iPad Programs Help Students With Shakespeare

The New York Times

Pity the English teacher of today, faced with a roomful of adolescents busy updating their Facebook status, communicating on Snapchat or gossiping via text message about the latest perfidy committed by a frenemy. Trying to instill in students a passionate interest in Shakespeare (or even a passing one) has never been a teacher’s easiest task. With all those digital distractions, the challenge of awakening teenagers’ interest in his plays has surely become harder.

The abbreviated discourse of texting and tweeting are a mighty distance from a dense Shakespearean soliloquy. A funny Roz Chast cartoon from The New Yorker several years ago riffed upon how removed new generations are from the language of Shakespeare. Ms. Chast’s Romeo and Juliet converse through as a series of text messages, with a version of the balcony scene concluding thus:

Juliet: xoxoxo bye see u tmw

Romeo: xoxoxoxoxo bye

A new project called WordPlay Shakespeare attempts to harness students’ aptitude and affection for new technologies to help them engage more easily with the plays. Created by the New Book Press, these $9.99 e-books can be downloaded from iTunes and are, so far, available only in the various Mac and iPad formats. The books combine the full texts of the plays with video versions made specifically for the series. When you open the “book,” a page of text appears on the left half of the screen, much as it would appear in a standard book. On the right half, a quick click brings up an image of actors performing the passage opposite.

Alexander Parker, the publisher of the New Book Press, said he sees this format as an ideal way to enhance students’ ability to grasp the complexity of Shakespeare’s language. “The tablet,” he said, “is well suited to mixing media that haven’t been mixed before,” in this case standard text and video. “When you have the text and a performance next to each other, you have a mutually reinforcing experience.”

So far, the company has produced only “Macbeth” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — two of the most regularly taught plays in the canon. Another pair of plays that are often students’ first encounter with Shakespeare — “Romeo and Juliet” and “Julius Caesar” — are in preproduction.

A brisk test run had me sold on the merits of the project, although there are aspects that take some getting used to. It’s clean, well produced and easy to use. Click on the right of the white screen and up pop actors bringing the words to life, dressed in modern clothing with, in “Macbeth,” mild Scottish trimming. (Coincidentally, Francesca Faridany, who can be seen in the current Broadway revival of “Macbeth,” as the witch Hecate, plays Lady Macbeth in the WordPlay version.)

Even for adults, Shakespeare’s language can be challenging, and the piles of notes that some editions stuff at the bottom of a page can be daunting. Every time you come to an unclear phrase or word, your engagement must be interrupted to search out the meaning. Then you have to pick up the speech where you left off. For students, of course, this can be even more off-putting, turning Shakespeare into a slogging chore that makes trigonometry seem a lark by comparison.

But quite a bit of the meaning in a Shakespeare speech can be easily illuminated by performance, even if some of the language remains remote. Syntax that seems convoluted or impenetrable when you read it suddenly acquires meaning when you hear it performed by an actor, and WordPlay Shakespeare gives students access to a performance with the swipe of a finger. Many of the obscurities in a Shakespeare speech can be clarified when the words are contextualized through performance.

As easy as it is to use, WordPlay Shakespeare can be frustrating. If a soliloquy or speech spreads across two pages (as very often they do), and you’re watching it being performed, the actors will suddenly disappear in a blink when they get to the end of the portion of the speech on the other half of the screen. You have to swipe to the next page and activate the video again to continue; obviously, this is not as dramatically satisfying as hearing one of Macbeth’s great soliloquies complete. As of now, there’s no way of simply pressing “start” and have the text scroll through, automatically moving through the drama without requiring you to turn page after page.

And because the books are designed so that students can read the text while also hearing it, the actors often amble through highly dramatic dialogue that, in a stage performance, would necessarily be performed with more urgency. When, in “Macbeth,” news suddenly ripples through the Macbeths’ castle of the king’s death, there isn’t quite the sense of chaos, horror and fear that you would see in a stage performance, to cite one example.

But Mr. Parker emphasized that the aim of the project is not to produce entertainment — there are plenty of films and videos of Shakespeare productions available, after all — but to help students grapple with the language.

“We were not interested in flashy or spectacular renditions,” he said. “For our interests, in a first approach to Shakespeare, the emphasis is on language. The project’s aim is to focus on diction and meaning and clarity of language, and I think our actors are good at that.”

I’d agree with that assessment: While you are not likely to find the video presentations obliterating any memories of your favorite “Macbeth” or “Dream,” the performers (most but not all are American) speak the language with the lucidity of well-trained classical actors. Vivid and heated as it was, a performance like Al Pacino’s Shylock would probably not be all that helpful to students just trying to make the connection between language and meaning in Shakespeare.

WordPlay Shakespeare is not the only attempt to created “enhanced” versions of his plays for new technology. Luminary Digital Media, in collaboration with Simon & Schuster and the Folger Shakespeare Library, has created a series of Shakespeare plays for the iPad that combine the text with audio renditions. Titles currently available include “Macbeth” and “Dream” along with “Othello” and “Romeo and Juliet.” (“Hamlet” is on the way.)

These versions, at $11.99 each, have an advantage in that you can listen to (and read) whole scenes at a time, without interruption, or indeed the whole play. They are also tricked out with social-media bells and whistles, allowing you to take notes and share them with your Facebook family. (One wonders just how many “likes” this kind of thing would get, but never mind.)

As with WordPlay, hearing the words spoken helps clarify meaning, but I wasn’t crazy about the gray bar that highlights the line being spoken. It was more distracting than helpful, but if you’re mainly listening, and want to dip in and out of the reading process, presumably this visual indicator would be helpful. (Also, if you are just reading and listening, beware that if your iPad is set to go into sleep mode after a certain amount of time, the app can shut down, since you don’t need to touch the screen to keep on reading.)

With just two titles so far, the WordPlay project is less advanced, but Mr. Parker says the reactions have been positive. “The response we’ve had is that this makes it so much more understandable, without in any way dumbing it down,” he said.

And while the project’s inspiration is pedagogical — before starting the New Book Press, Mr. Parker was an “educational technologist” at Harvard University for 12 years — there obviously is no age stamp on the product itself. The study of Shakespeare’s plays is a lifelong endeavor, and WordPlay Shakespeare is entirely suitable for people who’ve long since been to their last prom. It may ultimately find as large an audience in the living rooms of increasingly tech-savvy post-high-school demographic as it does in the classroom.

“A number of adults I’ve shown this to have said the same thing: ‘I wish I had this when I was studying Shakespeare,’ ” Mr. Parker said, adding that the feeling holds true for him. Although I’ve occasionally found myself leaning toward dismay at the increasingly heavy tread of new technology on literary turf, I’d have to admit that I share the sentiment: Kids today, for whom pounding down the keys on a manual typewriter would probably qualify as irritatingly strenuous exercise, really don’t know how easy they have it. – CHARLES ISHERWOOD

© 2017 Jessica Bauman
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