By Alan Galey
Teena Rochfort Smith, as pictured in
F.J. Furnivall’s Teena Rochfort Smith:
A Memoir (1883). Available on
In 1883, a young woman named Teena Rochfort Smith created a prototype of an experimental edition of Hamlet that, to this day, remains the most visually complex presentation of the play ever attempted. Even present-day digital interfaces such as the Enfolded Hamlet are less ambitious than what Rochfort Smith envisioned, which pushed Victorian typography and printing technology to its limits. Given both Hamlet‘s unique complexity within the Shakespeare canon and Shakespeare’s textual complexity within the larger canon of English literature, Rochfort Smith’s prototype should rank among other great experiments in humanities interface design, including Origen’s Hexapla; the Complutensian Polyglot Bible; Robert Estienne’s 1550 edition of the Greek New Testament; the New Variorum Shakespeare, begun by Horace Howard Furness in the 1870s; the BBC Domesday Book project (an experiment, if not a great success); and more recent digital humanities projects, such as the Versioning Machine, which visualizes the relationships among variant texts of the same literary work. Although Rochfort Smith’s story is a tragic one—she died very young, and has been remembered mainly as Frederick Furnivall’s mistress—she was nonetheless a protodigital pioneer in an area that’s booming in the digital humanities today. She accomplished all this as a Victorian woman in a male-dominated field, and she did so by the age of twenty-one.
This post is the last in a three-part series based on my new book, The Shakespearean Archive, which considers the use of Shakespeare as prototypical material for new media experiments, especially during the new media explosion and nascent information culture of the late Victorian period. My interest in Rochfort Smith is motivated in part by media archaeology, a subfield that looks to the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries for examples of media—especially strange, unsuccessful, or overlooked experiments—that unsettle the teleological progress narratives of traditional media history, many of which persist in the digital humanities today with too little critique. In earlier posts, I looked at the Victorian new media demo as a performance genre (not unlike Apple’s rollout events) and an 1885 experiment in composite photography that attempted to reveal Shakespeare’s true face (based on some truly bogus science). With these posts, I’m taking the opportunity to make high-resolution digital images from the book available in a medium that lets us dig into the details, but I’ll also discuss Rochfort Smith’s work as a healthy challenge to the tendency to overlook the paper-based forms of computing, including humanities computing, that can be found in the Victorian period.
Rochfort Smith’s project arose in response to a problem that’s not uncommon in literature, in which a major work has come down to us in variant forms: the version of Hamlet printed in the 1623 Shakespeare First Folio (F) differs markedly from the one published as a single-volume quarto in 1604 (Q2, dated 1605 in some copies), both of which differ even more radically from a seemingly corrupt quarto version published in 1603 (Q1). Although the work in question here is early modern, the understanding of the problem is very Victorian in the sense that it plays into a particularly late nineteenth-century anxiety over humankind’s imperfect reckoning with the inherited past, especially as embodied in material records. Even a pillar of cultural heritage as supposedly stable as Hamlet could be put into question by the discovery of a new version, such as the discovery of the Q1 version in 1823, when a copy (one of only two that now survive) turned up in a closet. As Dickens showed in Our Mutual Friend (1864–1865), one never knows what documents the dust-heaps of history will cast forth to complicate the present.
The picture included here is an example of advertisements for photographic facsimiles of rare Shakespeare books, and other Shakespeareiana, in the Publishers’ Circular 15 April 1864: 216. Google Books. (Scroll down at the link to see more.)
Example of advertisements for photographic
facsimiles of rare Shakespeare books, and other
Shakespeareiana, in the Publishers’ Circular
15 April 1864: 216. Google Books.
(Follow this link to see more examples.)
If the Victorians were increasingly conscious of the past’s mediation through documents, they also witnessed new ways that documents themselves could be mediated through new forms of book design and technologies of mechanical reproduction. In literary terms, this meant that after 1860 or so, Victorians would increasingly encounter new reading interfaces for texts with complex histories. Some, like photographic facsimiles, would seem to offer transparent access to the past (see the language in the ads linked t the left); others would make the complexities of textual difference all too visible. Rochfort Smith’s Four-Text Hamlet is definitely one of the latter.
