Dr Michael Goodman of Cardiff University wants everyone to sample and enjoy the artistic treasures and historical delights of the Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive.

What comes to mind when you think of Shakespeare? The latest Kenneth Branagh film, perhaps? Struggling to make sense of the language in school? Merry Englande, ruffs and a good dose of ‘hey nonny nonny’? If we could somehow ask this question to a Victorian, there is a good chance that they would answer: ‘illustrations’.

The Victorian era was the ‘Golden Age’ for Shakespeare illustration. Between 1839 and the end of the century, thousands of illustrations were produced within many different editions of Shakespeare’s Complete Works. New printing technologies meant that books could be produced on a mass commercial scale and illustrated books, for the first time, became affordable to working and middle class families.

What is so fascinating about these illustrated Shakespeare editions, which were hugely popular in the Victorian era, is that they form a significant part of our cultural heritage and, indeed, our construction of Shakespeare’s plays as we understand them today. Unfortunately, these illustrations are often hidden away in rare books libraries, meaning that they are often inaccessible to members of the general public.

My recent project, The Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive, seeks to rectify this. It is an online, open access resource, which contains over 3,000 of these Victorian illustrations. And it is centred on the four most significant Victorian editions and illustrators of Shakespeare’s Complete Works: Charles Knight, Kenny Meadows, John Gilbert and H.C. Selous.

The archive came about when I was exploring ideas for my PhD in English Literature at Cardiff University. Initially the project was just going to be concerned with analysing how Victorian illustrators depicted Shakespeare’s plays. However, as my research progressed, it slowly became apparent that here was a remarkable under-explored and underappreciated treasure trove of fantastic, curious, and often unnerving illustrations that deserved to be shared with both academics and the wider public. The illustrations by the Cardigan-born Kenny Meadows, whom one of his contemporaries described as an ‘erratic genius’, are a perfect example of the richness of material available in the archive.

Fortunately, digital technology allows us to reach audiences in a way that is unprecedented. Digital archives allow us to recover hidden histories, celebrate forgotten voices, to enhance our understanding of bygone eras, and to disseminate cultural artefacts in an engaging and innovative fashion. It was with these ideas in mind – about what can be achieved using the digital – I decided to create The Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive.

This was, of course, a large undertaking. Each of these editions contain hundreds of illustrations which would require scanning into the computer, alongside being given the appropriate bibliographical and iconographical meta data (basically, the details about where the image came from and what the image contains), so that the illustrations would then be searchable within the archive. Furthermore, I wanted the archive to be as user-friendly as possible, and to incorporate the ability to use social media, so that users could comment upon and share the images on Facebook and Twitter. After four years of working on the project, I launched the archive late last year, and the reaction it has received has been hugely positive.

The BBC, for example, have made a short video about the archive , while Digital Arts magazine have credited it as being one of the top ten websites for free historical images. Many online literary magazines have also written about the archive, including Lit Hub, while the UK’s Shakespeare Magazine (thank you, Pat!) has described it as a ‘deeply wonderful thing’. As kind and generous as these reactions have been, what I take most from them is that there is a real desire amongst the public to engage with academic work.

Ultimately, I hope the archive will be used in education to help students of all ages to better understand Shakespeare’s plays, and by researchers interested in the Victorian period and Shakespeare. However, the archive is available for anyone to use in whatever way they wish. Moreover, I would like to inspire other people to have the confidence to make similar archives and to recognise that with curiosity, imagination and creativity, we can make scholarship exciting, interesting and available to all.

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We now live in world where, thanks to technology, we can begin to share our cultural history – not just with a privileged few, but with everyone.

Go here to explore the Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive.