Even as venues begin reopening and live theatrical activity begins ramping up, the virtual theatre that’s sustained us over the past fifteen months of madness and mayhem is still taking place. This past weekend marked the latest monthly meeting of the classics reading series I belong to, Dead Playwright’s Society. We read King Lear this month; they asked me to play the Fool. As familiar a play as King Lear is, this was nevertheless a rare treat, as rather than read the Folio or the standard Arden edition, we were reading the First Quarto edition of the play.
Many of Shakespeare’s plays exist in multiple variations, with (oftentimes pirated) Quarto editions published during Shakespeare’s lifetime, prior to the standard source for his texts, the First Folio, being compiled and published in 1623. The First Quarto edition of Lear, published in 1608, is a unique case given the number of ways it diverges from the Folio text; there’s a school of scholarly criticism which holds that the Folio and Quarto texts represent two separate revisions by Shakespeare of the same material. This theory was popularized by a landmark collection of scholarly essays in 1983, The Division of the Kingdoms. These essays were still making considerable waves when I was an English major undergraduate, [redacted] years ago, so I was excited to learn that we were doing this reading of the Quarto to examine precisely these sorts of questions. I planned to spend the days before the reading surfing the web to do some further research; surely, in all the [redacted] decades since I was in college, there’s been even more scholarship on this topic for me to soak up.
And I’m sure there is, but it’s not on the internet.
It’s not that there’s no Shakespearean content on the web, of course. Search a topic like “King Lear Quarto” or what have you, and you’ll get plenty of hits. But from what I’ve seen, those hits fall in one of two categories. Some are overviews that have been commissioned by theater companies to correspond with their productions (archived, of course, from back when in-person productions were a thing). Those tend to provide a basic overview, whatever the theater company feels help increase enjoyment of the production without overwhelming the casual theatergoer. The other category consists of student aids, study guides, and book reports, aimed at students. (I’m going to assume, given the basic nature of the material, that these are high school students – I don’t want to think about the alternatives.) If you’re a high school student and looking for that kind of a summary, then you’re in luck – the internet has you covered. But if you’re looking for more complicated material, for some sort of scholarly or other more advanced material, then you won’t find it on the internet.
You won’t find it for free, anyway. What you will find, if you look hard enough, are brief abstracts of the type of scholarly articles I’m referring to. Perhaps a few tantalizing sentences, a glimmer of the treasures that are supposed to be waiting for you in this great virtual storehouse of humanity’s knowledge. The rest of it, however, requires you sign up for an academic subscription service. Much like newspapers or magazines, or new services like Substack, you have to pay upfront to have any chance of learning from this material.
It’s not like I don’t understand the need to pay for content. And it’s not like books like the original Division of the Kingdoms can’t be purchased to read at one’s leisure. (Though I don’t recommend looking up the price of out-of-print academic books on Amazon – not if you have any heart ailments or nervous conditions, at any rate, because those are some extremely large numbers.) But I do believe this is indicative of a larger problem. There’s a reason why we’re awash in misinformation and propaganda these days – the purveyors of that stuff make sure their content is free, and disseminated on the internet far and wide, while the useful information that might combat it is hidden behind a paywall. There’s an economic dictum that bad money drives out good, and you can say much the same thing about information.
I’m not sure what the answer is, but we need to figure out some sort of model to work around the paywall problem. Maybe figure out an internet library system – some portion of our tax dollars goes towards a means of making all content free for a fixed period of time per month, or something like that. I hope somebody can figure out details and logistics. Because I still want to believe that information is the best defense against madness and mayhem.