iPad App Review: Shakespeare in Bits: Macbeth Reviewed by Guy Dayen
Shakespeare is, without a doubt, the greatest writer in the English language, and arguably, one of the very best writers the world has ever known. Anyone who deems him or herself a cultured individual has to be more than passing familiar with the Bard's great works. Teachers tell us that we should read the poems and plays, and deeply appreciate the terrific insights they can afford us into human nature and human affairs. Even Cole Porter advises us to "brush up your Shakespeare". We know that we should WANT to read the cannon, and be able to spout off the perfect quote to fit any situation, but yet, most people just can't bring themselves to sit down and actually plod through one of the plays. It's long and hard work, especially when it comes to the dramas!
Let?s face it: the vocabulary is a barrier, the syntax of many of the phrases leaves us scratching our heads, and we just can?t keep track of all those characters; let alone know who they are, or are supposed to be! Unless you happen to be an English major, or are well-versed in European political history, it?s very common not to have the background knowledge necessary to really appreciate what is going on in the play. So what?s a modern man, or woman, to do? How do we approach such challenging reading in the age of Facebook and Twitter?
A wonderful solution is the Shakespeare in Bits series by Mindconnex Learning Ltd. They have produced two apps so far, centered on Romeo and Juliet and on Macbeth. It is the Scottish play that I chose to review, as it is one of my favorites and is also one of the more challenging of Shakespeare?s dramatic plays.
First, the app itself: it is organized according to the following sections: Play, Scenes, Cast, Analysis, Info and more plays. The app?s graphic design is somber, as befits the theme of the play. Shades of blue and black predominate the home screen, and it is from here that you access the various sections. Everything is clearly laid out and right at your fingertips. The main characters stand at the ready on your home screen, the play is about to begin, and as Shakespeare so aptly said: ?The play?s the thing.?
Section 1- The play: It is here that most of the content can be found. On the right side of the screen, you?ll find the text for each Act and Scene in the play. On the left side, a movie window, where you can watch the play acted out with simple animations. Simple does not mean bad, and while they?re not full-blown movie theatre animations, the scenes you are presented with in the app serve their purpose admirably. Being able to see what is going on as you listen to the play and read the words alongside the visuals is a great help in understanding what is actually going on. A nice bonus is that the window can be switched to full screen, so you can concentrate on the action, and then go back to the smaller window with text. I have to mention that the voice acting is excellent in Macbeth. It?s obvious that professional actors were used, and that the producers of the app did not skimp on production values.
As the play goes on, the text automatically highlights in red as each character speaks. Words that might be difficult are highlighted in yellow. A simple touch of the finger transforms the word into its modern equivalent. This would have been a godsend when I was studying Shakespeare in school. I still remember sitting at my desk with the play on one side, and a dictionary on the other. It really disrupted the reading experience, having to stop so often to check on this word and that. Having the option of looking up a word by simply touching it seems a much more natural and enjoyable way of progressing through the play. It?s effortless, and God, how I wish it would have been available thirty years ago. I might have impressed my Shakespeare professor a whole lot more than I did !
The text is accompanied by letter icons, which signal extra content. An ?L? stands for language, and touching it brings up more information on the vocabulary words that are highlighted in the scene. An ?M? stands for miscellaneous. Touching that icon brings up text boxes filled with various and sundry quick facts about a particular line or scene. A ?T? brings up a Theme box, which digs much deeper into the meaning of a particular line or scene, and ties it to the overall theme of the play. There is also a question mark icon, which brings up discussion questions, to help you reflect on what you are reading at that moment.
It should be noted that the text portion of the screen has three tabs at the top: TEXT, which is the play itself, NOTES, which gives supplementary information on each section of the play, detailing the significance of smaller portions of the text. (It?s so much easier to understand the play when it is broken down like this. It makes clear the name of the series: rather than just explaining the play as a whole, as most texts are wont to do, this app approaches the play bit by bit, breaking it down in smaller logical sections that are much easier to digest.) Finally, there is a SYNOPSIS section, which summarizes each section of the play, and gives a general overview of it. It?s a three-prong approach that gives you a maximum of information in a very easy digest format. It?s a pleasure to read the play that way. The authors never talk down to you, but they do take pains to make everything as clear as it can be.
Section 2 - Scenes: This is the navigation tool that lets you quickly access any part of the play you wish to read or review. Thumbnails let you quickly and easily identify each scene.
Section 3 - Cast: Here, you will find extensive information on the complete dramatis personae of the play. In-depth information is given on every major character, and a relationship map helps to make sense of how the different characters relate to each other. Again, the organization evident in this app is truly impressive.
Section 4 - Analysis: This is where everything comes together. You will find a complete plot summary. Major themes are explored and explained. The imagery Shakespeare used in the play is elucidated. There is a brief discussion of the language and style in Macbeth. Essential quotes are highlighted and discussed. And finally, there is information about Shakespeare and his times. It?s an excellent wrap-up to the play, and a great way to do a review of the play.
I really like this app. It made me want to read Shakespeare again, and enjoy it a lot more than when I read it the first time. I also showed it to a librarian, and a couple of English teachers. All of them were blown away by Shakespeare in Bits, and they all said that they would recommend it to students reading Macbeth as a superb way to read and review the play. Think of it as having your own tutor on call 24 hours a day. (And having this on your iPad is a great way to impress that cute English major you noticed at the library !) Considering the cost of textbooks and educational materials these days, the price is extremely reasonable for the content included with this app.
I look forward to reading Romeo and Juliet next. And I can?t wait to see which play Mindconnex will produce next. I heartily recommend Shakespeare in Bits: Macbeth. If you enjoy literature and great reading, do yourself a great favor and head to the iTunes store right away. You won?t be sorry.