How Moby Shakespeare Took Over the Internet

The King James Bible is one of the most widely-used versions of the Christian scriptures, and there are several good reasons for this. The first is that its words are beautiful, written with a keen ear for the rhythms and textures of the English language. Second, Anglican missionaries carried the King James to the furthest reaches of the British Empire, which literally spanned the globe by the end of the 1800s. Third, its spirit embraces the transcendent aspect of the Christian scriptures, in contrast to modern translations, which are, in general, self-consciously colloquial and democratizing.

But one of the biggest reasons for its success, if not the biggest, is that the King James is not under copyright. The Gideon’s Bibles in hotel rooms are from the King James, as are innumerable other bibles designed for cheap, widespread distribution. No publisher is going to sue for damages, because the creators were dead and buried three centuries ago. On the Internet, lots of Web sites use the King James for the same reasons as print publishers. It might not be their favorite translation, but it is free and easily downloaded and used.

The King James is not perfect: Like any translation, it betrays the biases of the translators. The Protestant Anglicans deliberately “talked down” passages that were favorable to distinctively Catholic doctrines, and they have been accused of royalist biases (which is understandable, given the king’s endorsement of their product.) Its form is fixed, and does not reflect ongoing textual criticism, the emergence of new source texts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, or modern archeological discoveries in the ancient Middle East. Publishers have commissioned teams of scholars to update the KJV, producing the New King James Version or the Revised Standard Version, but these are, of course, under copyright protection.

Moby Shakespeare is in the exact same situation. Its terminal form, with its virtues and shortcomings, was fixed in 1995 and released into the public domain (Ward). Since Shakespeare scholars have not been sitting on their hands for the last century and a half, it will not benefit from more recent research. And although Clark and Wright’s edition was a colossus for decades, Shakespeare scholars, teachers, or directors do not select it for day-to-day use.

So what good is it? There is nothing horribly wrong with Moby, from a general reader’s standpoint. It uses modern, regularized spelling, which scholars may not favor, but an average person would rather not be impeded with archaic spellings, many of which are tied to seventeenth-century typography. The original authors conflated the quarto and folio texts into a critical edition, so readers are not faced with competing versions of the same play. But primarily, Moby Shakespeare is ubiquitous because it’s free.

Why aren’t there other public-domain Shakespeares, or at least texts that the public can use freely? There are, but for various reasons they are not as popular. Bartleby.com has the 1914 Oxford Shakespeare on its site, but you cannot easily download the texts and manipulate them, the way you can with Moby, and they are not public-domain (Craig). Other collections do not contain all of the works. There is a project called Nameless Shakespeare, produced by Northwestern University and Tufts University, but it is copyright-protected (even though it is based on the later edition of Globe Shakespeare, published in 1891-3 and thus also in the public domain). Users are authorized to download XML versions of the texts, but only for personal, non-commercial use. All other uses are controlled by the owner ( Berry). At this writing, the prototype interface for Nameless Shakespeare is “ clunky and inconsistent” in the creators’ own words, and they are going to deploy a more elegant interface in the near future. Until then, it will probably not be widely used, although the Java search applet is impressively powerful.

The Internet Shakespeare Editions is the closest anyone has come to duplicating Moby, and you can download the texts of the plays for non-profit use. But as the texts use the original spelling, and are essentially diplomatic editions of the folio and quarto texts with very little editing applied to them, they are intended for a scholarly audience. Only a small number of plays have been refereed, though all have been proofread (Best, “Internet”).

Perhaps someday, a group of individuals will produce a modern, scholarly, free alternative to Moby Shakespeare. The deck is stacked against it, however. For one thing, the amount of labor involved in producing this critical edition of the text would be huge – not insurmountable, but more than one or two people would be willing to undertake (Clark and Wright lived in the days before desktop publishing and vast educational subsidies, and they could read a much larger percentage of Shakespearean scholarship because there was less of it.)

Also, such a free edition, while superior to Moby Shakespeare, would not necessarily be that much of an improvement. All of the “competitive” modern collections have annotations, glossaries, detailed introductions to the play, etc. A free edition would almost certainly have to include such things to expand its audience and eclipse any other versions.

One might hope that some publisher somewhere would make its text, if not free, at least more widely available online. It seems unsporting to take someone else’s work and make money from it in perpetuity – even if that person has been dead for centuries. True, scholarly editions are not mere reprints, and are the result of many hours of hard work, but the reason people read and study the editions’ texts is not because of the glosses on the pages, but because Shakespeare wrote the texts. But since publishers can sell their products in quantity to schools and students, and the resulting revenue subsidizes other, less popular works, it seems unlikely that a major edition will ever be released to the public in any useable form, at least not for free and not in its entirety.

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