans, and other classroom materials. We’re uploading the ten contributions we received to the website Teaching the Middle Ages in Higher Ed, a site operated by Kisha Tracy and open to all teaching ideas for pre-modern periods. There, they’ll join a host of other resources: syllabi, activities, and more.

The submitted tactics range from specific ideas for showing the ways scholarly editions import our own biases into the past to broader themes that can organize a survey focused on “social identities.” The contributors have a wide range of institutions, fields and titles. Some, such as the Early Women Writers project, solicit further contributions and opportunities for change and growth. We wish to thank those who donated their time to responding to our call, as well as the strong interest our project received online, and to Dr. Tracy for making her website available for hosting. We hope that TDP can be part of a broader push to make antiracist, antisexist, anticlassist, etc pedagogy a central part of all early period classrooms across the US and beyond in this deeply fractious sociocultural moment.

Tactics for Teaching Diverse Pasts: A Crowd-Sourced Online Compendium

How do we share the diversity of the past with our students? How can we actively resist white supremacy, patriarchy, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and other modes of oppression? And how might we challenge evolutionary assumptions about progress and modernity which may play into students’ misformed notions of the past?

This weekend at Kalamazoo, we’ve been challenged and inspired by a host of ideas from pedagogy panels and casual conversations. Now we are hoping to gather as many strategies as we can in a shared online collection, to continue and expand the conversation.

We would like propose a casual, informal, no-budget, open-access collection of teaching strategies for diversifying the study of early texts. We’re seeking concrete ideas that have worked in your literature classrooms: exercises, texts, critical lens, assignments, and other ideas. The goal is less polished writing than a kind of public brainstorming and sharing of ideas that work.

We’d like to request submissions that map out a single teaching idea that has worked in your classroom. Submit ideas using our online form before June 15, 2018.

Submissions should include the following information:
• Title
• Type of Institution
• What kind of class you’ve used this tactic in (upper- or lower-level, in-person or online, approximate size)
• The tactic itself
• Why and how it was effective, any problems you faced, and what you might do differently next time
• Amount of time required, in class and for any homework assignments

Submissions will be collected, organized, and uploaded to a website (likely WordPress) for others to use, adapt, and share.

Boyda Johnstone (Borough of Manhattan Community College/CUNY)

Matthew Harrison (West Texas A&M)

Scavenger Hunt

I had my Shakespeare 4352 students do a research database scavenger hunt on the second day of class. Since I got so much help from Twitter, I’m sharing the questions here.

•Find a word in Shakespeare’s Sonnets that draws its etymology from each of (a) Latin, (b) Old French, and (c) Anglo-Saxon. (Three words! Not one.)
•Find a word in Shakespeare’s Sonnets that Samuel Johnson defines in his Dictionary.
•Find a 17th c. ballad about Titus Andronicus. If you’re first, start it playing in the classroom.
•Find images of costumes from productions of Titus Andronicus in at least three different centuries.
•One of Shakespeare’s sources for Titus Andronicus is book 6 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Find an English translation. Then, find the English translation Shakespeare would have used.
•What pages of the First Folio contain Titus Andronicus?
•Find a phrase from one of our sonnets for today in another early modern book. Get an image of that page.
•How far was the Clink from the location of Shakespeare’s Globe? Prove it by showing me an annotated map.
•Find images of Shakespeare productions on at least six continents. (I haven’t been able to find any from Antarctica yet.)
What about video?
•Find 3 productions of a single play on our syllabus directed by women. Heck, find three all-female productions of a play on our syllabus. Find three all-male ones.
•List 15 actresses who have played Lavinia.
• There’s an image on the back of this page. What does it represent? Why is it important?

Desire Is Pattern: Notes and Links

My talk at MLA riffs on ideas that were developed for my contribution to the forthcoming Arden Sonnets: State of Play volume, edited by Hannah Crawforth, Elizabeth Scott-Baumann, and Clare Whitehead. Here, I want to provide additional resources, links, and notes. I’d be glad to email the text of my talk to anyone who might find it useful.


The beautiful kaleidoscope images come from two artists’ collections on Flickr. With Crystal A Murray, start with this album. Jim Bumgardner combines other images into his beautiful fields; the one I used is “Mini Kaleids,” available in higher resolution here.


The poem with which I began is from Jen Bervin’s Nets (2014), from Ugly Duckling Press (web version).

Ross Goodwin wrote the Sonnetizer program as well as the collection of its output: Ten Thousand Sonnets.


Lyn Hejinian’s essay “The Rejection of Closure“, Eileen Joy’s “Weird Reading“, and Bruce Andrews’s “Electronic Poetics” are all available online.


My Graduate School Statement

Wesley Raabe has just posted his Statement of Interest for graduate school here, and I am immediately struck by its similarities and differences to my own, which I’m pasting below. Here, too, I see the effort to demonstrate interest and establish, if not expertise at least some sense of the lay of the land. I’m much less able to prove my chops than he was, and my final paragraph is much weaker.


I took my first literature courses so that I could learn to write better poetry. In my first year at Columbia, I leapt at the chance to study with practicing poets. Listening to Paul Violi and Charles
Bernstein’s readings of poems stretched my understanding of what poetry was and how it could work: I still have my side of an email exchange with Professor Bernstein in which we debated whether a physical object, like a brick, could be a poem. After a semester of this sort of stretching, I took a course in Shakespeare almost to relax myself, confident that I would find something central in his sonnets and plays in light of which Zukofsky and Eigner and Silliman
could be safely identified as peripheral. Instead, Anne Prescott’s Shakespeare I lectures—fascinating both in their insight and in their insistence on the fundamental weirdness of the period—led me to take her English Renaissance course. And there I stumbled upon Richard

Stanyhurst’s verse translation of the Aeneid astounded me. It was preposterous in effect, but the very extent of his failure made it seem possible to read through his obscure orthography to understand what it was that he was trying to accomplish. I cross-referenced his lines to those in Mandelbaum’s translation, and then Surrey’s and Pahyer’s, and ultimately back to my Latin textbook to figure out certain difficult locutions. Similarly, naive searching through Literature Online led me to many of the classic works on poetry of the period: Gascoigne’s Certayne Notes, Sidney’s Defence, Campion’s Observations and Daniel’s response, and parts of the exchange between Thomas Nash and Gabriel Harvey.

