Pandemic Shakespeare builds virtual, global community through classic plays

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Courtesy Pandemic Shakespeare

Pandemic Shakespeare’s logo reimagines a 16th-17th century printers device or icon with the coronavirus molecule.

Matt Yan, lifestyle editor

For those looking to dive into Shakespeare’s classic plays and chat about them with others, a digital project at Northeastern created with the pandemic in mind allows students to do so. 

Pandemic Shakespeare was born out of that desire to use Shakespeare again … [to] test the flexibility of his plays to respond to crises, which has been how his plays have been used for hundreds of years now,” said Erika Boeckeler, an associate professor of English and principal investigator at Pandemic Shakespeare, which launched last summer. 

With the help of graduate students and doctoral candidates in the English department, Boeckeler put together a website housing three of Shakespeare’s plays: “The Winter’s Tale,” “King Lear” and its most recent addition “Twelfth Night.” Here, each play acts like an active document where students can annotate the play, leaving comments on certain lines and replying to each other. 

The goal is not only to facilitate conversation and collaboration in a virtual setting but to also act as a means of catharsis — especially for those who resonate with certain themes of death, loss and sickness echoed in these plays and present in society amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

“It’s Shakespeare — it is timeless. The stories that he wrote … he couldn’t have ever known what was going to happen throughout history,” said Adriana Messina, a first-year graduate student studying global studies and international relations and publicist for Pandemic Shakespeare. “We can still really easily connect with the characters who feel isolated, who feel scared of a sickness or feel cut off from the normal resources.” 

This feeling of fear or isolation, Messina said, is “a human feeling.” With the database, students now are able to come together when annotating the plays, albeit virtually. The database isn’t just used by NU students, though. 

“I wanted to have a way to use Shakespeare as part of a public conversation … [to] find a common ground, common language [or] common set of scenarios to talk about the pandemic — not just on a Northeastern level but a global level,” Boeckeler said. 

Last fall, Boeckeler organized a partnership with Panjab University in Chandigarh, India, where students also use the database. Messina explained that the global aspect of the project is essential to its goal.

“It’s one thing that all of us are in it together,” Messina said. “We are all experiencing this together, and a lot of people are feeling the same feelings. I think Pandemic Shakespeare being global allows us to see that we’re not alone in how we might be feeling about the pandemic.”

Without the digital component, the opportunity to connect with students across the world wouldn’t exist. Pandemic Shakespeare used a content management system called Drupal, which is similar to WordPress, to build its website. The system uses plug-ins to help put the whole site together — something that was a lot easier than building an entire site from scratch in JavaScript, said Avery Blankenship, Pandemic Shakespeare’s web and database designer. For her, accessibility was a crucial component in its design. 

“When I was first working on the website, I was really trying to keep accessibility in mind,” said Blankenship, a first-year doctoral candidate in English. “[I was] making sure that all the plays are very easily screen readable, that we didn’t violate any color blindness [and] that the text was large enough to read – all of that stuff is very important to me.”

When setting up the annotation feature, rather than using a more common plug-in called Hypothesis, she used a plug-in called Annotator, which is a JavaScript library inputted into Drupal, Blankenship said. However, she explained that Annotator was a bit outdated and required her to rework the code with JavaScript, especially since it worked only on an older version of Drupal.

“The reason why I didn’t want to use Hypothesis is because Hypothesis sort of stores data on their platform, rather than letting the website sort of control all of the data [and] what gets stored,” she said. “I didn’t want to introduce a third party into the website, where then students would have to make a Hypothesis account.”

With Blankenship’s careful work, students now can engage in conversation on the website itself, which Boeckeler said is something students have received well. 

“Some of them really love that it’s a dynamic conversation,” Boeckeler said. “This platform goes a little bit further than say, [a group annotation platform] like Perusall, in that it’s global and that it also really has questions about race and gender baked right into it.”

Ultimately, Pandemic Shakespeare is a place to learn and explore the classic text, serving also as a method of collaboration to make sense of the surrounding world. 

“Even if we were under normal circumstances, and we were reading Shakespeare in a classroom, I think, in a way, there is something very valuable about doing this on an online platform,” Blankenship said. “You’re really having to think about how other people in the world are thinking about these texts.”