If it’s September it must be Shakespeare. Clusty has released Shakespeare Searched which is designed to provide quick access to the works of the Bard. It’s not designed as a replacement for, or access to the full text of his work, but as a quick reference resource. The concept is that it can be used to identify who made a specific speech, which work contains which quotes or even individual words, and also helps draw out specific themes in individual works or across the entire corpus.
It doesn’t provide analysis or commentary, just direct access to the text via Vivisimo. Consequently it’s useful for teachers who can use it to create lesson plans, and it’s helpful for students not only as a quick reference guide but also, because of the clustering aspect, as a means of suggesting ideas for topic papers.
As you would expect, the strength of the resource is in the underlying approach that Clusty uses to return results. A search for ‘isle’ for example returns 39 results. The main body of the screen provides access to the text in which the keyword or phrase is used, the play/act/scene that it is from, and the speaking character. There is an option to additionally display surrounding text, but this is usually limited to the previous line of text from the last character to speak. However, since the surrounding text is already quite generous this isn’t too much of an issue.
The real power of the resource however lies in the clustering. Again, to use my ‘isle’ search topics such as King, God, and Warlike Isle are displayed. Clicking on the latter of these the searcher is rewarded with 3 results that put that phrase into context. Somewhat disappointingly the results do not appear to be returned in any obvious fashion, as we get a reference to Othello Act 2 Scene 3, then Henry VI Part 2 Act 1 Scene 1 and then back to Othello Act 2 Scene 1. This leads to a rather confusing display and slightly mitigates against its value as a quick reference tool.
However, the clustering approach does not simply stop at concepts or topics. A second tab allows the searcher to view references to the search term by play (arranged alphabetically by title) which does overcome some of my earlier criticism. A final tab allows me to see which characters have uttered the word ‘isle’ and to pull up the appropriate part of the text.
The search interface also allows users to search for terms in individual works (and Clusty also includes the Sonnets) so it’s easy to quickly identify the John of Gaunt speech in Richard II that refers to “isle”. There are two pull down menus for works and for characters. The menu for the works is obvious, but it’s the menu for characters that is remarkable, since it lists every single character in every single play, and believe me – there are a lot of them. Irritatingly though we have to guess which play the characters are from, which isn’t so bad in the case of Hamlet, but it’s going to take a skilled reader to identify which play “First Goth” or “Second Page” come from! (Titus Andronicus and Ask you like it in case you’re wondering.)
All’s well that ends well, although not quite – there are some drawbacks to the service which are slightly irritating. The search interface is very precise. My search for “sceptered isle” produced no results, and neither did “scepterd isle” – but “scepter’d isle” did get the result I was expecting. A search for ‘”feared” gives 3 results, while “fear’d” returns 46 results. While this is a small point I think that it’s a very important one since Shakespearian English is not always as obvious as we might hope. I would have preferred to have seen a reference to ‘did you mean?’, or an option to automatically word stem, or a clustering of similar words.
Those criticisms apart however, it’s an extremely useful resource, and one that should prove to be instantly popular. However, given that there are a lot of other Shakespearian resources out there, how does it rank with some of those? It would of course be unfair to try a direct comparison, since they are all trying to do something slightly different, but several of them do offer the ability to search within the confines of the texts themselves.
Explore Shakespeare with Google offers us the complete plays at our fingertips with the option of downloading many of them (although this depends on where you’re geographically located) or purchasing them. It is possible to search within individual plays, but it’s first necessary to know which play you want – a limitation that doesn’t exist with the Clusty version. However, the information provided by Google is limited to no more than a few words either search of the search word, so it is necessary to follow the link to read directly from the page. Google’s approach, while useful in some circumstances, does not provide the breadth or flexibility of use that we find with the Clusty offering.
The Library of the Internet Shakespeare Editions is rather different again, focusing on reviews and academic works about the plays. It does have a search option for the text, although this hasn’t worked when I’ve looked at the site myself so I’m rather limited in my ability to compare resources!
The complete works are also available thanks to MIT but there is no real pretence at providing any kind of search functionality; the only way this would be possible would be to view the entire play on one page and use a search function from within your browser to find the text required.
The Oxford Shakespeare provides searchers with the 1914 Oxford edition, which is searchable. My “isle” search did only return 27 results however, rather less than Clusty. Confusingly the results are arranged in the order of Act, Scene, and then the name of the play, with a reasonable amount of surrounding text. My “sceptered isle” query also caused problems, with entirely different results for variations of spelling. While being a useful resource overall, in terms of searchability and flexibility I would have to say that the Clusty offering wins hands down.
The Collected Works of Shakespeare is also available in a rather less polished format from a student at the School of Information Technologies, University of Sydney. This time my search produced 37 results and the context within which the term could be found was displayed on screen in a basic format. Interestingly however, it was something of a pleasant delight to discover that this resource was capable of proximity searching (and it was possible to specify the degree of proximity as well). Searches could also be limited to specific plays as well. This was probably the closest in terms of functionality to the Clusty resource, but again having a different focus, so direct comparison would be unfair.
There are of course other resources available, and this isn’t intended to be an exhaustive summary of them; merely to put Clusty’s ‘Shakespeare Searched’ into some context. None of them were able to exhibit the same flexibility and functionality, and with the arrival of this resource I think that learning Shakespeare just got a whole lot easier.