I don’t really know whether my immersion in the language of these texts caused me to develop an interest, or if an incipient interest made me immerse myself, but by the end of that week of heavy reading, I was in up to my eyebrows. The vitality and energy of the language was a small revelation in itself, but even more appealing was the moral importance these writers assigned to the questions of poetics that I had studied the year before. Underscoring their debates about
rhyme, meter, and language were larger questions about the morality of fictions and the nature of the world.

My next two years were busy ones—I ran for, and was elected student body president and wrote a senior thesis on Columbia’s student center—but I stayed fascinated by these texts and these questions. I took elective courses on the English Renaissance whenever I could, and, my senior year, I signed up for seminars on Marlowe and Shakespeare and an independent study with Molly Murray on Sir Philip Sidney. The two long papers I wrote that semester—about Sidney’s uneasy triangulation among “will,” “wit,” and “Virtue” and Marlowe’s treatment of the material objects in desire—quickly became variations on a theme. Both papers began as investigations into the mechanics of desire in these texts, exploring how these two authors exploited the inevitable gaps between desire and its representations to create dramatic tension and elicit affective response. Ultimately I argued that in the small moments of substitution, elision and exchange through which these representations were manipulated, Marlowe and
Sidney found a new source of dramatic energy and a new way of conceiving of character.

As I work towards my Ph. D. in English Literature, I plan to continue to investigate the aesthetic strategies of early modern verse fictions in light of the heated arguments about the proper functions, style, and subject matter for verse itself. I am particularly interested in considering the negative conceptions of “sweetness” in early modern lyrics—baits, “sugred lies,” and “balductum”—in light of similar problems laid out in period poetics and anti-poetic polemics: that poetry induces sinfulness, that poets are liars, and that rhyme, as Campion writes, produces “childish titillation.”

Princeton’s graduate program in English stands out for me as a place to continue my studies, primarily because of its first-rate faculty. In talking with my professors and reviewing course catalogs, curricula vitae, and faculty publications, I have learned that the Princeton department is particularly strong in poetics, aesthetics, and the intellectual history of the early modern period. I would be thrilled to work with many of the scholars in the department: Jeff Dolven’s
knowledge of the early modern cultural debates around poetry coupled with his interest in style and metrics would be invaluable for my own research, and Lawrence Danson’s skill in reading and interpreting dramatic language would aid greatly in developing my facility with the
same. Moreover, the entire department’s commitment to teaching will help me in my efforts to become an undergraduate teacher. Though I hope that the remainder of my career is full of as many profitable detours and changes of directions as it has been so far, I would be honored if Princeton could be my next step.

Surfaces. About Surfaces

Claude Willan’s recent piece—“We write sentences. About sentences.”—has been rumbling through the spin cycle of my brain. The problem, as usually with Claude, is that he’s right and yet I disagree with him.

The climax of Claude’s argument comes in the following formulation:

DH allows us to create objects about objects.

Or, rather, to zoom out just a little:

[A]t its most generative and plural, DH allows us to create objects about objects.

As you might expect, given the structuring logic of this paragraph, my disagreement is going to land somewhere between zoomed-in and zoomed-out. But first, to gloss his idea somewhat, because it’s really tremendously productive. To say that DH creates objects about objects is to imply three suggestions about the future of the field:

  1. That the digital project—the “object” that is created—should be acknowledged as a serious mode of scholarship and respected in tenure review, hiring, and so forth.
  2. That the “objects” that we make (as well as at least some of the “objects” that we study) might be encountered productively through the rich lens of object studies. (We need to think still more, I think, about how scholarly databases, visualizations, and other such productions might be agential. How they work as “mediators” in Latour’s sense, transforming the data they represent.)
  3. That “aboutness” is a relation that one object can have to another. The close of his piece, as I take it, maps out one type of aboutness—a network analysis that demonstrates that one poem is more central to Jacobean social networks than another and therefore more likely to be historically important (in whatever sense we care to intend) than it.

(I’m with him on 1 & 2, and likely to roll my eyes at 3, even as I eagerly take his results at face value.)

But I want to articulate an alternative model of a plural and generative digital humanities, one that I think has a longer history within literary studies than we’ve been willing to address. A tentative formulation:

“We make surfaces. About surfaces.”

*    *    *

First, an object, or rather part of one.

<div1 xml:id="Son"> 
<div2 xml:id="Son-001" n="1"> 
<milestone unit="line" xml:id="Son-001-01" n="1" corresp="#w0000010 #c0000020 #w0000030 #c0000040 #w0000050 #c0000060 #w0000070 #c0000080 #w0000090 #c0000100 #w0000110 #p0000120"/> 
<w xml:id="w0000010" n="1.1">From</w> 
<c xml:id="c0000020" n="1.1"> </c> 
<w xml:id="w0000030" n="1.1">fairest</w> 
<c xml:id="c0000040" n="1.1"> </c> 
<w xml:id="w0000050" n="1.1">creatures</w> 
<c xml:id="c0000060" n="1.1"> </c> 
<w xml:id="w0000070" n="1.1">we</w> 
<c xml:id="c0000080" n="1.1"> </c> 
<w xml:id="w0000090" n="1.1">desire</w> 
<c xml:id="c0000100" n="1.1"> </c> 
<w xml:id="w0000110" n="1.1">increase</w> 
<pc xml:id="p0000120" n="1.1">,</pc>

This is a small snippet of the XML code that organizes the Folger Digital Texts edition of The Sonnets, encoding the very beginning of Shakespeare’s sequence. Even without much experience with encoded texts, one can make out a careful structure here in the patterns of anaphora and parenthesis. The code marks the beginning of the document, of the Sonnets text, and of the first sonnet, each enclosing the next like nested baskets. Then, it defines a new unit, a “line,” and lists the units that comprise it. Finally, each word, punctuation character, and space is given its own address. The code carefully recreates our mental model of a book composed of poems themselves composed of lines and so forth.

