Alumnus Makes Shakespeare’s Works Easy to Search

Posted: February 14, 2011 at 1:02 am, Last Updated: February 10, 2011 at 4:46 pm

By Art Taylor

Eric Johnson, MA English '05

How many times does the word “magic” appear in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”? And how many references to “mother” appear in “Hamlet”?

If you went to your bookshelf and took down that large volume of Shakespeare’s complete works, you probably would have a long day ahead of you.

If, instead, you went to Open Source Shakespeare, a website created by Eric Johnson, MA English ’05, your search would take mere milliseconds.

Johnson first had the idea for Open Source Shakespeare in 2001, when he was working at the Washington Times newspaper, first as a web designer and then as a theater reviewer, while pursuing a master’s degree.

Though he enjoyed looking up quotes from Shakespeare’s plays on the web, he was surprised to find that a single comprehensive and accessible Shakespeare site didn’t exist online.

“The ones that were comprehensive were not free, and the free ones were not comprehensive,” he wrote in his master’s thesis, adding that even the best of these was not searchable and easy to use — seemingly a must for scholars at all levels.

So he set out to build it himself.

And if that doesn’t seem like enough of a challenge, Johnson did it in the middle of the desert when he was a Marine reservist, trying to keep his laptop from getting dusty.

“I was one of the first folks in Iraq in 2003 and then was redeployed to Kuwait later that year,” Johnson said in a recent interview. “As we waited to return home, I found myself with time on my hands.”

The site he created has a number of benefits for Shakespeare scholars, college students, casual readers and both theatergoers and Shakespearean actors.

“What I really wanted was to create something useful for a broad range of users,” he explained.

“The concordance [search tool] helps users choose a key word in a soliloquy, for example, and then find how Shakespeare used that word elsewhere in the play — or in any of the plays. And there’s another feature for actors learning lines: they can simply see all the lines from the character they’re playing, plus the cue lines.”

The "Chandos" portrait of William Shakespeare, housed in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

The site has received high marks from scholars. And it has grown in popularity, as well. Open Source Shakespeare has hosted more than 1.8 million visitors since June 2006.

Johnson continues to refine the site: a mobile version debuted in mid-2009, for example, and future developments will incorporate social media.

In addition to his work on this project, Johnson has gone on to make headlines in other areas. While working in the State Department’s Office of eDiplomacy, he spearheaded the development of Diplopedia, an internal database of articles about political leaders, business issues and more, to serve the diplomatic corps.

As with Wikipedia, the site allows users not just to access information, but to add their own material — a move that initially prompted security concerns but now has won great support. In 2008, he was invited to speak at Wikipedia’s annual conference.

Johnson now works as a senior consultant at Navigation Arts, a web design company based in Northern Virginia, where he leads project teams working with such organizations as the Corporation for National and Community Service (the parent organization of Americorps) and the Advisory Board Company, a health-care consultancy, among others.

But ties to Mason remain strong, and one of the biggest projects on the horizon involves a broadening of the Open Source Shakespeare project to include many more writers, focusing on widely read, widely taught public domain texts and ultimately including more user-generated contributions.

“For example, a professor could mark up ‘Paradise Lost’ with class notes that he wanted his students to see,” says Johnson.

“Or someone who’s been going to plays in New York for 40 years will certainly have something to add. Once we have people talking to one another online about these texts, we should be able to capture a lot of knowledge from people who love particular authors and know a lot about them.”

To support this work, Johnson and English Department faculty members Eric Anderson, Robert Matz and Alok Yadav have applied for a digital humanities grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Other English Department faculty members serve as project consultants.

Johnson has proven unusual in blending his interest in the humanities with his skills in cutting-edge technologies.

“In my experience, when someone is not technically inclined but deep into literature, the tendency is to see the literature as the real value and the technology as an appendage,” he says.

“And the technical people think that the technical aspect holds the real value, because anybody can bang out words. That seems to me a hindrance to success. Keeping the technical component on an equal footing with the humanities — that’s my goal.”

This article originally appeared in a slightly different format in the English Department newsletter Not Just Letters.

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