Following Origen’s example in his six-column parallel-text presentation of versions of the Old Testament, Rochfort Smith placed the three authoritative texts of Hamlet (Q1, Q2, & F) side by side, along with a fourth column offering a conflated text like the ones readers would recognize from contemporary critical editions. Parallel-text layouts and complex typography weren’t uncommon in Rochfort Smith’s time, but her insight was to use mixed typefaces to visually flag the differences within the lines themselves, like so:
This snippet of two columns—Q1 and Q2—shows that Rochfort Smith wanted readers to use the typographic signals to see the differences across all four texts, with the potential to reveal patterns:
If you look at the first line of dialogue in each of the columns above, you’ll see one of Hamlet‘s major textual variants in context: “sallied flesh” in Q1 & Q2 and “solid flesh” in F. Recalling that “sallied” has usually been taken by Shakespeare editors to be an early modern spelling of “sullied,” we can consider the interpretive stakes of Hamlet referring to his flesh as “sullied” versus “solid”: the former word emphasizes the moral stain of his mother’s incest, while the latter word gives us a more corporeal image—and a link, perhaps, to Hamlet’s later dialogue with the Gravedigger on death and materiality, and the recycled flesh of kings going a-progress through the guts of beggars. (There’s a theme from Our Mutual Friend again, too.)
That’s just one variant, but Hamlet is full of them, as becomes clear as one progresses through Rochfort Smith’s seemingly postmodern typographical riot. Although reading interfaces to show textual variation go back a long way in Shakespeare, the Bible, and legal texts, Rochfort Smith outdid her predecessors—and her successors, for that matter—by recording variations in spelling as well as substantive meanings (like “sallied” versus “solid”). This results in an extraordinary level of granularity in her visual markup, with typographical variation inside words themselves. (Anyone reading this with experience in Text Encoding Initiative markup can imagine how difficult this would be to do with XML tags, even on a moderate scale.) Notice the differences signalled within the words “Dew” and “Selfe” below, in this snippet from the F column:
Now imagine this level of granularity scaled up to the level of an entire play, let alone the entire canon of Shakespeare’s texts. It’s a level of complexity that even modern-day digital editions rarely foist upon their readers, yet Rochfort Smith evidently imagined readers who had internalized the typographical markup conventions spelled out at the beginning of her edition:
At first glance, it seems like a lot to remember, but like musical notation, it sinks in with time and repetition. I’ve read through Rochfort Smith’s three-scene prototype several times in the course of my research, and it’s come to feel more intuitive than one might expect. But this prototype still leaves us with the question of how exactly Rochfort Smith imagined her Four-Text Hamlet would be read and used—as a primary reading text for the play, with occasional glances between columns, or as a reference source, designed for discontinuous reading and referencing to answer specific questions? She left no direct answers to these questions, to my knowledge; we can only deduce what we can of her intentions from the artifact itself.
So, did all this visual complexity prove too much for Victorian readers? Sadly, we’ll never know, as the project proved too technically complex for her printer, N. Trübner & Co. of London. Imagine these pages from a typesetter’s perspective: Rochfort Smith required highly precise placements of Roman, italic, Clarendon, sans-serif, gothic, bold, and small-capital type, sometimes merging different types in the same word, and sometimes in combination with various diacritical marks. Just as Charles Babbage’s design for his Difference Engine exceeded the capabilities of Victorian machining (even though it worked on paper), so did Rochfort Smith’s vision exceed the capacities of Victorian typography. Rochfort Smith’s project didn’t go beyond the three-scene prototype shown here, created for members of the New Shakespeare Society to comment upon. To the best of my knowledge, the only surviving copy is the one at the Folger.
Let’s consider a different perspective on this textual artifact: imagine what Rochfort Smith’s manuscript copy for the printer must have looked like, and for that matter, what her working papers must have looked like. As Frederick Furnivall describes in his posthumous memorial to Rochfort Smith, she took “infinite care” to prepare the manuscript version of her edition “with four different kinds of ink, and with three different forms of underline” to indicate variance among the four texts. I suspect Rochfort Smith’s manuscripts would look remarkably like the so-called paper prototyping stage of markup that my students and I undertake when tackling a particularly challenging textual artifact using XML. What I find so extraordinary about Rochfort Smith is that she was thinking like an encoder and information designer, even in 1883. She would not have recognized the names we now assign to those roles, but I’m certain she’d have understood the nature of the work—perhaps better than many of us do today. She also gives us a reading interface that not only records the many variants in a complex literary text but also visualizes the problems under consideration themselves In other words, her prototype invites us into the mystery of Hamlet‘s texts, instead of just giving us her solution to it (although she gives us that, too, in the fourth column).
My initial appreciation of Rochfort Smith’s work comes from being a coder and Shakespearean myself—when I discovered her work, it felt like I’d found a lost ancestor. But it’s worth remembering that media archaeology calls us to do more than simply fill in the family trees of present-day media or appreciate the quirky steampunkery of Victorian new media experiments. Media archaeology, as practiced by Wolfgang Ernst and others, is specifically not about fine-tuning our origin myths but about disrupting them to see the present differently.