When we look at the resulting text on the website, it bears a close resemblance to the Folger* edition on which it is based. “From fairest creatures we desire increase,” we read, in familiar Times New Roman. Yet for this purpose, all that structuring hierarchy was unnecessary: one need not name every comma and space to display a line of text on screen. Rather, structuring information is encoded into the Sonnets so that we can read against and around it: we might ask for every line containing the word “desire,” the first word of every line that isn’t preceded by a comma (a punctuation character), or a list of the words in the document organized by frequency. (The first and third of these are already possible using the Folger Digital Texts site.) We might readily enough display the poems in reverse, or in the orders suggested by Brents Stirling, Denys Bray, or Arthur Acheson. Or, imitating Raymond Queneau, we might explore the billions of poems emerging when the first line of one poem is combined with the second of another, and so forth.

The object here—the Folger Digital Texts edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets—enfolds into form a host of possibilities that were already present in the sequence. What we realize, looking at this encoded sonnet sequence is that structure (or form) is not the opposite of deformance, distortion, and rearrangement—it is its precondition. Without knowing what a line is, implicitly or explicitly, we can’t refer to a certain line and certainly can’t rearrange it. For an example, imagine a second encoding scheme organized not around the units of the Folger text (sonnet, line, word, character, punctuation) but some other constructs that would offer totally different affordances: say, syllable, phrase, quatrain or couplet, and poetic grouping according to the scheme of Neil Rudenstine. We could then algorithmically call up the closing phrase of each quatrain of the Rival Poet poems. Or substitute the closing couplets of the Young Man sonnets into the Dark Lady poems. Again, the categories that order the code enable what can be done with it. Someone interested in the material book might prefer a third schema—say, edition, copy, gathering, page, line, mark—and its own possibilities for reference and rearrangement. A given text admits many potential organizational schemas, and, in structuring a text, these models allow for its manipulation. This, I think, is the key insight of Michael Witmore in “Text: A Massively Addressable Object”: that what is fundamental about our conceptual engagement with texts is our ability to formulate many such schemas and to use them to engage with textual specifics at many levels of scale.

For Witmore (and, in a different sense, for Willan), what is useful here is the ways that massive computational power will allow us to use our encoded structures to test our concepts against the data. Willan writes that the digital humanities offer “extraordinary supplements and methodological improvements through durable and measurable principles of selection.” We might read, he suggests, “the most important sentences.”

But when we read recent monographs and journals, it seems clear to me that there’s another sort of argument that DH is teaching us to build, one that is not at all concerned with “methodology” as something that can be improved or “principles of selection” that can endure. A type of argument by juxtaposition, comparison, analogy, and suggestion, made possible by deep databases and long lists of searches. Some of our best critics work by collage, holding up fragments in a web of their own making that transforms the ‘objects’ of study as much as it illuminates them. Or, to try for a less badly mixed metaphor, I love it when critics offer me hand-written maps of impossible locales, detailing possibilities that weren’t or that are not yet.

You can probably hear that I’m borrowing from Johanna Drucker and Eileen Joy here—but there’s actually a long history of scholars of electronic textuality thinking less about knowledge-as-important-fact than how we choose to arrange and derange the infinitely-arrangeable text:

“[A] cybertext is not a static artefact. The conditions of its existence are tenuous, a feature that can be exploited for aesthetic purposes through continual morphing. If a text is in a profound sense produced in each reading, and if no text is ever fully self-identical, then cybertexts embody those premises with even greater flexibility.”Drucker, “Poetics of Electronic Textuality”

Always becoming, cyberpoems are emergent, heterological and heterogeneous in their constant spooling, transferences, hyperlinking and recomposition. the poem has shifted from bricolage to morphosis…. Made of textual typographic fragments constantly moving into and out of focus, resolution and degrees of proximity, the cyberpoem is more like an installation or event than a document etched in metal or printed on paper. The reader navigates through a sea of signs visiting information ports. There is no horizon line and any scratched in reference to one is nostalgic since we see beyond what the naked eye can see via satellites, microscopes, cable and data mirrors. Brereton, “The CyberPoetics of Typography”

Our scholarly inventio and dispositio, at this moment, at least, is mirrored in our artifacts: arrangement is both arbitrary and essential, an attempt to model in flat text our glimpses of morphosis. We read less the text than the work surface that we assemble around and with the text. Or rather: we make surfaces about surfaces.

And if we follow this line of thought backwards, from electronic text to cybertext to cyberpoem, we end up not with computers at all, but with form, that precondition of all disruption.

Writing’s forms are not merely shapes but forces; formal questions are about dynamics—they ask how, where, and why the writing moves, what are the types, directions, number, and velocities of a work’s motion. Hejinian, “The Rejection of Closure”

The unity of a work is not a closed symmetrical whole, but an unfolding dynamic integrity. . . . The sensation of form in such a situation is always the sensation of flow (and therefore of change)…. Art exists by means of this interaction or struggle. Tynianov, cited in Hejinian

Today’s criticism is always a scrambling and re-arranging of yesterday’s. Here, an account of the unfolding of a text’s form in time becomes spatialized in Hejinian, who is interested in the dynamics of field composition. Brereton allegorizes, turning the movement of characters on screen into a figure for such dynamics. And Drucker is one of many critics who abstracts this move once more, from typography to identity. What these accounts share is a sense of reading as navigating a constantly shifting field of significance, simultaneously prompted by the text and invented by the reader.

This is, I think, a fair shorthand for many of our critical practices now. We have searches open in tabs, database queries, poems, all arrayed on the darkling plains of our minds and we start to draw connections, start to assemble not objects exactly but fields of meaningful relation that we can sketch out again for others. Richard Blackmur writes, on another topic:

No one can improve upon the accidentally established order we possess; but everyone can invite himself to feel the constant interflow of new relations, of new reticulations–as if the inner order were always on the move…

This “constant interflow of new relations, of new reticulations,” is to me the great pleasure and achievement of criticism. Blackmur, of course, is talking about that early cyber-text, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and its ability to constantly shift under the pressures of reading and interpretation, taking on new forms and new orders in response to our gambits about its structure and meaning. From a 21st-century perspective, Blackmur’s is just about the final word on Shakespeare studies’s own critical history of rearranging and restructuring, distorting and deforming, morphosis and bricolage. From Charles Knight in the 19th century, or even John Benson in the 17th, Shakespeare’s sequence has provoked editors and readers to reimagine it, moving, adding, deleting, and combining poems.

