For all you well-meaning but misguided English teachers out there, I'm going to drop an industrial-strength truth bomb on you: William Shakespeare's plays were meant to be seen. Reading the Bard's works can't capture what makes them vibrant or essential, because that is only revealed when they're performed. Any class that deals with Shakespeare but ignores this fact isn't just missing the point, it's doing a disservice to its students. The only acceptable compromise is one that acknowledges this up front and is structured from start to finish to work against this inherent liability. Thankfully, this is exactly the case with Heuristic Shakespeare - The Tempest($5.99), an iPad app designed to make Shakespeare not just accessible but also necessary to a generation that too often can't be pried from their phones to experience it.
Incorporating the full content of the Arden Shakespeare, one of the definitive modern collections of the Bard's works, imparts ironclad insight and authority to this iPad app. And the presence of Ian McKellen, ultra-popular movie star and Shakespearean interpreter of inestimable gifts, helps tremendously, too. Heuristic Shakespeare could go even further at bridging the reading-performance gap, but what's here is so robust and remarkable that it almost seems churlish to complain about what little it does not contain.
A Most Strange Story
This app focuses on the play widely (if erroneously) considered to be Shakespeare's last, The Tempest. One of the writer's few romances, it blends adventure, magic, political intrigue, and plenty of low comedy into a potent narrative about a deposed duke named Prospero who uses his mystical arts to wreck the ship carrying his onetime tormentors. They land on the island Prospero inhabits with his daughter Miranda, an enchanted and enslaved sprite named Ariel, and a blob of a monster named Caliban, and are subjected to his vengeance-minded whimsy until he attains the outcome he seeks.
It's a simple story that still resonates and has relevance today—the classic 1950s science fiction film Forbidden Planet is among the better known of its adaptations—but for readers unversed in the Early Modern English of Shakespeare's day (in this case, 1611), it can be something of a challenge to untangle. Take this brief exchange from the first scene:
Boatswain: None that I more love than myself. You are a councilor; if you can command these elements to silence and work the peace of the present, we will not hand a rope more. Use your authority! If you cannot, give thanks you have lived so long and make yourself ready in your cabin for the mischance of the hour, if it so hap. Cheerily, good hearts. Out of our way, I say!
Without the visual and aural clues of a live performance, such as the storm raging, the ship lurching about, and the actors shouting, not everyone will understand what's going on. (Many will tune out once they hear "whom thou hast.") A dictionary or a Web search might help, but having to turn to one of those every few seconds while reading is a buzzkill waiting to happen—and the language in the above excerpt isn't even as impenetrable as Shakespeare's plays (or The Tempest) get!
The first, and perhaps most important, aspect of what Heuristic Shakespeare does is define every word and phrase that may cause confusion. In that above quote, that includes "whom," "None that I more love than myself," "councilor," "these elements," "work the peace of the present," "hand a rope more," "make yourself ready," "mischance," and "hap." Each of these is underlined; just tap on it, the rest of the page grays out, and you receive an explanation in clear, contemporary English. (You'll learn that "work the peace of the present" means "stop the storm," for instance.) The entire play, all 2,275 lines of it, is annotated in this fashion, making it all but impossible to get lost or frustrated.
How Many Goodly Creatures
The app makes the play user-friendly, attractive, and fun in other ways, too. Need a refresher on any character? Tap a name whenever you see it to be taken to a dedicated page that provides not only necessary data, but shows when and how much he or she speaks. Each act is color-coded, so you can tell at a glance where you are in the play (and a meter on the right edge lets you gauge your progress through the whole thing). Elaborate cartoons at the top of the screen illustrate scenes with whimsy; there's a new one for every scene. Dozens of photos, scattered throughout the app, depict productions large and small, populated with actors famous and unknown, giving you a bounty of wonderfully varied visuals. There are basic study and writing aids, too: Highlight text in the play to copy it and share it to other apps, or create your own notes and annotations.
