Shakespeare, Wood Engraving and New Media, Part II

It is these parallels, then, between the past and the present (as outlined in the first part of this piece) that help us to appreciate that there is nothing particularly ‘new’ about new media as all media were once new.[1] As Carolyn Marvin observes:

New technologies is a historically relative term. We are not the first generation to wonder at the rapid and extraordinary shifts in the dimension of the world and the human relationships it contains as a result of new forms of communication, or to be surprised by the changes those shifts occasion in the regular pattern of our lives.[2]

Marvin limits her study to electric communications, beginning with the invention of the telegraph, which she sees as the starting point of modern mass media and culture. But, perhaps mass media began in the Victorian period with the illustrated book and illustrated periodicals such as the ILN and the Graphic. This is the argument that Patricia Anderson puts forward in her book The Printed Image and the Transformation of Popular Culture 1790­–1860, where she asserts that advances in printing technology and its ‘associated imagery’ brought about the ‘beginnings of a modern mass culture’ in the Victorian era.[3] Furthermore, she goes on to write that ‘the concept of “mass” carries with it a historical perception of unprecedentedness’ and during that period ‘there was among both the producers and consumers of the emerging culture a shared consciousness that they were participating in a fundamental and far reaching change in the structure of knowledge and communication.’[4] This sense of ‘unprecedentedness’ is being echoed today, throughout wider culture and, significantly, within academia as a consequence of the digital and its potential impact on research. As the authors of Digtial_Humanities observe, ‘we see this moment as marking a fundamental shift in the perception of the core creative activities of being human, in which the values and knowledge of the humanities are seen as crucial for shaping every domain of culture and society.’[5]

Perhaps, unexpectedly, it is also an aspiration of the nineteenth century publisher and editor Charles Knight, whose Pictorial Edition of Shakespeare’s Works forms part of my archive. A member of the ‘Society of the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge’, Knight was an educational reformer who believed that ‘the poor man must be made a thinking man – a man capable of intellectual pleasures’.[6] Knight wanted to shape the values and knowledge of mid-nineteenth century Britain by publishing cheap illustrated literature that was available to every class of society, and which were also, crucially, educational. As he writes in ‘Reading for All’ in the first edition of the Penny Magazine from March 1832: ‘The false judgments which are sometimes formed by the people upon public events, can only be corrected by the diffusion of sound knowledge’.[7] Furthermore, Knight went on to comment in the December of 1832 that it was technology itself that allowed him to ‘diffuse’ knowledge in such an effective way:

ready and cheap communication breaks down the obstacle of time and space, – and thus, bringing all ends of a great kingdom as it were together, greatly reduces the inequalities of fortune and situation, by equalizing the price of commodities, and to that extent making them accessible to all.[8]

It is difficult not to hear, in this passage, a historical resonance with some of the rhetoric used by digital humanists and proponents of open culture. For example, Brett Bobley observes how ‘access to large collections of digitized cultural heritage materials will transform the humanities’, while the Creative Commons website announces that ‘Our vision is nothing less than realizing the full potential of the Internet – universal access to research and education, full participation in culture – to drive a new era of development, growth, and productivity.’[9] Charles Knight did much to encourage a ‘full participation in culture’, and, like Valerie Gray, I believe that scholars have unfairly neglected him and the vast contribution he made to education and publication in that century.[10]

Enter, then, into the pictorial and technological crucible that was the mid-nineteenth century, a certain Mr William Shakespeare, Gent. For the Victorians, according to Adrian Poole, Shakespeare was their ‘utterance, a language for expressing and explaining themselves and their world, for talking to each other.’[11] Gail Marshall, meanwhile, notes that during the period, Shakespeare was ‘acted, spoken by theatre professionals and ordinary citizens, quoted, painted and endlessly referred to. […] Shakespeare is a living presence in the nineteenth century, ever available and resonating through English-language speech and writing.’[12] While Marshall mentions in passing that Shakespeare was ‘painted’, both she and Poole emphasise the verbal over the visual. For Stuart Sillars, however, ‘Victorian Shakespeare, with its complexes of authenticity, actuality and identity, is an intensely visual construction’.[13] He writes how technology enabled Shakespearean images to be produced and disseminated around the world:

the most recent technology made such images instantly transmissible. The steam press, wood-pulp paper, wood engraving, the stereo plate and, in the later years, steel engraving and chromo-lithography, facilitated the production of images in vast numbers; railways transported them throughout the kingdom, steamships took them across the Atlantic. The past, once Imaged, became available to all through the temporal ordering of the present.[14]