Reading descriptions of these rearrangers’ processes–spreading the poems out on a desk or table or floor and starting to trace connections—I see shades of Brereton’s cyber-reader, trying to bring order to a constantly shifting morphosis. I see Bruce Andrews’s active electronic reader:

We can think of the textual surface as an instrument panel, the screen as a flat & opaque workspace, given enormous fluidity, activating the user’s body. Action replaces both the passive representation of conventional literature & the passive spectacle of animated, programmed work. It embraces navigation, micro-evaluations, conceptual animation, freeze-framing, editing, blending, filtering, subliminal cut & paste, time compressions & expansions, frame resizing: practically everything we need to sidetrack closure.(from “Electronic Poetics“)

I see myself, cutting and pasting to see how one poem, one argument, one idea sparkles in the light of another. I see the invention and arrangement of an endlessly productive surface.

Let me be clear: these re-arranging critics have failed from the point of view of history, unable to convince us of their evidence, much less their claims. Their names (Arthur Acheson, Samuel Butler, Clara de Chambrun, and so forth) no longer appear in our editions. Their work now seems out-dated, responsive to historical speculation we find absurd and ethical concerns we no longer share. In the absence of evidence, we’ve largely given up the questions they’ve tackled as impossible (when we’re feeling charitable) or uninteresting (when we’re not). But, then, this will happen to most of us, too.

What remains, what attracts my eye when I’m reading their work and what I’m laying out on the table for you is this: their misguided work of ingenuity really does ignite the poems with new possibilities. Their criticism, by all standards of contemporary discourse, is flawed, suspect, unreadable, unimportant.

And yet it moves.

Thanks to Laura Kolb for comments on a draft of this post.
*An earlier version said “Signet,” because I got my editions mixed up. Thanks to Sarah Werner for pointing this out!

Oceans of Perpetual Parts

(This is the second of a pair of bloggy, drafty, experimental posts, in which I play around with the ideas at the heart of a forthcoming essay. (The first one, “Dispatches from the Sonnet Mines,” is here.) These posts may vamoose as their ideas become more refined elsewhere, but for now, it is helpful writing for an audience.)


Screen Shot 2015-07-23 at 4.06.25 PM

The 18th sonnet of Ross Goodwin’s collection meditates on the idea of sequence, “distill[ing]”  the tyranny of its “trespass” on Shakespeare’s Sonnets into the startling observation that “desire is pattern”: that we “shall/will” (with the customary pun on “Will”) “in others works…see/the judgment that arise[s]” from ourselves. We interpret the material through the bevel lens of our own desires. But rather than rejecting such fantastic interpretation—our “nimble thought story”— the poem courts it, describing a sort of “good slander.” Not least in its pun on “render”— meaning both to transform and to represent—the sonnet imagines readers and texts might improve each other, making both “worthier” and more splendid.

To offer this reading is partially to indulge myself: Goodwin’s sonnet is one of ten thousand written by a program named Sonnetizer.py that rearranges the language of a textual corpus—here, Shakespeare’s Sonnets—into poems of fourteen lines of ten syllables, rhyming in the traditional pattern. The patterns I trace are not authorial—not even intentional—save in the play of my mind against the algorithm, a nimble thought story of my own creation. Rather, bits and pieces of Shakespeare’s text have drifted together, billowing up into dunes of association. We might say, in fact, that the very volatility of these elements in Shakespeare’s text infuses this poem with meaning against its Will.

After all, Shakespeare’s sequence does interrogate the relation of desire to pattern, repeatedly finding a type of loving anachronism in which desire transforms the meanings we make of the world. Goodwin’s (or Sonnetizer’s, or Shakespeare’s) sonnet asks that we read with the same loving eyes that enable—for example—the speaker of Shakespeare’s sonnet 98 to find all of nature “but figures of delight, / Drawn after you, you pattern of all those” (98.11-12). We find that same time of loving reading in 114:

Or whether shall I say, mine eye saith true,

And that your love taught it this alchemy,

To make of monsters and things indigest

Such cherubins as your sweet self resemble,

Creating every bad a perfect best,

As fast as objects to his beams assemble?

Goodwin’s sonnet, we might say, weaves together several strands that run through Shakespeare’s lyric in a way that admits and even prompts reading them together: the sonnet speaker’s idolatrous reading of his beloved in the world melds with the Sonnets accounts of loving interpretation (as in, for instance, poem 32).  Rearranging sense (and even syntax), we invent a pattern that precedes our making.

One of the facts of the reception of Shakespeare’s sonnets, from its very first moments, is precisely this desire to rearrange them, to find in and make of them what we want to hear. Jaggard in 1599, Benson in 1640, quite possibly Thorpe in 1609 move, combine and change poems. Subsequent anthologizers made habits of pulling the poems into new contexts, while a long line of re-arrangers set out to find the true order of the sonnet sequence. Nor are we innocent of this urge: the clusters by which we understand the poems (both the binary division between Young Man and Dark Lady and the more tentative splitting off that forms groups like the Rival Poet series) are distinctly modern ways of threading our minds through the text. So, too, more ambitious writers: Goodwin’s Sonnetizer, of course, but also K. Silem Mohammed’s brilliant Sonnagrams, which each contain every letter of their source poem while producing a strange and unexpected new creation.

To be sure, the process of reordering Shakespeare’s sonnets now seems both old-fashioned and misguided: we have taken Annemarie Jagose’s point (in Lesbian Utopics) that both efforts to defend and to revise the sonnet sequence are “structured by the closet” (89), positing a true (and inevitably sexual) meaning at the heart of the seqence only made visible by reading right.  Even the notion of a ‘true’ or ‘secret’ meaning seems somewhat outdated, accustomed as we are to thinking about texts as distributed networks of significance that shift somewhat under the weight of interpretation. But Goodwin’s example suggests another way of thinking of such strategies: as experiments in bringing out the dynamics of an interpretive field. How different, I wonder, is my building a reading of one of Sonnetizer’s sonnets from my developing an argument from the results of a “full-text search”? Or, for that matter, from Arthur Acheson’s assembly (and subsequent reading) of a group of poems containing “mine eye”? In what follows, I want to read a pair of contemporary poets’ engagements with the sonnets as a means of thinking about critical practice, juxtapostion, and associative reading.

