Searching Shakespeare

Eric Johnson's ('95) 'experiment in literary technology'
By Katie O'Dowd ('07)

"To be, or not to be" may well have been a question William Shakespeare pondered. But for history major Eric Johnson ('95) the question is "To create, or not to create?"

The alum's unique Web site, Open Source Shakespeare, www.opensourceshakespeare.org, originated during the thesis project for his master's in English from George Mason University. The project, which Johnson began in 2001, was to create a Shakespeare database Web site. What he didn't know when he started it was that much of the work on this thesis would be completed in Kuwait, not in Northern Virginia.

That change in locations came after Johnson was deployed to Iraq with the Marines as part of the initial invasion in 2003. After returning to Kuwait from that deployment, Johnson found himself doing a lot of "just sitting around."

Eric Johnson ('95) spent some of his time in Nasiriyah, Iraq, thinking of ideas for his Open Source Shakespeare Web site, which receives more than 15,000 visitors a month.

Eric Johnson ('95) spent some of his time in Nasiriyah, Iraq, thinking of ideas for his Open Source Shakespeare Web site, which receives more than 15,000 visitors a month.

So, using his laptop computer, he began the laborious task of downloading and formatting text from the Internet for his Shakespeare database Web site.

Search by genre, lines, characters, words

By the time he returned to the United States in July 2003, he had created the basis for Open Source Shakespeare. The database, which currently includes 37 plays, 150 sonnets and five poems, allows visitors to search for plays by genre, number of lines or characters, as well as for poems and sonnets. Users can even search for individual words on the site.

"The search tool combines power and ease of use," Johnson says. "The Web site is supposed to be cleanly laid out, so everything is obvious the first time you visit."

A user-friendly site

Johnson's insistence on the site being user friendly comes in part from his own frustration with available Shakespeare Web sites. After joining The Washington Times in 1999 as a Web development manager, he started reviewing plays for the paper on the side. Johnson, who frequently reviewed Shakespearean plays, always read the plays before seeing them. However, when he tried to download the plays' text from the Internet, he discovered that many of the existing Shakespeare sites were not very helpful.

That experience helped shape not only how he would design his Web site, but the audience he had in mind.

Unlike many other Shakespeare databases, Johnson's site is free and is designed as a general-purpose site -- not one tailored exclusively for scholars. He receives e-mails from people around the world who have used the site and want to offer comments or suggestions.

"My intent was to make the site useful for researchers and actors. From the feedback I get, it appears that both groups are using the site."

Although scholars may not be the primary audience for his site, they certainly benefit. JMU history department chair Michael Galgano, who remembers Johnson as a "superb student with broad interests in European and other histories and literatures," says, "The search engine is highly valued by students and scholars because it provides easy access to the texts and scholarship about Shakespeare and his times. This is important to Renaissance scholars and their students in a broad variety of disciplines."

Others evidently agree. Open Source Shakespeare receives more than 15,000 visitors a month, a huge jump from the 2,000 visitors a month the Web site logged at the beginning of 2005.

Johnson says the ideas for his Web site were driven, in part, by his history classes and participation in JMU theater. "My intent was to make the site useful for researchers and actors. From the feedback I get, it appears that both groups are using the site."

While at JMU, Johnson was a columnist for The Breeze and editor of The Madison Review, a student magazine. He currently works as a Web content management adviser for the U.S. Department of State.

Johnson is married to Paige Duncan Johnson ('94), and the couple has four children.