In that spirit, I would suggest remembering Teena Rochfort Smith the way some computer scientists remember Ada Lovelace—as someone who represents an alternate history of a discipline. As I learned from my iSchool colleague Kelly Lyons, who advocates for women in computing, Ada Lovelace Day is celebrated annually to draw attention to the achievements of women in the STEM disciplines. Even digital humanities, whose adherents would likely consider their field to have a less paternalistic history than computer science or engineering, tends to narrate its origins in terms of founding fathers, namely Roberto Busa and Vannevar Bush, and still sparks debates over the effacement of gender, sexuality, and race in its emphasis on building tools and applying technologies. Rochfort Smith did not collaborate with computing giant IBM on a large-scale project (as Busa did, beginning in 1949), nor was she a powerful government research administrator (as Bush was, especially after assuming the directorship of the Office of Scientific Research and Development in 1941, a parent organization for the Manhattan Project). She was a twenty-one-year-old, unmarried Victorian woman when she completed the Four-Text Hamlet prototype, and she died not long afterwards when her dress caught fire while she was burning some letters. (See Thompson’s article for the story.) Although Teena Rochfort Smith’s career was not as long or successful as Ada Lovelace’s, her work deserves to be remembered, and humanists might find in her a comparable measure of inspiration.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the Four-Text Hamlet, it’s that great experimental scholarship can be found in unexpected places. As such, I go into greater detail about Teena Rochfort Smith and the broader context of Victorian new media experimentation in the Shakespearean Archive (in a part of the intro, currently previewable in Google Books). If any readers know of copies of the Four-Text Hamlet other than Folger’s or have come across any of Rochfort Smith’s other manuscripts related to this project, please let us know in the comments section!
 In making this claim, I’m echoing Shakespeare scholar Ann Thompson, who published the first serious study of Rochfort Smith in 1998, to which my own research is very much indebted. Based on my own experience in the field of digital editions, I’d say Thompson’s claim is still valid. See Ann Thompson’s “Teena Rochfort Smith, Frederick Furnivall, and the New Shakespeare Society’s Four-Text Volume of Hamlet.” Shakespeare Quarterly 49 (1998): 125–39. See also the blog post “Recovering Teena Rochfort Smith” by Amanda Visconti, who also initiated the Wikipedia entry for Rochfort Smith.
 Useful critiques of technological progressivism within digital humanities may be found in Andrew Prescott’s blog post “Making the Digital Human,” originally presented as a lecture for the Digital Humanities Summer School at Oxford in 2012, and Johanna Drucker’s article “Pixel Dust: Illusions of Innovation in Scholarly Publishing.” Los Angeles Review of Books 16 January 2014.
 The discovery and reception of Q1 Hamlet is the subject of Zachary Lesser’s new book, “Hamlet” After Q1: An Uncanny History of the Shakespearean Text (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).
 The story might not end here. An announcement in the 30 January 1891 issue of Science: a Weekly Newspaper of All the Arts and Sciences (17.417) mentions that the Shakespeare Society of New York was aware of the Four-Text Hamlet project and the difficulties it had encountered, and had undertaken their own complete edition of Hamlet on Rochfort Smith’s model on a subscription basis. If the New York Shakespeare Society’s plans progressed beyond fundraising, I have found no record, though someone else might turn up more leads.
 Furnivall, Frederick J. Teena Rochfort-Smith: A Memoir, with Three Woodbury-Types of Her, One Each of Robert Browning and F.J. Furnivall, and Memorial Lines by Mary Grace Walker. Suffolk: Clay and Taylor, 1883. 5. This pamphlet does not name Furnivall as an author; the attribution is by Thompson (cited above), who also notes some inaccuracies in Furnivall’s account of the circumstances of Rochfort Smith’s life and death.
 Some of my students’ work along these lines is linked on the blog for “The Future of the Book”, my course at the University of Toronto’s iSchool. (I normally set an “encoding challenge” as the second assignment.) My own encoding/interface work, which I often integrate with teaching, happens within the framework of my Visualizing Variation project.
 These critiques have recently coalesced into the #transformDH hashtag and blog. See also the cluster of articles under the heading “Critiquing the Digital Humanities” in Matthew K. Gold, ed. Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2012. For in-depth discussions of gender in digital humanities scholarship, I recommend Jacqueline Wernimont’s “Whence Feminism? Assessing Feminist Interventions in Digital Literary Archives” in Digital Humanities Quarterly 7.1 (2013), and Julia Flanders’s “The Body Encoded: Questions of Gender and the Electronic Text” in Kathryn Sutherland, ed. Electronic Text: Investigations in Method and Theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997. 127–43.