Paul Hoover’s Sonnet 56 is a series of riffs on Shakespeare’s poem in a variety of forms, from the Oulippan (noun plus seven, homosyntactic) through the traditional (villanelle, sestina, limerick, haiku). Most interesting, I think, are those in which tight constraints transpose Shakespeare’s imagistic and conceptual density into a thick linguistic materiality, as this moment, from “Alphabetical I” (“and as again allayed although appetite”):


love let love like love love

more might more may makes more

not new

of oceans of

perpetual parts

In compressed form, we see the insistant pleading of the Young Man sonnets, the potentiality they conjure up to figure desire as abundance (“more might,” “more may”—“makes more”), and their omnipresent worry about death and time. Against the pretense of novelty implicit in the sonnet form, with its constant new beginnings and new metaphors, we are reminded that this is “not new,” rather a swirling sea that recombines and juxtaposes the same fragments.

My point is not the appeal of the now-familiar poetics of fragmentation, parody, and distortion: it is the value of a criticism of reassembly and recuperation, of trawling through the “oceans of perpetual parts.” In the blogpost with which Hoover introduces this volume, the poet alludes to Pierre Joris’s Nomad Poetics, which distinguishes between (on the one hand) “collage,… an aesthetics of the fragment…” and a “material flux of language matter, moving in & out of semantic & non-semantic spaces, moving around & through the features accreting as poem.”

(Joris’s description of what it means to read such a poem reminds me of Andrews, Acheson, Butler and Mayer in my last post:

The lines move freely & the reader cranes her neck, twist herself around in order to follow the contour of the lines of writing, then steps back to grasp a figure, moves in again to read — & while reading can no longer “see” the organised, striated space of the figural volumes which themselves now dissolve into lines-of-flight…


I’ve got a lot to say here, and were this post not on the verge of disintegrating under its own centrifugal force, I’d say it. So let me grab back onto my thesis: what is crucial about the sonnet sequence, as a genre, is its contantly shifting affiliations among poems, the resonances and dissonances that let one poem reappear momentarily in another. But to read such affiliations, to trace such connections and hold them up to the light, is always partially creative, picking and choosing among many possibilities. It is “invention,” finding what may or may not be already there.

One image for such reassembly comes in Jen Bervin’s volume Nets, which erases words from Shakespeare’s Sonnets to create new poems. The original text is printed in a light gray, with a few words bolded to make a new poem. Sonnet 8 thus turns into the following lyric meditation, in part about this fragmentary volume itself:

In singleness the parts

Strike each in each

speechless song, being many, seeming one.

Where Goodwin’s algorithmic sonnets maximize the horizontal extensivity of Shakespeare’s sequence, stretching it out into a vast landscape of perpetually re-arranging parts, Bervin maximizes their vertical intensity, finding in a single composed moment.  As her Sonnet 130 asserts:



the whole, and yet I am not

Here, too, there’s a poetic history that’s being engaged: Ronald Johnson’s beautiful erasure of “Paradise Lost,” concrete poetry, early work on cyberpoetics. But what seems really striking is the way these poems resonate with recent work on digital editing.

The web versions of Bervin’s poems look similar to the book’s versions, until you mouseover, at which point the grayed text disappears, leaving only the small version. As such, they resemble the visualizations Alan Galey constructed for Shakespearean cruces for his Visualizing Variation project: animated text boxes that allow readers to read multiple versions of a given line, like Hamlet’s “Oh that this too, too sullied/solid/sallied flesh would melt…”. Drawing on many of the same traditions that seem to have influenced Bervin, Galey proposes that digital techniques enable readers to encounter textual variation “not as a problem to be solved, but as a field of interpretive possibility.” (http://individual.utoronto.ca/alangaley/visualizingvariation/) We need not, of course, limit ourselves to textual variation: Bervin’s animations open up a still broader field of possibilities, within the “interpretive field” of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

And indeed, among the affordances of digital editions more generally is their availability for sequence-breaking, for deformative reading, and data-mining. These contemporary poets help us to think through the possibilities of such strategies, what they can tell us about Shakespeare and ourselves.

A Dispatch from the Sonnet Mines

(Following the lead of Karl Steel, I’m blogging my efforts to put together this article. This post may disappear at some point, but for now it’s here, as a monument at least to the slipperiness of my ideas.)

Let me start with two scenes of reading. First, a methodological proposal by Arthur Acheson in his 1922 volume, Shakespeare’s Sonnet Story, which seeks to restore Shakespeare’s sequence to its original order. Midway through explaining his method to an imagined skeptical reader, he suggests an experiment:

[T]ake two copies of the Sonnets in Thorpe’s order… cut out the leaves and spread the sonnets out from one to one hundred and twenty-six, and for the present forgetting my chronological order or Thorpe’s sequential order, move the sonnets here and there, grouping them according to subject or theme, they will be found to divide naturally into seven groups… (xxi)

Having found these groups, “any intelligent student” will be able to arrange the sonnets within them consecutively, and then, “a working knowledge of the chronological order of the plays and the progressive development of Shakespeare’s style” (xxii) will suffice to arrange the groups chronologically. And voila! The first 126 sonnets, reorganized.

Acheson cannot quite stick to his rhetoric of ease, determined as he is to prove his knowledge and labor. We learn that when a student tries this method, after a few weeks work, he, “not having as intimate a knowledge of the sonnet story, failed to give the sequences the same consecutive order, and having considered the subject for a very much shorter time, his order within the sequences differed somewhat from mine…” (xx). And, indeed, when he describes this method yet again, 60 pages later, he adds that he has spent two decades re-evaluating and reconsidering. A story that intends to demonstrate, immediately and clearly, the manifest rightness of a given order becomes instead a prescription for a lifetime of reading: constant evaluations and judgment, appealing to many types of knowledge and tempered by ones own “preconception and obsession” (45).

