If you wanted to create a periodic table of Shakespearean elements — visualizing the themes, motifs, and images that show up again and again in the bard’s plays — you might start by visiting the Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive. It’s a vast (and free!) new database that features more than 3,000 digitized illustrations from four major UK editions of Shakespeare’s Complete Works, published in the mid-1800s.
The beauty is not just in the illustrations themselves, but in the way the archive is organized: A word cloud lets you search the illustrations by motif, from the magical (witches, fairies, ghosts) to the grim (death, daggers, beheadings). It reveals how, despite all the intricacy of his works, Shakespeare built all of his plays from a limited set of basic elements. With categories like Clowns, Castles, Horses, Kings, Moons, Musicians, Ships, and Swords, the word cloud reads like a list of Jungian archetypes.
“The database emphasizes that there really is a ‘Shakespeare Universe’ where different motifs, ideas and themes recur,” says Michael John Goodman, who created the Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive as part of his PhD project in Digital Humanities at Cardiff University. “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.”
This collection of vintage etchings isn’t just for English nerds. “I wanted to create a new kind of academic resource that could appeal just as much to Shakespeare scholars and Victorianists as to artists, makers, and creators,” Goodman tells Hyperallergic. Making the archive was a long, labor-intensive process: Goodman single-handedly scanned more than 3,000 illustrations from hard copies of the play collections. Photoshop allowed him to isolate the illustrations, and then he thoroughly tagged each image.
Searching by character or by play allows you to see how, before the age of film, Victorian illustrators approached the same text with vastly different styles. Kenny Meadows, a British caricaturist best known for his contributions to Punch magazine, brought a macabre sensibility to his work: etchings of dueling crowned serpents for Macbeth; a wretched hag Sycorax, usually an unseen character, for The Tempest. “Especially for work done in the 1840s, they are surreal, dark, whimsical, and plain weird,” Goodman says. “Woefully overlooked.”
Before the advent of cinema, readers relied as much on illustrations as on the theater to bring Shakespeare’s universe to visual life. “The illustrators, in certain ways, were almost like proto-film directors, and it is no coincidence that the illustrated Shakespeare Edition dies at the exact moment early cinema begins to take hold of popular culture,” Goodman says. “The decisions illustrators faced were similar to a film director’s: how best to depict this scene in order to communicate meaning to an audience.” As opposed to paintings of scenes from Shakespeare, like John Everett Millais‘ “Ophelia,” for example, these Victorian illustrations depict the events of a play in narrative sequence, like frames in a film. “Illustrated books and their illustrators are often neglected critically,” Goodman says, “but I would argue that their work can be seen as being a forerunner to the emerging medium of cinema.”
Browse the Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive here.