Perhaps most vital, though, are the video clips you can download and watch by hitting the button below the cartoons in the primary reading view. Each connects to a moment in the present scene, and features one or more professional actors performing lines from the play. While the video plays, the app auto-scrolls through the text so you can read as you listen, and get a better feel for not just how the language sounds, but what it means. Being able to watch McKellen deliver Prospero's lines, drenched in the playful world-weariness that is both his trademark and so correct for the character, is almost worth the download price on its own. (The other actors, who also include Derek Jacobi as Gonzalo, ain't so bad, either.)
There is much more to the app, all which you can access from the hamburger menu in the app's lower-left corner. You can tap on The Play at a Glance to see a scene-by-scene breakdown of the plot, and drill down for even more details. You can use My Highlights and Notes to manage the references and callouts you've been making while reading. The Character Map View tracks the physical location of each major character in every scene. Tap on Shakespeare's World & Times to see an interactive map and timeline of Jacobean London, so you can better understand what events caused the play to come about. The First Folio leads you to a scanned copy of the complete play as it appeared in the 1623 collection of Shakespeare's works.
Perhaps most important is what you get from Essays, Videos and Performances. When you tap on this, you get access to an invaluable trove of information that explains more about the play than you could ever get just from just reading the script. Essays are short but rich, touching on topics like Language, Location, and Structure; themes including Music, Transformation, and Wonder; contextual concerns, such as colonialism, magic, and slavery; and influences ranging from Montaigne to Metamorphoses. Under Videos, the actors and Shakespeare expert Jonathan Bate deliver talking-head-style disquisitions about the characters, themes, and more. Finally, tap on Performances to see a list of major productions from the stage and screen; tap on any one for an analysis of its take on the material and a list of key cast members.
The app is incredibly easy to use, awash in help resources that explain every detail of how to proceed through The Tempest and configuration options that let you customize, say, whether you see line numbers, how in-depth the annotations are, and the font and text size, and manage the various videos you download.
Some Sports Are Painful
As good as Heuristic Shakespeare - The Tempest is, it's not perfect. Navigation can sometimes be cumbersome: If you want to get out of any of the hamburger menu options, you can only close the screen you're in and return to the text of the play; there's no way to directly return to the previous submenu. The app can sometimes display considerably different content when you're viewing it in Portrait or Landscape mode. For example, the in-script videos only appear in Portrait mode, and the scene breakdowns look far more extensive and useful in Landscape. This means you have to change back and forth to see everything in its best form, and there's no indication of when you're better off switching.
Another issue is that, as marvelous as the video segments are, they're done in present-day dress against a black background, with only one actor on screen at a time, so they have a distractingly static feel. It's a shame that there are no full-production clips of McKellen and his castmates, or anyone else—you miss out on a lot when you can't see everything that costumes, lights, and a full rehearsal period can add.
One other potential stumbling block is the app's cost. $5.99 may sounds like a reasonable cost for everthing that's in The Tempest, but Heuristic plans to give all 37 of Shakespeare's plays this treatment. If they all cost the same—hardly a safe assumption, considering how meaty some plays (such as Hamlet and King Lear) are—$221.63 is a pretty pricey total. Someone without the dramatic background could be put off, and no number of bells and whistles will make a lesser play like The Two Noble Kinsmen or Henry VIII great. I hope the company considers package deals for multiple plays or some other scheme for easing the strain Shakespeare's works could put on the wallet.
Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On
Still, there's plenty to enjoy in Heuristic Shakespeare - The Tempest. Does using the app in any way compare to seeing a good production of The Tempest live? No, of course not. But it's the next best thing to being in the theater. For that reason, I'm happy to give it an Editors' Choice award for literature apps on the iPad, and hope not that it puts English teachers out of business, but rather that it gives them another, better way for presenting some of the most vital, exciting, and transformative works our language has ever produced.