Shakespeare, for the 21st century

The first page of the William Shakespeare play “The Merchant of Venice.” Students have created an online transcription of the play as part of The Cacodemon Shakespeare Project, an effort that was assisted by the Digital Integration Teaching Initiative. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

The Cacodemon Shakespeare Project is a lot more than just an online copy of William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” 

Within each page is a mini guide to understanding the nuances of the play, and through the use of footnotes, and highlighted words, Northeastern students became interpreters of the language, showcasing how the themes are still relevant centuries later in 2020.

Erika Boeckeler is an associate professor of English in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities. Photo courtesy of Erika

Students in the Introduction to Shakespeare course taught by Erika Boeckeler, an associate professor of English and creator of the project, worked in small groups to create the website. In a play with seemingly endless interpretations, each group tackled a page, and took their own editorial stance.

“Looking at the pages right now, I think it’s interesting to see how different the pages are—each group took a different take and chose different aspects to draw out,” Boeckeler says. “It brings to light the very complex questions about race, religion, gender, sexuality that the text evokes, and that becomes accessible.”

And as widespread protests for racial justice and against police brutality sent the U.S. into a moment of reflection, Boeckeler says the play became an even more relevant story. 

“It’s over 400 years old, and yet it offers us a vocabulary for the things that haven’t changed,” Boeckeler says. “We’re still grappling with all of those issues in profound ways.”

The project’s name comes from another Shakespearean play—“Richard III”—in which Queen Margaret exclaims “Thou cacodemon!” as an insult to Richard. It’s the only appearance of the word across all of Shakespeare’s works. Boeckeler says she was drawn to it because the essence of the word is similar to the task at hand.

“I chose it because I like the originality of it, but also because what we’re doing is demonic in a way—inhabiting the text, or taking possession of the text the way a demon would, but obviously a very benevolent demon,” Boeckeler says with a chuckle.

But teaching the play took a challenging turn when the COVID-19 pandemic put the U.S. on pause in March, as teachers and professors at all levels scrambled to adapt their curriculum to an online setting. Learning how to teach through video calls on the fly, and engaging students through a screen quickly became the new normal.

Boeckeler says, like many other educators, that she had not planned for online teaching. “How do I teach my students centuries-old plays through a screen?,” she thought. 

But Boeckeler had the help of the Digital Integration Teaching Initiative, a team of Northeastern graduate students, faculty, and staff that assist with teaching digital skills to students  in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities. The initiative, which is a part of NULab, the university’s center for digital humanities and computational social science, helped transform the in-person assignment into a virtual program.

Laura Johnson, a graduate student of English, and Sarah Connell, a co-director of the initiative, designed the website, and throughout the process, the team behind the initiative assisted Boeckeler with fitting the assignment into its new virtual form. The Cacodemon Shakespeare Project is just one example of a larger endeavor by the initiative to equip students who are studying humanities and social sciences with various computer skills, such as parsing through an Excel spreadsheet and understanding the back end of a website, skills they describe as digital literacy.

“We want more voices in the conversation—people who aren’t typically going to computer science, who don’t feel welcome,” says Laura Nelson, an assistant professor of sociology and a coordinator of the initiative. “We want them to get the same type of education around technology and computers.”

Nelson says that the initiative was put together after students returned from co-op saying they wanted more experience in computer skills to make them more competitive in the job market. Nelson realized that while technology permeates every aspect of students’ lives, not everyone is trained with the technical skills to use it, and she wanted to remedy that.

“It’s not just facility with WordPress, but a deeper understanding about how these tools that we use every day function, how we interface with them, and what layers of proxies exist in between you typing on a keyboard and what’s happening in your computer,” Connell says.

To bridge the gap, members of the initiative work with faculty to augment their courses with the teaching of digital skills, Nelson says.

“We’re not just teaching students,” Nelson says. “We’re teaching faculty as well. And the idea is that eventually the faculty we work with can take this over, and teach it on their own. That’s the ultimate goal.”

Because the Cacodemon Shakespeare Project started only this past spring, only a small portion of the play has been transcribed. Boeckeler says she plans to continue the project in the fall with a new group of students. And once the transcription of “The Merchant of Venice” is completed, the project will move on to other plays. The hope, she says, is that over time, each page of each play will be annotated, offering a wide range of interpretations from students. 

“It’s part of a larger work, a larger nexus of students every year contributing new pages,” Boeckeler says. “There’s always a reason to come back, look, and say ‘oh hey, these students chose to do that with this piece. That’s really interesting!’” 

For media inquiries, please contact