Hang up your hose and ditch your doublet – there's a new way to experience Shakespeare's era. An online project is asking volunteers to tease apart the spidery scrawl of manuscripts to reveal new insights into daily life as it was more than 400 years ago.
Launching on Thursday, Shakespeare's World is a joint project between crowdsourcing organisation Zooniverse, the Oxford English Dictionary and Folger Shakespeare Library, and features a multitude of manuscripts penned by the Bard's contemporaries from letters to recipes.
"Most manuscript material isn't machine readable – you can't have a computer pick out words or make it word searchable," says Dr Victoria Van Hyning from Oxford University, who is part of the Zooniverse team. While images of the manuscripts are available online, they are currently accompanied by only a basic description, leaving the intriguing contents unsearchable, their rich details inaccessible to those unable to decipher the script.
Until now, that is. By logging on to www.shakespearesworld.org, budding transcribers can take a tutorial, pick a genre and get cracking, interpreting the inky outlines by clicking on each word and either typing the transcription or choosing commonly used abbreviations from a pre-set list. It's not only the passages that are under scrutiny – special tags enable wax seals, drawings and even jottings in the margins to be identified.
While Shakespeare himself is renowned for his myriad additions to the English vernacular, the team hope the project will yield additional entries to the OED – users will be notified if new words or variations crop up. "We want them to join us in the process of making new discoveries in these manuscripts," says Heather Wolfe, curator of manuscripts and archivist at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
The team hope the skills gained by volunteers will also prove useful when applied to their own archives, be they documents linked to local history or family genealogy.
Part of the wider Early Modern Manuscripts Online project, led by Folger Shakespeare Library, Shakespeare's World is expected to provide a veritable treasure trove of insights, not only for historians but also for the curious browser. "This would definitely be one of the more complete resources for shedding light on what was it like to prepare a meal in this period, to balance the accounts for your household, to try to co-ordinate the education of your children, to get on the wrong side of the law, arrange a marriage – you name it," says Van Hyning.
She adds that people might be surprised at how little has changed since the Bard picked up his quill in the late 16th century. "I think people will probably come across stuff that sounds familiar – and hopefully it will make the past less strange," she says.
With 2016 marking 400 years since the the playwright's death, it's an apt moment to delve further into Shakespeare's era. But the task is far from simple: a glance at the manuscripts reveals letters woven together in elegant but almost illegible forms. Yet Wolfe is quick to remind volunteers that even the smallest of attempts is valuable. "Any word that they do counts," she says.