Shakespeare in Victorian visual culture was entwined in technology. Not only was the availability of pictorial Shakespearean material available to more and more people through new means of transportation such as the railway, but also the very mode of representation (wood engraved illustrations, for example) allowed for such material to be produced in high quantity and became affordable to a large section of the Victorian public. This availability was, as Sillars notes, ‘driven by the growth in popular education as part of the high-Victorian drive for self-improvement.’[15]

Victorian Shakespeare illustration is so culturally significant, then, because the illustrated editions of the Complete Works would have been the first encounter with Shakespeare that many readers would have had. They were sold relatively cheaply and were affordable to members of the working classes, a group of people that may not have been able to experience Shakespeare in the London theatre. A consequence of this was that the experience of Shakespeare was often based on these illustrated pages rather than the stage. As such, these editions played an important part in how the Victorian population thought about and constructed Shakespeare. From 1840–1870 the illustrated edition becomes a theatre of the book, an Iconoplay, where words and images combine in ‘complex interaction’, just as they do on the stage. According to Maidment, it is this ‘intense relationship between an image and a written text’ that is the most ‘profound revolution brought about by the massive use of wood engraved illustration’.[16] Before the development of wood engraving and the printing technology that allowed for the mass circulation of illustrated texts, Shakespeare’s Works often contained just a single frontispiece or a few illustrations per play that were printed on different pages to the text. With the advent of the Iconoplay, we witness not only more integration between word and image, but also a vast increase in the sheer quantity of illustrations in these editions.

The Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive allows users to explore and experience for themselves this world of the Iconoplay and how Victorian artists pictorially imagined Shakespeare’s plays and characters.  The archive is open access and contains over 3000 illustrations taken from the major illustrated editions of Shakespeare’s Works in the Victorian period and allows researchers and members of the public to ask new questions about this material: for example, ‘how did the Victorians portray certain characters and plays pictorially and does this portrayal differ throughout the Victorian era?’ Alongside such questions, the archive, more broadly, allows users to explore and interrogate the complex relationship that exists between the page and the stage, between word and image and between the past and the present. The old media of yesterday has become the new media of today.

The Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive is available at

– Michael John Goodman

[1] See, for example, Lisa Gitelman and Geoffrey B. Pingree eds. New Media 1740–1915 (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2004).

[2] Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking about Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 3.

[3] Anderson, The Printed Image and the Transformation of Popular Culture, pp. 1-2.

[4] Anderson, The Printed Image and the Transformation of Popular Culture, p. 11.

[5] Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunefeld, Todd Presner and Jeffrey Schnapp, Digital_Humanities (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2012), p. vii.

[6] Charles Knight, Passages of a Working Life During Half a Century with a Prelude of Early Reminiscences, 3 Vols. (London: Bradbury and Evans, 1864), II, p. 243.

[7] Charles Knight, ‘Reading for All’, Penny Magazine, 31 March 1832, p. 1.

[8] Charles Knight, ‘Preface’, Penny Magazine, 1832, p. iv.

[9] Brett Bobley quoted in Michael Gavin and Kathleen Marie Smith, ‘An Interview with Brett Bobley’, in Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold (London and Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), pp. 61-66 (p. 63); Creative Commons ‘About’ Page <; [accessed on 23 April 2016].

[10] See, Valerie Gray, Charles Knight: Educator, Publisher, Writer (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006).

[11] Adrian Poole, Shakespeare and the Victorians (London: Thomson Learning, 2004), p. 2.

[12] Gail Marshall, ‘Introduction’, in Shakespeare in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Gail Marshall (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 1.

[13] Stuart Sillars, Shakespeare, Time and the Victorians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 1.

[14] Sillars, Shakespeare, Time and the Victorians, p. 18.

[15] Stuart Sillars, The Illustrated Shakespeare, 1709–1875 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 27.

[16] Maidment, Reading Popular Prints, p. 15.


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