AMITIAE - Tuesday 3 May 2016

Heuristic Shakespeare: The Tempest - Rich iPad Experience, Expertly Fronted by Ian McKellen

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By Graham K. Rogers

Heuristic Tempest

With Ian McKellan as figurehead, Heuristic Shakespeare have produced a rich app that gives students and those who are interested with a full examination one of Shakespeare's plays. The content provides a rich experience. The first app covers The Tempest and it is to be hoped that all 37 plays will be covered eventually.

Every once in a while, there is a suggestion that Shakespeare should be removed from the classroom. The prime argument put forward is that the plays are irrelevant to today's students. That is not so and many still find a connection between the events depicted in many plays (Hamlet, King Lear, Romeo & Juliet) and current situations.

The difficulty that students have with the language is also used in the anti-Shakespeare argument, but so much of modern English is rooted in Shakespearean roots. It tends to be the way we speak, when we all chat out loud. Read that sentence again; iambic pentameter it's called. However, if we change the words, we change the rhythms too (read that as well). And that was a meter known as anapeste. There are also trochees, spondees and dactyls.

When you see the lines of Shakespeare as a kid and try to understand the archaic vocabulary, then it is no surprise that young heads begin to hurt. That is before they are even told about the references and in-jokes.

As a 15-year old learning Julius Caesar, my teacher's notes and assistance were just not enough. The CliffsNotes that I saw when I was in the USA are more shortcuts to exam success than proper understanding. It was not until I began to see the plays at theatres like The Old Vic (later the National Theatre) and Stratford that the penny dropped. Over the years I saw Cherie Lunghi, John Woodvine, Derek Jakobi, Patrick Stewart, Tom Wilkinson, Jonathan Hyde, Ian McKellen and many others. Most also have long lists of TV and movie credits.

Ian McKellen, whom I saw as Coriolanus in 1985 at the National Theatre, is well known to modern audiences as Gandalf, and as Magneto in X-Men movies, but his Shakespearean background and familiarity with the language make him one of the foremost proponents of the language. For example, if you want an instant understanding of the "Winter of Discontent" speech that opens Richard III, see McKellen's video version of the play.

Now he has turned to teaching the beauties of Shakespeare using modern technology with an app for the iPad: Heuristic Shakespeare - The Tempest. In iTunes this is described as "the first in a collection of thirty-seven separate apps". The intention is to demystify a Shakespeare play to make it more accessible to modern audiences.

Heuristic Tempest Heuristic Tempest

I downloaded the $5.99 app earlier and tried it on the 9.7" iPad Pro. This, or the iPad Air 2 is the most likely format that the app will be used in, although it scales up beautifully to the larger screen of the 12.9" iPad Pro. I did check the iPhones, but it would not install on these smaller devices. It is intended for the book-like interface that the iPad lends itself to so well.

A great deal of thought has been used in developing this app. As well as McKellen, Professor Sir Jonathan Bate (Worcester College, Oxford) provides the academic background and scholarly input. The unusual graphics reminded me of Gerald Scarfe initially. They are not (when I looked closely) and the artist, David Hughes has produced some great artwork that adds considerably to the flavour of the output.

After the initial screen, the user is offered three levels of assistance, with 1 (lowest) being suggested for students setting out on the learning path. This can be changed at any time in Settings, along with the amount of information detail provided and text size. From Settings the user may also organise downloading of videos of the comments, of scenes and of interviews.

Heuristic Tempest

The Tempest is sort of an odd place to start. Some think it is Shakespeare's final work: a sort of bowing out. Nonetheless, it has some major strengths with plot and dialogue. It may also provide a useful comparison with other plays that feature shipwrecks, such as 12th Night. It was also reimagined as the science fiction movie, Forbidden Planet.

When I first opened the app, it was suggested that I should download videos available, so that they could be viewed when I was offline. This is excellent advice. I checked later in settings and was warned that downloading the entire collection would take up 1.6GB so I should be aware of this from the point of view of both space on the device and downloading limits.

It may be that some downloads take a while to complete, so time should be set aside if there are speed or access problems. It is best not to interrupt a download.

The screen displays in either portrait or landscape mode. The former shows little more than the Arden text, while the wider display of landscape mode allows several additional links to be provided so that the reader can view a number of alternative forms of input or advice, such as McKellen discussing "Reconciliation" or Jonathan Bate on "Location". Notes may also be accessed in a similar way. On the other hand, landscape does not have the delightful David Hughes cartoons at the top of each scene page.

Heuristic Tempest

To the right of each screen were act and scene numbers. It was the matter of a tap to navigate through the play quickly like this. Acts were also colour-coded: blue, yellow, orange, pink and purple. An arrow indicates how far through the scene the user has read. To the left are line numbers with every 5 lines shown. If the screen is tapped, all line numbers appear: useful when citing text references.

In either display format, readers will see that some of the more difficult words or phrases are underlined. Tapping on this greys out the text and shows a suitably sized (small) panel with just the right information: context, definition or other comment. Not all of these were perhaps the best choices possible: for "perfect" I was offered "utter" and "unmitigated" - a niggle.

As well as meanings within the text, clicking on a character's name (to the left) brings up a panel with much related information on that character. There is also a search facility that allowed me to enter text (e.g. "brave new world") which gave me Act, Scene and Line numbers, plus a link to the play where the words appear.

Heuristic Tempest

I tried videos on the 12.9" iPad Pro for a couple of reasons. I wanted to experience the full display with the real estate that the device offers; and I was interested to listen to the sound quality on its speakers. On that aspect alone, this was a worthy experience. This quality was also evident when I listened to the play: the screen scrolling up as the words were read out.

The index page leads to several rich sections of information, including about the play, the history and the First Folio (its display matches the section of the play the reader has accessed). There are also collections of essays, videos and a list of historical performances. A feature here also allows the user to write notes.

Heuristic Tempest

While Sir Ian McKellan is the headline face, it is a team effort with the app developers and the expertise behind the app. This scores with the rich content, accessible in a number of ways and the seamless ways in which the whole app works. As well as this expertise (fully credited), the performers are also first rate.

$5.99 may seem like a lot for an app, but the skills and research that have gone into this make this a good investment, particularly when compared to the $7.95 price (on Amazon) of a new copy of CliffsNotes for the Tempest - yes, you can buy used copies cheaper.

This app has full text, notes, expert input, video, sound: a heuristic experience. This is a treasure and is highly recommended.

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. He is now continuing that in the Bangkok Post supplement, Life.



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All content copyright © G. K. Rogers 2016