Michael John Goodman is my hero researcher of the week. Why? I have just discovered Goodman's Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive (VISA), created during his time as an English Lit PhD at Cardiff University. Launched in 2016, the VISA is an open access digital repository of illustrations accompanying the four most important Victorian editions of Shakespeare's Complete Works:
The Pictorial Edition of the Works of Shakspere / Edited by Charles Knight. Published: London: Virtue & Co., [1839–42?]
The Works of Shakspere / Revised from the best Authorities / With a Memoir, and Essay on his Genius / By Barry Cornwall / Also Annotations and Introductory Remarks on the Plays by Many Distinguished Writers / Illustrated with Engravings on Wood, From Designs / By Kenny Meadows. Published: London: William S. Orr and Co, 1846.
The Works of Shakespeare / Edited by Howard Staunton / The Illustrations by John Gilbert / Engraved by the Dalziel Brothers. Published: London: George Routledge and Sons, 1865-67. 3 Volumes.
The Plays of William Shakespeare / Edited and Annotated by Charles and Mary Cowden Clarke / Illustrated by H. C. Selous / With Thirty-five Full Page Wood Engravings after Frank Dicksee, RA., H. M. Paget, A. Hopkins, R. W.S., and others / And Thirty-five Photogravure Plates / Special Edition. Published: London, Paris and Melbourne: Cassell & Company, Limited [1864–68?]. 35 Parts.
I am also awarding the project this month's "Amazing Research That I'm Really Glad I Didn't Have to Physically Do" trophy too. As per Cardiff University's coverage of the project:
Using Photoshop to isolate the illustrations, Michael single-handedly scanned more than 3,000 illustrations from hard copies of the play collections, thoroughly tagging each image, making the archive a long and labour-intensive project.
The hard work paid off, given that one of the brilliant things about the archive is its' supremely thorough be-taggedness. That is: Goodman has meticulously tagged each image, so you can productively search using various categories -- motif tags, specific plays, characters, genre, and illustrator/edition. In other words, it is consciously designed to be a useful resource for other researchers and Shakespeare enthusiasts, rather than a digital output that is more or less useful only for the researcher's own work or as a CV bolt-on.
Tangentially, if you have a small pot of cash and/or the coding skills to get my exhaustive database of narrative motifs and textual inter-connections in the Holy Women of Liège corpus, get in touch! It saddens me deeply that the database, a product of months of work and submitted as an appendix to my PhD thesis, languishes as an Excel file visible only to me and my PhD examiners.
Anyhow, back to Shakespearean Victoriana. Why create an archive of these illustrations? Well, they shed light on the way in which Victorian readers of Shakespeare were encouraged to visualise elements of the plays. In this way, they allow us a glimpse of popularly circulating "visions" of Shakespearean works, i.e. a kind of specifically Victorian re-imagining of plays' fixtures without changing the source text itself. Further, the VISA lets us see how coherent the Shakespearean corpus is in terms of a set of ever-recurring concepts and narrative constructs. As Goodman notes,
The database emphasizes that there really is a ‘Shakespeare Universe’ where different motifs, ideas and themes recur. [...] By being able to visualize Shakespeare’s plays in this way, we can appreciate how the plays are like a hall of mirrors — they reflect certain ideas back to each other.
For instance, the "clowns and jesters" tag is associated with 110 illustrations, reflecting the importance of the fool character in Shakespeare's plays. (For a brief overview of Shakespeare's most famous fools, see this sketch from the Oxford University Press blog.)
But I'm not overly keen on clowns, myself, so I haven't drilled down into those illustrations too deeply. Instead, I clicked enthusiastically on the "bats" tag, and so I leave you with my favourite "bat"-ty illustration, which is a depiction of the sprite Ariel "on the bat's back" by William Harvey, affixed above the "Introductory notice" in the Knight edition of The Tempest.
The image is drawn from Ariel's song in Act V, sc. 1 (ll. 98-104), when the sprite sings in anticipation of his liberation from servitude to his master, the sorcerer Prospero:
Where the bee sucks, there suck I.
In a cowslip’s bell I lie.
There I couch when owls do cry.
On the bat’s back I do fly
After summer merrily.
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bow.
May we all have such liberating flights towards joy, eh? With or without the bat.