Background -- MLA New Variorum Challenge

The prompt for this project is the Modern Language Association's New Variorum Shakespeare Digital Challenge.

Patrick Murray-John built the first iteration during July and August 2012. You can read more about the technical details and reasons for exploring the challenge here. Please send any questions to him at patrickmjchnm@gmail.com. Or, follow and tweet to @billcritomatic.

For the code/GitHub inclined, you can follow progress and/or submit issues to the following

From the MLA's description of the challenge:

The MLA Committee on the New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare is sponsoring a digital challenge and is seeking the most innovative and compelling uses of the data contained within its recently published volume, The Comedy of Errors.

The MLA has released the XML files and schema for The Comedy of Errors under a Creative Commons BY-NC 3.0 license. Scholars may freely download these files from GitHub and use this material in their research.

We are seeking innovative new means of displaying, representing, and exploring this data and are thus holding a competition to find the most exciting API, interface, visualization, data-mining project, or other use of The Comedy of Errors XML.

The Idea

The core idea of this project comes from a reflection on a transitional time in my scholarly career, when I was a graduate student moving into being a scholarly commentator on texts. There was a moment during graduate school (I suspect others encounter it, too, at some point), in which reading standard scholarly editions of a text was no longer about reading the text. Instead, it was about reading the scholarship surrounding the text. As a reading practice, that reversal of privilege -- the commentary becomes primary while the "main" text becomes secondary -- is probably familiar to people who are familiar with medieval manuscripts and/or the Talmud and/or various other textualities that visually mix text and commentary in more sophisticated ways than our modern impoverished footnotes can sustain.

Thus, the guiding principle of this project is to turn the scholarship around Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors on its head. Instead of reading the playtext as the main (privileged) content, the site privileges the scholars and their scholarship on the text. The overarching mission is to find new ways to get familiar with scholarship of the Comedy of Errors. To find connections between their commentary. To enter the text not from the playtext, but via the scholarship and the scholars. It's an inversion of the textuality of the printed scholarly edition.

Thus, this site is not and cannot be a replacement for the MLA's edition. You cannot read through the playtext in any useful way, and you cannot read through the appendix or commentary either.

Think of it as an annotated bibliography meets match.com. Get to know the scholars in the MLA Variorum edition, where their profile is their own commentary on the text.


Despite the dearth of images, video, visualizations, and other assorted pretty pictures, this is a multimedia text. More precisely, it is a dual-media text. One text is the site itself. The other text is the printed edition of the MLA Variorum Comedy of Errors.

Read them together. Read through the playtext in print, and -- as I know you will do -- notice when something in the commentary or appendix catches your interest. Then, come to this site to find new ways to expand that connection. Are you interested in a particular section of the appendix, or have you developed your interests enough to want to bring things together by searching on a word or phrase? See more about the scholars here. Are you interested in a particular character? Start here.

Or -- and this is more in line with the philosophy of inverting the scholarly text -- start with a concept, and discover the scholars and scholarship you need to know about. For example, imagine that you (or your students) are getting to grips with Lacanian approaches to Shakespeare. Starting with the appendix section "Identity" might be a good place to start looking for the scholars and scholarship that might be of interest. That approach would start with reading through the discussion there, keeping an eye out for the key terms that make you think "Lacan!", making a note of the citations, then turning to the bibliography to see the relevant scholarship. That's the printed edition approach to such a question.

The Bill-Crit-O-Matic approach moves in the other direction. Go to the search page and search for "Mirror" in the appendix. That will yield you the text of paragraphs with that word. Here's one that looks promising:

Clicking the "Note Bibliography" button shows the bibliography for that paragraph to the right. From there, I could bop to more info about the citations themselves by clicking "View". But I'm trying to get familiar with the scholars, so I'll follow the link to Janet Adelman.

When I open up the "In Conversation With" info, I can see another name that I hadn't picked up before, and continue following my nose to pick up more starting points in the commentary and in the playtext that might be relevant.

Of course, the next thing to do would be to go back to the print edition, which contains the argumentative context for the discussion, and the literary context for the passages. That's one way I imagine the two media -- site and print -- working together and complementing each other by offing reciprocal entry points to the text and scholarship.