January 16, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

The Digital “Shakesperience” | Touch and Go

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A trove of digital material is available to students of Shakespeare and thespians today—resources that will change the way they experience the Bard’s works. From Sourcebooks, Inc., comes the “Shakesperience”—a series of six plays (Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet) that promise to “transport readers from the page to the stage.” Each iBook contains the text of the play along with insight from actors on their roles, audio and visuals of celebrated performances, and much, much more. Extensive commentary and notes, video recordings of famed actors performing each of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets, and a facsimile of the 1609 Quarto are among the highlights of the stunning Shakespeare’s Sonnets from Touchpress. If your students are studying parody, don’t miss Ryan North’s To Be or Not to Be from Tin Man Games. These are just some of the resources included in this round-up of Shakespeare apps and iBooks that have been reviewed in SLJ ‘s web and print pages. With thanks to Pam Schembri and Kathleen S. Wilson—our go-to Shakespeare reviewers.

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ShakespearianceLet’s face it. Who hasn’t struggled with Shakespeare? Sourcebooks’ “Shakesperience” iBooks, which build on their earlier print plus CD series, are designed to remedy this problem by helping readers connect with the playwright’s texts more easily and more deeply. Othello (Sourcebooks, 2012; Gr 9 Up; $5.99) catapults users from a colorful book cover image directly into act 1, scene I on a screen designed to look like the double-page spread of an open book. Indexes and navigation icons are hidden until the top of the screen is touched.

The text drives the iPad experience: behind words and phrases highlighted in blue are explanatory notes, and by the second page turn, users will discover audio scene introductions by the renowned Shakespearian actor Sir Derek Jacobi, and short, read-along audio recordings by notable stage and film actors. Comparative audio renditions of individuals performing carefully selected classic lines (Paul Robeson, John Kani, and Hugh Quarshie as Othello and Emma Fielding and Uta Hagen as Desdemona, etc.), bonus archival recordings by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edwin Booth, and video clips from live performances will enhance viewers’ engagement with the play.

Additional layers of information include galleries of captioned stage black-and-white and full-color photographs; costume and set renderings; production notes; authoritative articles providing historical context; and interviews with actors, directors, and a voice coach. Tools for note-taking, highlighting, and bookmarking are available, as are embedded definitions and a searchable glossary of more than 1400 terms. A table of contents aids access. For teachers and students, as well as all of those who missed the brilliance of Shakespeare the first time around, The Shakesperience: Othello, is a dream come true.—Kathleen Wilson, New York University, NY, NY

to be or not to beFans of parodies, bawdy humor, and absurd retellings of classic stories are sure to appreciate Ryan North’s To Be or Not to Be (iOS $2.99; Android $1.99; Gr 9 Up). An irreverent take on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the app was initially funded through a Kickstarter campaign and adapted by Tin Man Games from North’s 700-page novel, To Be or Not To Be: A Chooseable-Path Adventure (Breadpig, 2013). North’s version remains respectful of Shakespeare’s basic plot structure and is interspersed with fragments of the Bard’s original text, but it’s full of modern slang as well, and, through numerous branching options, regularly veers off the beaten path on wildly imaginative tangents. It is lots of fun, but probably not for the serious scholar. North clearly delights in playing with the play.

After a brief introduction, readers are asked to choose how they want to experience the story—as Hamlet, Ophelia, or Hamlet’s father, Claudius. In North’s version, Hamlet is an “emo teen in his early thirties,” Ophelia is a science geek, and Claudius, a ghost. Readers simply tap the screen to move through bite-sized chunks of text until they arrive at “checkpoints” where they can select from a list of potential plot directions. All but the options marked with Yorick skull icons are deviations from the original story line. These deviations tend toward the surreal and the subversive. North examines Shakespeare’s narrative choices through his various story lines by making fun of the Bard’s approach to women, his plot directions, and, at times, Hamlet’s personality. In this way, he uses satire to invite readers to deconstruct the story and look at it in new ways along with him.

The gameplay here is as much of a spoof as the story itself. At the end of each branch, readers are shown their “stats,” which include purposely useless things like “naps napped,” “stockings befouled,” and “tasteless sexism.” They also get Haml-o-meter readings, ranging from “to be” through “wild thing” and “kissable” to “not to be,” and silly experience points, which are included purely for their entertainment value. Artwork by well-known web comic illustrators is unlocked after endings and random events. To add to the foolishness, North’s commentary often criticizes readers for the choices they make at the various checkpoints.

Thankfully, given the nature of North’s humor and all the story twists and turns, the interface is extremely streamlined and easy to use, consisting of arrows to jump forward and back through checkpoints and a menu icon which includes font and sound options and access to achievements, the artwork that’s been unlocked, and credits. For the most part, the screens are image-free, consisting primarily of text boxes on colorful backgrounds. Those up for an unusually offbeat and entertaining take on Hamlet, will no doubt love Ryan North’s To Be or Not to Be.Kathleen S. Wilson, New York University, NY, NY

shakespeare at playImagine how different our experience of a film would be if all we had to go on was the written script; if we never viewed the film on the big screen. Without the actors, sets, lights, and music our experience would be completely different. The same can be said of Shakespeare’s plays, which were in many ways the films of his day, a time when literacy rates were extremely low and plays were written to be seen as live performances. The Bard’s words and phrasing were unfamiliar and confusing to many back then, and even today, it’s a rare student who doesn’t struggle with Shakespeare on first encounter.

