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Macbeth: Explore Shakespeare

As a school kid obliged to read him, my first experiences of Shakespeare were through the Arden editions, and I’ve largely remained faithful to these in later life, even if they are full of editorial minutiae that sometimes reduce the actual play text on the page to a couple of lines.

Such an imbalance between primary text and editorial matter makes them a forbidding and highly academic way to present such popular and earthy works. Many people who would otherwise enjoy reading and learning about Shakespeare must be put off by the dry scholarly apparatus that surrounds his text. Such passionate, muscular writing should never be overtaken by the dusty primness of academia.

The modern world of tablet apps is a wonderful opportunity, then, to unburden Shakespeare, to combine the wonders of the text with the power of performance, while still providing top notch the scholarship, even if it is hidden away from immediate view.

Cambridge University Press have the right idea, or something close to it, with their Macbeth: Explore Shakespeare iPad app. Viewing it on an iPad mini, I encountered a few technical and interaction problems, but once past them I found a lot to like.

At the core of the app is the text of the play. One can choose to augment the text with performance photos, scholarly annotations, plot explanations and an audio performance with very intrusive sound effects and breathlessly hammy acting. There’s also an excellent search feature. The ideas are good: hypertext is the obvious way to provide definitions of unfamiliar words, and audio can bring the text to life. However, the implementation only serves to show how hard it is to do well.

Many of the annotations are very perfunctory, as if replacing one of Shakespeare’s carefully chosen words with another word provides all of the explanation needed. For example, when Shakespeare has Malcolm say:

Hail, brave friend;

Say to the king the knowledge of the broil.

– it’s not enough to annotate “broil” as “battle”. It’s a wonderful pun using the two meanings of the word – “cook over hot coals” and “noisy quarrel”. This richness is characteristic of Shakespeare’s language, and glossing over such a device is a help neither to the novice nor to the experienced reader. All too often the annotations seek to remove ambiguity from Shakespeare’s language rather than to point it out and celebrate it for its central part in his work.

If one turns on the “Solo Activities” feature, small suggestions for thinking outside the scope of the play are given. These tend to be somewhat reductive, for example suggesting that the reader might write an execution notice for the Thane of Cawdor, or to speculate what three black males playing the witches might have “brought to their roles” based on nothing more than a photo of them.

Outside the text, there is some introductory material and a misjudged section called “Explore”. This contains a “word cloud” and a kind of demented subway map of themes that between them reveal nothing about the play.

Augmenting Shakespeare is not something to be undertaken lightly. Great possibilities have been opened up by the new computing platforms, and it’s probably too much to expect today’s apps to be definitive on emerging platforms.

However, it is heartening that there is a place for apps that try to bring us great writing presented in a intelligent and enlightening way. We should be excited about the possibilities for even greater and wider engagement with Shakespeare’s peerless work.

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