Ebooks: A dozen digital ways to explore Shakespeare’s poems and plays
As the literary world marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the digital universe offers a dozen ways to experience his poems and plays, from animated graphic versions of the plays to detailed text-books that compare folios.
Those coming to both the work and to digital devices for the first time will find ShakespearePro (£9.99) to be comprehensive as well as easy to use. The digital compendium holds 41 plays, 154 sonnets and six poems: the complete works, including unconfirmed attributions and incomplete fragments. For the inexperienced reader, there are also 20 Shakespeare shorts called Tales from Shakespeare, which condense 20 plays into short versions. The full texts, meanwhile, are reproduced clearly and numbered by line, which makes comparison with the Folios and Quartos remarkably easy for those with scholarly aspirations. There is also historical and biographical information, an integrated glossary that allows you to translate Elizabethan terms without leaving the page, and note-taking and note-sharing facilities. Its textual emphasis allows for concentrated reading without distraction.
For students who struggle with Shakespeare and may need to be inspired, Shakespeare in Bits (€15 per play) may make the work more immediately accessible. The app offers complete unabridged versions of the individual plays, broken into easily digested “bits”. There are fully animated dramatisations that bring the plays to life for those uninspired by the play as text, using a mood-inspired audio soundtrack, and the voices of Kate Beckinsale, Michael Sheen, and Fiona Shaw. The graphics, which draw on popular anime style, make the target teenage audience clear, while the choice of texts currently available is limited to popular curriculum choices (Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Julius Caesar and Macbeth). The scholarly additions are on the more basic end, with character biographies, relationship maps, and scene summary rather than analysis but, still, there is more than enough meat in the study notes to help the reluctant student along.
The Sonnets by William Shakespeare (€9.99) is the exemplary app for multimedia exploration of the Bard’s work. Designed by Touchpress, it presents the full text of Shakespeare’s 154 14-line poems alongside a series of extra features that showcase the full potential of digital publishing. Some scholars believe that Shakespeare’s poems were written for performance, and the video performances by actors such as Fiona Shaw, Patrick Stewart, David Tennant and Simon Callow are a certain highlight of this slick production and an easy way into the poems for those who are unfamiliar with the work. However, users are also given access to deep scholarly engagement with the sonnets. There is a full introduction to the poems, line-by-line readings, and an option for interactive note-taking. For in-depth analysis, the line-by-line readings also allow you to compare versions of the sonnet, bringing up a facsimile of the 1609 Quarto, for example, that enables readers to track how the language has been standardised over the centuries and also to compare interpretations. Further academic analysis features video contributions by leading Shakespeare scholars such as Katherine Duncan-Jones, Don Paterson and James Shapiro. The informal presentational style of these meaty lectures epitomises the accessible approach that Touchpress, in collaboration with Arden, has taken throughout the app.
To Be or Not to Be (€10.99), a choose-your-own-adventure book, takes a more irreverent approach to democratising the work of the Elizabethan writer. Taking its cue from Shakespeare’s liberal use of source material, it posits alternative versions of Hamlet, told from the perspective of the 30 year-old “Emo Prince”, Hamlet, the ghost of his recently murdered father, Hamlet Senior, and his girlfriend Ophelia, a budding scientist with a weakness for water, an ironic play on her fate in Shakespeare’s play.
Created by Ryan North (whose television credits include the cartoon Adventure Time), the book allows you to offer these characters different options than Shakespeare’s tragic impetus directs. In one of the iterations of the narrative I followed, Hamlet and Ophelia invented central heating and lived happily ever after on the profits until retiring into royalty when the throne-usurper Claudius finally dies. In another permutation, North brings a pirate scene, dismissed by Hamlet in Shakespeare’s version in a single line, to life for the reader. In yet another, Hamlet cannot fight his depression and kills himself, joining his father in ghostdom, where they lead “an army of humanities greatest ghosts into battle”. Most of the storylines are drawn from suggestions implicit in Shakespeare’s text – comments made about characters that remain unexplored, off-stage scenes – but there is also a lot of “making out”, which Elizabethan audiences were certainly spared. You can also choose to follow Shakespeare’s original storyline, which is clearly marked by the symbol of Yorick’s skull. Not as much fun, but just as bloody as some of the 110 alternatives that North offers.
To Be or Not to Be is written in contemporary style, combining wry contemporary summaries of the dramatic action with pithy pop cultural puns and jokes. It is available in straightforward Kindle format, where the illustrations, by Kate Beaton, Christopher Hastings and Jeph Jaques among others, create a terrific visual register for the new pulp-inspired plots. However, there is also an enhanced e-book version, which includes narration and music options, and which incentivises your appetite for new adventures, releasing the artwork for the book to you as a reward for completing various tasks and allowing you to rate the quality of the adventure on a Hamlo-meter. In line with North’s measure, the digital book is more “to be” than “not to be”.