Tim Chisholm, the founder of Shakespeare at Play, and Rick Chisholm, the producer, have taken these lessons to heart in the design of their Shakespeare at Play (Rick Chisholm Productions, Ltd. 2014. Free for basic app. $3.99 ea. for Video eds., $1.99 ea. for Notes eds.; Gr 9 Up). The app allows students to watch custom video productions of Shakespeare’s plays and at the same time scroll through the complete texts, word for word, scene by scene, stopping, starting, and rewinding the video as needed or while accessing definitions. What’s different, and so helpful, is that the video has been produced specifically to correspond to Shakespeare’s complete plays, unlike so many film versions that deviate from the original texts, often changing Shakespeare’s wording and eliminating scenes entirely.

Each play in the series is organized into acts and scenes; the lines of the original texts are all numbered for easy reference. The video performances are professionally produced and the youthful actors will appeal to high school viewers. Costumes and sets are minimal, as they were in Shakespeare’s day, but props, lighting, and fog effects are used to great advantage to help support the action and enhance the emotional tenor of the scenes.

The app is clearly designed and easy to use, starting with the landing page (“My Library”), which displays the available plays. Once a play is selected, the screen splits in two, with a wide, horizontal video window on top and a scrollable text window on the bottom. Both the video and the text windows can be expanded to full screen at any point.

Just under the video window, in the middle of the screen, three clickable icons indicate additional information that’s been designed to scaffold the viewing and reading experience for students each step of the way: a megaphone (for audio introductions to each scene by Noam Lior of the University of Toronto with plot highlights and other items of interest); a feather (for text descriptions of scenes); and two theatrical masks (for text descriptions of characters). In addition, informative annotations, also by Lior, are ever-present in the bottom window. A custom glossary of words and phrases, Shakespeare FAQs, and options to download any or all of the video scenes are readily available in the index, which is accessed through an icon at the top left of the screen.

The app is free with text-only versions of eight of Shakespeare’s plays. Currently, video versions for Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet and Notes Editions, which include additional text information but no video, for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet are also available from within the app.Kathleen S. Wilson, New York University, NY

Screen from Shakespeare's Sonnets (Touchpress)

Screen from The Sonnets by William Shakespeare (Touchpress)

In an app that will appeal to even the most reluctant of students, Touchpress has assembled a brilliant team of scholars and actors to produce the equivalent of an undergraduate course in Shakespeare’s sonnets. Each of the 154 selections in Shakespeare’s Sonnets (also by Illuminations, The Arden Shakespeare, Faber and Faber Ltd; 2012; Gr 11 Up; $13.99) begins with a video recording of an actor’s recitation of the work delivered by Stephen Fry, Patrick Stewart, Fiona Shaw, or another noted performer. As the verse is presented, users can choose to view the performance full-screen, or read the work as the corresponding text is highlighted. Additional notes analyze individual lines.

Don Paterson provides commentary for each sonnet, and contributes to the fascinating section titled, “Perspectives.” Here students will gain a better understanding of Shakespeare’s contribution to the form, discover speculative theory about his sexuality, and learn the origins of original pronunciation. Cicely Berry shares thoughts on how academics have “stolen the sound of Shakespeare from us” in that people feel they “must” study him to appreciate the language of his work. Author Katherine Duncan-Jones considers the use of the sonnet to explore private emotions without the use of puns and wit. There are also a few discussions about the true authorship of the verses.

Every “Perspectives” entry is composed of text and a corresponding video. These unpretentious, you-are-there conversations allow users to feel connected to the sonnet as a form, and illuminate the meaning and intent of the works. Shakespeare’s narrative poem, “A Lover’s Complaint” is also given attention. The app includes a text-only category of notes from The Arden Shakespeare offering information on context and illusion and the reception and criticism of the selections, but that section and the facsimile of the 1609 edition of the Sonnets pale in comparison to the video-rich resources.

Large buttons on the home page link each section, and sonnets can be accessed by actor or number. A scroll feature on a top menu bar allows users to move through a list of the poems. Students and teachers will want to watch the videos multiple times, in English classes, as well as theater class for its acting suggestions. An essential purchase for upper-level literature classes and anyone interested in Shakespeare performance.—Pamela Schembri, Newburgh Enlarged City Schools, Newburgh, NY

For additional app reviews, visit School Library Journal’s dedicated app webpage.

 

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Daryl Grabarek About Daryl Grabarek

Daryl Grabarek dgrabarek@mediasourceinc.com is the editor of School Library Journal's monthly enewsletter, Curriculum Connections, and its online column Touch and Go. Before coming to SLJ, she held librarian positions in private, school, public, and college libraries. Her dream is to manage a collection on a remote island in the South Pacific.

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