Shakespeare, Wood Engraving and New Media, Part I

Developed around the late 1780s by Thomas Bewick, wood engraving allowed artists to create images with a high level of sophistication that could be reproduced easily and cheaply. Because the wood used to engrave the images was usually boxwood it was very durable and the wood blocks could be set alongside type in the printing press which allowed for word and image to be combined on a single page.[1] As Brian Maidment notes, ‘Wood engraving vastly extended the possibility of integrating text and image into the same printed page using cheap and technically simple methods.’[2] Wood engraving, combined with more efficient printing techniques, meant that the literature business was transformed into a mass-produced commercial industry and, for the first time, illustrated books became affordable to working and middle class families.[3]

Wood engraving, in many ways, was the New Media of the Victorian era. And, like the web today, it touched upon all aspects of society and allowed for knowledge to be disseminated in new ways and across all social classes. As the opening address from the first edition of the Illustrated London News in 1842 states:

there is no staying the advance of this art into all the departments of our social system. It began in a few isolated volumes – stretched itself next over fields of natural history and science – penetrated the arcane of our own general literature – and made companionship with our household books. At one plunge it was in the depth of the stream of poetry – working with its every current – partaking of the glow, and adding to the sparkles of glorious waters – and so refreshing the very soul of genius, that even Shakspere came to us clothed with a new beauty, while other kindred poets of our language seemed as it were to have put on festive garments to crown the marriage of their muses to the arts. Then it walked abroad among the people, went into the poorer cottages, and visited the humblest homes in cheap guises, and perhaps, in roughish forms; but still with the illustrative and the instructive principle strongly worked upon, and admirably developed for the general improvement of the human race.

The address ends with the editors affirming their commitment to their readers:

Here we make our bow, determined to pursue our great experiment with boldness […] to keep continually before the eye of the world a living and moving panorama of all its actions and influences; and to withhold from society no point that […] can be brought within the reach and compass of the Editors of the ILLUSTRATED LONDON NEWS![4]


Illustrated London News, 14 May, 1842, p. 1.

The passage is striking for a number of reasons. First, because it describes Shakespeare becoming literally refashioned by a new medium of representation (‘Shakspere came to us clothed with a new beauty’). This refashioning, or, as Jay David Bolter and David Grusin would call it, remediation, happens time and time again in the history of Shakespeare’s texts. As Alan Galey observes, Shakespeare’s plays have been used as ‘prototypical material for publishing experiments, new media projects and tech demos, as well as theories of information and computing from the seventeenth century to the present.’[5] Second, its typical description of how illustration can be used for the betterment of humanity recalls how the first affordable PC’s sold in the mid-nineties were often advertised as being pedagogical and for the betterment of human knowledge.  Finally, and perhaps the most startling aspect of the ILN’s opening address, is the extent to which it is analogous to the opening editorial by Louis Rossetto in the first edition of Wired magazine in 1993:

Why Wired? Because the Digital Revolution is whipping through our lives like a Bengali typhoon – while the mainstream media is still groping for the snooze button. […] So why now? Why Wired? Because in the age of information overload the ultimate luxury is meaning and context. Or put another way, if you’re looking for the soul of our new society in wild metamorphosis, our advice is simple. Get Wired.[6]


Wired, March/April 1993.

Where the ILN informed its readers that ‘There is now no staying the advance of this art into all the departments of our social system’, Rossetto in Wired (albeit it in a different register) announces that ‘the Digital Revolution is whipping through our lives like a Bengali typhoon’. And where the ILN comforted its readership by assuring them that they will ‘keep continually before the eye of the world a living and moving panorama of its actions and influences’, Rossetto claims that ‘if you’re looking for the soul of our new society in wild metamorphosis, our advice is simple. Get Wired.’ Both publications promise their readership that they will make sense of a new and changing world. Both publications were also ‘great experiments with boldness’: the ILN was the world’s first fully illustrated newspaper, while the hypermediated style of Wired would not only prove to be highly influential, but it would also lead Jay David Bolter to comment that ‘Every page of WIRED is a visual allegory for McLuhan’s apothegm that the medium is the message’.[7] I suspect that editors of the ILN also understood this.

In Part II, tomorrow, I will explore what this mass visual culture meant for the Victorians’ consumption of Shakespeare.

The Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive is available at

– Michael John Goodman

[1] Geoffrey Wakeman, Victorian Book Illustration: The Technical Revolution (Newton Abbot: David and Charles, 1973), p. 20.

[2] Maidment, Reading Popular Prints 1790–1870, p. 15.

[3] Patricia Anderson, The Printed Image and the Transformation of Popular Culture 1790­–1860 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), p. 2.

[4] ‘Our Address’, Illustrated London News, 14 May, 1842, p. 1.

[5] Alan Galey, The Shakespearean Archive: Experiments in New Media from the Renaissance to Postmodernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 5.

[6] Louis Rossetto, ‘Editorial’, Wired, March/April 1993, p. 10.

[7] Jay David Bolter, Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext and the Remediation of Print (New Jersey: Georgia Institute of Technology, 2001), p. 51.


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