With this account, I want to juxtapose Bruce Andrews, writing in 2003 about the practice of reading electronic poetry:

We can think of the textual surface as an instrument panel, the screen as a flat & opaque workspace, given enormous fluidity, activating the user’s body. Action replaces both the passive representation of conventional literature & the passive spectacle of animated, programmed work. It embraces navigation, micro-evaluations, conceptual animation, freeze-framing, editing, blending, filtering, subliminal cut & paste, time compressions & expansions, frame resizing: practically everything we need to sidetrack closure.

The field has rotated 90 degrees: replacing the flat surface on which Acheson “spread out” and then “moved” the sonnets (44), is a different sort of desktop. But the set of operations Andrews describes are precisely those undertaken by Acheson’s hypothetical rearranger: navigating and evaluating, animating and compressing, sorting and blending.

In juxtaposing these two moments, I intend to relate a very recent set of questions—about digital reading, digital editions, and the future of the humanities—with very old ones about Shakespeare’s sonnets, their order, and the connections between them. Lev Manovich has proposed that the database replaced the narrative as the defining form of “the computer age.” Where narrative draws a privileged line through disparate events, the database offers multiple orders, mediated by user and interface, with temporal sequence at most one of them. Database forms—the list, the matrix, the catalog, the encyclopedia—offer up not cause-and-effect or similar devices of sequential comprehension, but rather a topology that can be traversed in multiple ways. As such, databases lend themselves to what Alan Liu has called (in contemporary criticism) “micro-, hetero-, and play-ism”: attention to the free range of small differences, to the motility of the detail within a matrix of larger forces. Manovich’s target is the limited ambition of new media projects that emulate the grammar of narrative; Liu’s theoretical assumptions underlying the turn towards detail in literary criticism. My point will only be that we’ve been here before.

In all these cases, what is at stake is how to close-read a field, a network, a database. Acheson and Andrews both imagine reading as an active, evaluative, and even creative engagement with a world of almost infinitely recombinable texts. Against the more or less sequential organization of the individual textual element—left to right, top to bottom, beginning to end—, the work surface maps a terrain of association and adjustment, visual hierarchy and serendipitous connection, that constantly shifts under us. A series of recent critical turns (new historical, rhetorical, sociological, digital) has put new pressures on the shapes of our argument: we think now less in terms of adjacency and sequence than of distributed intensities and networks of association. Laying tabs out like sonnets on the desk, we trawl through EEBO and the MLA bibliography, the DNB and the OED, tracing and inventing the connections that make meaning. We have many terms for our resistance to teleologies and sequence—queer theory, weird reading, material philology, “medium-close reading,” and so forth—but these different approaches share a sense of the power of relation, of the way one detail may sparkle in the light cast by another. Eileen Joy writes:

Any given moment in a literary work (all the way down to specific words and even parts of words, and all the way up to the work as a whole), like any object or thing, is “fatally torn” between its deeper reality and its “accidents, relations, and qualities: a set of tensions that makes everything in the universe possible, including space and time,” and literary criticism might re-purpose itself as the mapping of these (often in- and non-human) tensions and rifts, as well as of the excess of meanings that might pour out of these crevasses, or wormholes.  [Weird Reading, 30]

Sonnet sequence criticism, I will suggest, is constantly wrestling with such excess, caught between the infinite interperability of the text and our awareness that the patterns we find are always in some sense our own desires refracted back to us. Shakespeare’s Sonnets have long invited us to confront our own methodologies, to reflect on which connections we are justified in making. Always at stake in our readings is the status of literary argument itself: how do the patterns observed by a critic come to mean? After all, from the efflorescence of glosses in Stephen Booth’s edition through the tremendous mass of criticism, we are confronted with an overabundance of significance at every level. We have, as F. T. Prince writes, “far more evidence than we can hope to exhaust the meaning of.” (review of Rollins).

What I am working on, I suspect, is a type of Weird Critical History, in which a chance relation—between the problems of reading sonnet sequences and those of a database-driven but qualitative humanities—offers an opportunity to reinvigorate both sets of questions. I’m still debating how to structure the larger piece—by metaphor, by intertext, by modern reading—but I want to put up one section I’m working through.

Sequence and Relation

The sonnet is among the most architectural of the lyric forms: well-shaped, square, with familiar furniture and clearly articulated functions. Indeed, for me, at least, to read a sonnet is to think through the relationship between this artifactuality and its immediacy: the vivid turn, the gathering or exhausting force of the couplet. One metaphor we might adopt is Stefano Boselli’s, the sonnet as “a tiny chamber black-box theater whose essential walls are its limited verses.” Something is made and something is said and somehow we dwell in the utterance until we make sense of it.

And then there is another sonnet. We find ourselves in another room, another utterance, and we begin again the process of reading. As A.C. Hamilton writes, “A sonnet shines brilliantly for the moment that it is read, only to fade entirely before the next sonnet.” Sonnet sequences, he writes, are like “stars against a black sky rather than related points on a narrative line.” And yet in fading, sonnets do not vanish: to read a whole sonnet sequence in a sitting is to be faced with the constant return of things half-forgotten. Even reading two or three sonnets together, one sees in these stars the beginning of a constellation, imagined lines of connection giving a shaping form to these isolated objects. Hamilton’s metaphor, then, offers a color-inverted version of the field we encountered in Acheson and Andrews, in Bernadette Mayer at the head of this section, and elsewhere in the sonnet criticism. (Samuel Butler, for instance, describes laying two copies of the sonnets out on a desktop and “shift[ing] them again and again tentatively till I had got them into the order in which I have printed them.”)

As readers, we sally on with two contradictory strategies: we respond to the densely folded, carefully staged moment of the particular poem, rife with what Lyn Hejinian refers to as “vertical intensity,” as well as a slow, haphazard sense of repetition and association that animates and alienates what we have already read (Hejinian’s “horizontal extensivity” [“Rejection of Closure,” 1). The first timeline is the one in which we work out the complicated, enjambed tease of the first lines of Shakespeare’s sonnet 13:

“O that you were yourself, but love you are

No longer yours than you yourself here live.

