The web is full of amazing resources on Shakespeare, his plays, and his early modern world. It is so full, in fact, that it can be difficult to separate the good from the bad, the reliable from the unreliable. With that in mind, I offer here some of the most useful and interesting web resources available on Shakespeare.
Please use the comments field to suggest others, and let me know if you come across any broken links.
First, a Word about Plot Summaries...
Perhaps the most commonly used internet resources for studying Shakespeare are the plot summaries offered by sites like SparksNotes and CliffsNotes. As long as they are correctly used, these plot summaries are great tools, especially for students who are new to the study of Shakespeare. How should you use them? Before you begin your reading assignment, read over the summary. (Students in my courses should then read over the questions I have posed on PBWorks). Beginning with the summary and questions will give you a basic understanding of what you are about to read and will help you pay attention to the language and how Shakespeare tells the story!
The interpretations offered on these sites are less helpful. In my experience undergraduate students come up with far more interesting insights on their own!
These are sites maintained and updated by reputable institutions and scholars. They are a great first stop if you are beginning to explore a research topic, or just want to know more about a given subject.
University of Toronto's Records of Early English Drama (REED) WWW Links (For each topic, the good people at the REED project have assembled the best links and resources available on the web.)
University of Victoria's Internet Shakespeare Editions (Includes a search page for locating materials about specific plays)
Early Modern Resources (A thorough and comprehensive set of links to a wide range of topics relating to Shakespeare)
The Royal Shakespeare Company (Information about its productions, including interviews and behind-the-scenes video, as well as general information about Shakespeare)
Virtual Rare Book Rooms and Etexts
Once available only to scholars, the original texts of Shakespeare and other books from his time are now freely accessible in several places on the internet.
The best of these is the British Library's Shakespeare in Quarto site, where you can view all 21 of the library's quarto editions in an easy-to-use interface. You can even compare two quartos side-by-side.
The University of Pennsylvania's Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text and Imaging (SCETI) is the home to the Furness Shakespeare Collection, which includes digital images of Shakespeare's First Folio, Holinshed's Chronicles, and many other books of interest to our work.
Finally, the Rare Book Room is an amazing, one stop site that has most (if not all) of Shakespeare's original texts, as well as scores of other original editions of authors from all periods of American and British literature.
Another category of online texts are etexts, or full-text databases that give you access to complete texts of works by Shakespeare and other writers. These differ from virtual rare book rooms in that you are seeing not facsimiles of original books, but texts that have been converted into html or other text formats. This offers the advantage of being able to search texts easily by keyword and copy and paste texts for essays or other uses. Three of these sites are of particular interest for those of us studying early modern British literature:
Renascence Editions is a repository of texts assembled and maintained by the University of Oregon, organized by author's last name.
The Luminarium has an excellent collection of sixteenth and seventeenth-century texts, as well as texs from other periods and traditions of literature.
Finally, MIT hosts The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, which, as advertised, has all of Shakespeare's plays and poems.
British History and Shakespeare's Early Modern World
Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (This is a great information source on Shakespeare's life, the place he was born, and the early modern world.)
Tudor History from the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) (In addition to some good historical overviews of topics ranging from the Reformation to witchcraft, the BBC includes some fun activities, like cracking an Elizabethan letter and a virtual tour of an early modern room.)
Video and Multimedia
YouTube is a cornucopia for Shakespeare film clips and performance resources. In addition to fun clips like The Beatles performing the rude mechanicals' wall scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream, or Peter Sellers, as Richard III, reciting "A Hard Day's Night," YouTube has several "channels" posted by Shakespeare acting companies and institutions such as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, that offer clips, scene performances, and behind-the-scenes looks at producing Shakespeare's plays.
Sir Ian McKellan, the great Shakespearean actor who also happens to be Gandalf and Magneto, is featured in a wonderful multimedia site hosted by London's National Theater.
Search Engines and other "Metadata" Sites
The internet and digital media have allowed the creation of unprecedented tools for studying and creating new knowledge about Shakespeare. The British Library's English Short Title Catologue is an analog source (i.e., a book) that is now fully searchable online. Want to know what other books were published in the same year as Hamlet? What the most popular books were in Shakespeare's world? Which play of Shakespeare's was published first? This resource will answer your questions.
The Database of Early English Playbooks (DEEP), assembled by Alan Farmer and Zachary Lesser, has more specific information about playbooks, such as where the plays were first acted, which authors appear on their title pages (or if an author appears at all), and whether the plays are categorized as histories, comedies or tragedies. The database has a powerful search engine that allows you to customize your searches in almost infinite ways.
Lexicons of Early Modern English compiles several dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other reference works that were published in Shakespeare's time. In addition to the Oxford English Dictionary, this allows you to have a better understanding of what words meant in the time Shakespeare wrote them.
Finally, Open Source Shakespeare allows you to manipulate the Shakespearean text in many ways beyond basic reading. Interested in seeing how many times a word appears in a single play? In all of Shakespeare's plays? OSS does it in a few clicks. You can also create a list of all speeches by a single character and compare two sonnets side-by-side.
For those of you who are destined to be teachers of Shakespeare yourselves someday (or are already), you will find these two sites of particular interest.
Folger Shakespeare Library's Online Resources for Teachers (Specific lesson plans and teaching ideas from the world's premier center for Shakespeare research and teaching.)
University of Pennsylvania's English Renaissance in Context (ERIC) project (A resource that is both useful and beautiful to look at, focusing particularly on print history and the text of Shakespeare's plays.)