This passage is adapted from the article “What Light Through Yonder Windows Breaks?” by Stephen Greenblatt


Shakespeare on CD-ROM is potentially the most

important thing to happen to the texts of Shakespeare’s

plays since the 18th century, when they were first given

the serious scholarly attention reserved for cultural

[5] treasures.  It is important to understand why the innovations

represented by these CDs — the BBC Shakespeare

Series’ Romeo and Juliet and Voyager’s Macbeth—are

so significant.


What exactly is a printed play by Shakespeare?

 [10] Where it was once thought that Shakespeare’s plays

sprang from  his noble brow in definitive and final form,

it is now widely recognized that many of them were

repeatedly revised.  Some of these early alterations were

likely made by the theater company to adapt a play to a

[15] particular occasion, others by a collaborator, others for

the government censors, still others by the printer, but

many of the most significant changes seem to bear the

mark of Shakespeare himself.  For example, there are

two strikingly distinct versions of King Lear, three of

[20] Hamlet and two of Romeo and Juliet.  The point is not

simply that Shakespeare had second or third thoughts

but rather that he apparently regarded his plays as open

and unfinished; he intended them to be repeatedly performed,

and this meant that they would be continually

[25] cut, revised or even radically preconceived according to

the ideas of the players and the demands of the public.

 The words were not meant to remain on the page.  They

were destined for the beauty and mutability of the

human voice.


[30] Nevertheless, even today most editors silently

stitch together the different versions of Hamlet or King

Lear in an attempt to present the “final” version

Shakespeare supposedly meant to leave behind.  These

printed editions also hide or at least de-emphasize the

[35] presentation of the play on stage.


The CD-ROM is a radical departure.  The words of

the play appear on the screen, synchronized with a

complete audio performance.  It has long been possible

to read the text of the play while listening to a recorded

[40] version, but now it is wonderfully easy to locate particular

scenes and instantly hear them, to go back and

listen again, and to stop and look at the glosses keyed

to difficult words and phrases.  Each CD includes video

clips of some of the most famous scenes, so that the

[45] pleasure of listening and reading can be supplemented

with glimpses of a full production.


These video clips are at once among the most

promising and the most frustrating aspects of the current

technology.  The quality of both the sound and the

[50] visual effects is mediocre, and, to make matters worse,

in the BBC’s Romeo and Juliet the actors on the video

are not the same as the actors reading the words.  The

dubbing inevitably imperfect, and it is disconcerting

to hear Albert Finney’s unmistakable voice as Romeo

[55] coming from Patrick Ryecart’s mouth  Still, there is

considerable pleasure in the brief glimpses of performance,

a pleasure quite distinct from watching the play

on stage of film, since it is here linked so intimately

and effortlessly with the words on the screen.


[60] Let me be clear: These Shakespeare CDs are not

principally interesting as performance.  Rather, they

are remarkable because they change our experience of

what it is to read a play, insistently recalling for us that

the words were meant for our ears as well as our eyes.

 [65] Texts on CD-ROM have, in effect, recovered something

of the magic that books possessed in the late

Middle Ages, when they were still rare enough to seem

slightly eerie, as if they were haunted by spirits.


One stunning moment on the Romeo and Juliet

[70] CD-ROM is a brief audio clip of an interview with the

actress Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, who had played Juliet

in 1924.  The interviewer asks her to recite some lines

from the balcony scene, and after a brief demurral, she

begins to speak the enchanting lines in a lush style

[75] completely different from Claire Bloom’s quietly

restrained rendition.  For a minute or so we get a

glimpse of what the technology can do.  If a stage performance

at its best makes us experience a certain

inevitability, leading us to think of the actors’ interpretation

[80] of the play, “This must be so,” then a CD-ROM

has the power to make us think, “It could be so different.”

We could compare three or four radically different

performances of the same scene, just as we could

for the first time easily compare differences in the text.

 [85] In one version of Juliet’s death scene, for example, she

stabs herself with a dagger and says, “There rest.” In

another version she says, “There rust."