Against this coming end you should prepare…”

In the second timeline, we hear something else, the radical charge with which this first “you” bursts into the sequence, transforming the series’s erotic intensity. With it, “love” reaches new heights: what was empty “self-love” in 3, purely visual “loveliness” and lovely” of 4 and 5, and kind affection in 9 and 10’s “love towards others” and “love to any” becomes the deeply possessive and personal vocatives that bookend this poem (in lines 1 and 13). I am not trying to suggest that reading one poem we compare the semantic range of each of its lexical items against all prior ones: I certainly could not have told you how the word “love” shifted until I checked. But this effect—and others like it—are very much part of the radical surprise of this poem’s first line. At least in the order of the poems as given by Thorpe in 1609, it is here that the Young Man becomes beloved.

Other words, images, and conceits similarly become laden with meaning as one reads, though the particulars change with every reading and reader. Richard Blackmur writes, “No one can improve upon the accidentally established order we possess; but everyone can invite himself to feel the constant interflow of new relations, of new reticulations—as if the inner order were always on the move.” Arguments about the order of the sonnets continually appeal to our sense of such connections, whether in defense of the current order—Don Patterson: “The sequence has been ordered in a meticulously careful, sensitive and playful way that can only indicate the author’s hand” (Guardian piece)—or opposition to it:

“Look how the conventional sonnets shed much of their conventionality, become purposeful and ennobled as thy return to their rightful place; how each sonnet over and above its own graciousness takes on a deeper meaning and an added beauty as a living part of the majestic whole. And whose pleasure is not quickened on reading the beloved words anew in the even march of sonnet after sonnet from opening to close, the mind distracted and disturbed no longer, as in the Quarto, by incongruity of idea or mood or subject.” (Denys Bray, 43)

And indeed, reading rearrangements, however skeptically, one is sometimes struck with such connections. Bringing together sonnets 62 and 22, for instance, Bray’s edition teases out the dialectic of “self-love” and difference in these two poems about looking in the mirror, letting their interest in beauty and comparison transform sonnet 18 which here follows them. So, too, Clara de Chambrun has sonnet 43 delightfully repair 113: one poem meditating on how absence distorts the features of the world, making the eye untrue during the day, and the second reflecting on the eye’s best sight at night, when dreams portray the the beloved. The couplet now neatly closes both poems:

All days are nights to see till I see thee,

And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

Such moments of resonance have a strange status. We are right to be skeptical that they are signals to some hidden true order, right perhaps to doubt that they are intentional at all. Yet in aggregate, the slow accumulation of such effects, even more so than any narrative, is what makes reading a sonnet sequence so rich. Alice Notley refers to it as a “relational tension” (667, describing The Sonnets of Ted Berrigan): “The pieces of the self are allowed to separate and reform: one is not chronology but its parts and the real organism they create” (4).

Sonnet criticism is increasingly turning from vertical intensity to horizontal extensity as the object of its attention, both within The Sonnets and in the volume’s engagement with the outer world. Critics, we might say, no longer analyze so much as they assemble: we limn networks of association, juxtapose compelling intertexts, meditate on the matrices of forces within which a poem swirls. I’ve long been convinced that a lingering challenge for qualitative digital humanists is to reckon with the stakes of this new close-reading, animated by association rather than structure. (Polemically, I’d say this is an age of critical incunabula, in which insightful acts of assemblage are described as intentional, structural, psychological, or ontological claims. But, then, I’m a contrarian.)

As such, I think it’s time that we engage with these weird sonnet readers, not for their rhetoric but for their topology, for the sparks that fly from the grinding of brains against poems. And when we do, we might recognize the contiguity of their projects with contemporary work on reading digital poetry. Their work on the “links” between poems—associative, imagistic, rhyme, narrative—can be productively read beside Susana Pajares Tosca’s work on the “lyrical quality of hyperlinks” and Peter Whalley’s account of the “rhetoric of hypertext.” So, too, their efforts to shore up narrative through order speaks to Lyn Hejinian’s account of poetic closure. And the continued possibilities of their strategies of rearrangement, erasure, and association, as found in engagements with the Sonnets by contemporary poets like Ross Goodwin, K. Silem Mohammed, Paul Hoover, and Jen Bervin, might help us to rethink the potential of digital editions.

More on all of this soon.

Hamlet Ludens

Recently, I crashed Hamlet. Well, not crashed exactly: on the ‘stage’ of the quiz game, the characters kept bobbing up and down, the music played, the sand ran through an hourglass to mark the passing of time.

But with the machinery of the game itself frozen, the questions failed to descend, and Hamlet and I waited, expect to make a choice but oddly unable to.

Then Laertes stabbed me.

Screen Shot 2015-05-30 at 5.03.20 PM

I’ve been playing and reading about various Hamlet video games over the last couple of weeks for an essay that Michael Lutz and I are working on (tentatively entitled “Weird Shakespeare Tricks”), about adaptation, appropriation, and scholarly methodologies. What attracted us to Hamlet was an easy thematics of choice: as Michael pointed out, to ‘play’ Hamlet is to remedy Hamlet’s refusal of action with your own decisions. Thus, To Be Or Not To Be Ryan North’s tremendously successful choose-your-own adventure book and the game it became) announces that “Now it’s up to YOU to decide what happens next.” So, too, Hamlet: An Interactive Murder Mystery promises that you might become “’whole and complete’ in body and spirit” through “cunning” and “nerves of steel.”

Screen Shot 2015-05-31 at 5.08.26 PM

For all its contrast with Hamlet’s famed inaction, the power fantasy of videogames—solve, advance, level up—accords nicely with that pit in the stomach at the core of tragedy, that childlike wish that things be otherwise. If catharsis purges this emotion, the games promise to cure it: a mode of adaptation that starts as early as Tate’s Lear and runs through YouTube videos like“Ophelia’s Sassy Gay Friend”: “Instead of drowning yourself, you’re going to write a sad poem in your journal, and move on.” (I should mention as well Margaret Atwood’s short, wonderful “Gertrude Talks Back,” which redeems the closet scene and perhaps the whole play.)

Moreover, remediation works in Hamlet. It and stabbing may be the only things that do. At the very least, there are nice parallels between Hamlet’s putting the somewhat archaic theatrical machinery of the past to work and the way games put Hamlet to work. (Indeed, the book form of To Be Or Not To Be has an embedded choose-your-own-adventure book in the place of the play within the play.)

