At the beginning of the seventeenth century, early modern audiences started to select and copy extracts from drama (in both print and performance). Many of these dramatic extracts survive in printed and manuscript collections, but the fact that they were often unattributed means that finding and identifying this material in the archives can pose a considerable challenge. The aim of the digital project DEx: A Database of Dramatic Extracts is to help researchers to overcome these challenges by engaging the archives with digital tools, in order to open up the early modern theatre archive and make it more accessible and usable. DEx seeks to facilitate and promote the study of the role of dramatic extracts in theatre history, audience reception, early modern print and manuscript culture, and the history of reading, but it also hopes to appeal to researchers from across the full range of disciplines represented by CEMS.
This database offers free access to semi-diplomatic transcriptions of the dramatic extracts found in the seventeenth-century collections featuring on the website, along with modern transcriptions of the passages taken from a modern edition of the play. Each extract is accompanied by the basic metadata information regarding the source of the extract (see Fig. 1 below): the shelf-mark and (when known) compiler of the manuscript, the speaker of the extract, the play and its author, the act/scene/and line number of the passage in a modern edition, and finally the folio number of the manuscript in which the extract was copied. DEx also gives the option to switch between the transcriptions of the extracts in their original version—as they appear in the manuscripts—and the normalized version, with expansions of abbreviations, modern spelling as found in a modern edition—making words searchable in a variety of spellings—and also, when applicable, adding missing words or lines that the compiler cut out.
Fig. 1 This is what a typical extract (in the ‘original’ setting) on DEx looks like
Thanks to its search engine and faceted filter, DEx allows users to compare dramatic extracts from different sources and times and to look at them in new ways, thereby generating new research questions. One possibility is to browse the dramatic extracts in the database by manuscript, playwright, play, or character. However, another possible way of using DEx is to go to "Advanced Search" and look for a specific keyword: typing the keyword ‘love’ will select all the extracts—or headings attached to extracts—containing this word (Fig. 2). Moreover, the faceted filter on the left-hand side tells you, for instance, which play was extracted for this topic the most (in this case Antony and Cleopatra with 12 extracts), in which manuscript this topic was the most popular, but also which playwright or which character was most quoted for this theme. With this tool, you can therefore explore which themes were more popular and how recurrent they were over time, being able to conveniently compare extracts collected by a variety of compilers, and at different times.
Fig. 2 Advanced search ‘Love’
This type of quantitative analysis can be made, of course, for other categories of investigation. In order to see, for example, which of the plays or characters tallies up the most extracts in the database, the user can go to the "Browse all and Search" page, where all extracts present in the database are displayed, and have a look at the faceted filter on the left-hand side of the page. This tool is not only useful as a filter to reduce the results to the plays, playwrights, manuscripts and characters of your selection, but it is also a great statistical tool, as it lets users see at a glance which playwrights, plays and characters received more attention for dramatic extraction in the manuscripts present in this database. Another interesting search to carry out is to select one play, or one character, and use the faceted filter as a summary, so as to see which manuscripts they appear in, with how many extracts, etc.
Finally, browsing the database by manuscript (see Fig. 3), the user will find, at the top of the page, links to existing online resources such as library catalogues, CELM or the Folger First-Line Index, describing the general content of the manuscripts, and, when available, facsimiles published online, such as those on Luna: Folger Digital Image Collection or Shakespeare Documented. It is not the aim of DEx to describe the manuscripts, but linking to other digital projects allows us to speak to broader scholarly questions. This database aims to complement the aforementioned existing digital resources and to be more inclusive: at the moment, DEx hosts over 2,500 extracts from 23 manuscripts dating from the seventeenth century, with extracts from plays written and published before the closure of the theaters in 1642.
Fig. 3 Manuscript page
The initiator and general editor of this digital project is Laura Estill, associate professor at Texas A&M University. I have been working on this project as associate editor since late 2014, contributing with the work done for my doctoral project on dramatic extracting and the reception of early modern English drama here at the University of Oxford. Most of my research time has been spent in the Bodleian and British Library, searching for manuscript sources, and transcribing and identifying this material. The problem with this labour-intensive approach is that it limits the amount of data that can be collected, and perhaps more importantly, it limits the amount of time that can be spent actually making sense of the data. Collaborating to make a collective database of this kind of material seems like the natural solution to this problem. DEx hopes to foster further collaboration and encourage researchers to share their own material on this platform, so as to continually expand the corpus.
DEx is available in its beta launch at https://dex.itercommunity.org/ – we hope you will find it useful for your research!
Beatrice Montedoro is a fourth year DPhil student in English at Lincoln College.