This, at least, was the analogy I was planning on spinning out. Then I started playing the damn games.

Hamlet’s Duel  crashed. Though I finally managed to get it running, I never made it into the titular castle of Castle Elsinore (1984), instead wandering repetitively through a forest somewhere to its south.

Screen Shot 2015-05-30 at 4.38.39 PM

And North’s To Be Or Not To Be is most interesting to me, I think, in the way it constrains choice, lest the possibilities spin out even more endlessly. If you choose to be Ophelia and follow the plot of Shakespeare’s play, eventually the narrator takes over:

“Okay, you do all that stuff. Listen, I’m going to cut our losses here. You’re not allowed to be Ophelia for awhile.

Be Hamlet: turn to page 99

The lack of choice frustrates some readers/players of the text. (Some of the Steam reviews emphasize precisely the way the game forces you down certain pathways.) If Hamlet has long been associated with the freedom of Interactive Fiction—since Hamlet on the Holodeck, at the least—in practice, the experience is often radically not free. Indeed, The Adventures of Reynaldo (2013) dramatizes exactly this problem: no matter which choices you select, Reynaldo dies. The creator writes: “The player’s fate is always locked from the second they click play.“

What is important about Hamlet interactive fiction, I think, is not choice but unfreedom, its recurring sense that one operates in a world shaped by structures that you can partially—but only partially—comprehend. Adaptation studies intrigues me, because it is perhaps the field of literary studies most invested in authorial action: whether we use the language of “remediation,” “collaboration,” and/or “appropriation,” or speak of “social” or “cultural capital.” At least in what I’ve been reading, significance tends to be found in an authorial figure who either transforms the original or deploys its resources for his, her, or its (as in the case of, for instance, corporate Shakespeare) own ends. We might distinguish here between a post-Bloomian critical line that emphasizes authorial moves within the matricies of meaning created by the two texts and a more culturally-inflected one that analyzes social structures of meaning, but then again, we may not. Even cynical accounts, like Ivo Kamps’s representation of Shakespeare criticism as truthless convening around a culturally-significant figure as an occasion for social and political move-making, emphasize what adaptation does.

This is not to accuse these readings of theoretical naiveté, just to point out that even when they’re most attentive to the structures that shape our tastes, desires, and experience, they imagine operating successfully on and within those structures. By contrast, the critical purchase of Hamlet interactive fiction lies elsewhere. Such works, promise all the pleasures of choice, but provide only arbitrary moves, shaped by unpredictable and frustrating structures of constraint. If it is dull to say that this is also Hamlet’s experience, it is also our own. We, too, seek agency within language games structured by various forms of capital.

Hamlet interactive fiction offers the prospect, I think, of an adaptation studies that focuses not the mastery of use but on the experiences of loss, constraint, failure.

Working Thoughts: Sonnets, Wives and Daughters

In volume 25 of the New Variorum, Hyder Rollins writes several appendices on various controversies about the Sonnets: their date, their arrangement, the identity of the Friend, and such. The tone is alternatively exhaustive and exhausted, as the editor wearies into sarcasm under the weight of scholarship in which he sees little value. Of Knight’s proposed rearrangement of Shakespeare’s sonnets, he complains:

Knight’s comments are interesting and modest, but in all innocence, he started a game that promises never to end. If our wives do not write novels and our daughters plays, they are likely on no provocation at all to malarrange Shakespeare’s lyrics.

The insult is targeted more at the (mostly) male arrangers to whom Rollins will turn his jaundiced eye in the rest of the appendix rather than to the wives and daughters it also mocks. Glib and dismissive sexism serves to denigrate the project of rearranging as romantic, amateur, speculative, and playful. Rollins might be the first to say that his gender categories here aren’t total: he would have known the scholarship of Helen Clarke, Charlotte Endymion Porter, Mary Cowden Clarke, Caroline Spurgeon, Una Ellis-Fermor, and Rosemond Tuve, among others. (Or at least, he should, and since I’m ventriloquizing him here, he will.) Rather, the culturally-inflected distinction between serious men and scribbling women operates as a metaphor for the separation of careful, scholarly study of Shakespeare and popular forms of engagement.

We still sometimes discuss this distinction in gendered terms: academic scorn for popular Shakespeare often turns on rejecting ideas of the sentimental, the ‘relatable,’ the romantic, the narrative, and the fantastic. And as Annamarie Jagose has pointed out, the other language for Shakespeare’s Sonnets that we’re now skeptical of is the metaphors of the closet: the secret, the coded, the lock and key. Against both of these, we position what Paul Hecht refers to as the ‘editorial tone’: careful, professional, committed to an ideology of progressive improvement and hiding its idiosyncrasy in careful allusiveness.

But this isn’t, ultimately, how we think about poetic meaning. As much as our editions attempt to pin down, our arguments try to unstick: in the best journals and best monographs, we track “networks of association,” read against “dominant readings,” deconstruct, and reorient. We are alert that texts—sonnet sequences even more, perhaps, than most—distribute meanings over networks that are implicated and imbricated in larger cultural formations, that pulling on one strand causes the whole to vibrate in new frequencies. There is, I insist, something creative in such efforts: at this moment, our discipline is deeply invested in a type of invention that is both finding and making. We play the same never-ending game as the “wives” and “daughters” that Rollins so glibly dismisses, albeit in different institutional structures, with different rhetoric, and with different burdens of sexism and scorn.

One project I’m thinking about this summer is how to revisit their efforts, without condescension, to attend respectfully to their engagements with Shakespeare’s text. I have two problems. The first is archival: is there indeed a neglected archive of “malarrangements” by women that has been excluded from the scholarly tradition? Where should I look for it? Periodicals? Correspondence? And, if there’s not, what makes Rollins think there is?

The second is methodological: in doing this type of work, sociological insights, easy generalizations, and fatuous praise threaten to replace real insights. How do I do justice to the play of mind against text? My inclination is to argue that there’s something hypertextual about the Sonnets, that poems speak to each other across and against their orders, and that re-arrangements are less idle fantasies than attempts to track desire-paths across the text. But more on this later.