iPad iBook Review: The Sonnets by William Shakespeare Review
Reviewed by Guy Dayen
The sonnet form is considered by many to be the pinnacle of English poetry; difficult to master and exacting in its demand of form, meter and rhyme. The great William Shakespeare, though much more widely known for the plays that established his reputation as one of the literary greats for all ages, was perhaps the most accomplished practitioner of the genre that ever was. However, Shakespeare's poetry isn't as familiar to many people. Two factors can probably account for this: for one, poetry is read much more often than it is performed, and therefore isn't as high profile as a work of drama which can be seen in the theaters or at the movies. Furthermore, reading Shakespeare can be daunting for many, wether it be the plays or the poems. The language is dense, and the vocabulary can be difficult, especially for the casual reader. Many readers simply shy away.
The Sonnets by William Shakespeare seeks to redress the situation and popularize the master's poems to a much wider audience by giving many tools to make the sonnets more approachable. Having resources such as these at your fingertips while reading these beautiful gems of poetry makes for a much more fulfilling and enjoyable experience.
To begin with, every sonnet Shakespeare wrote is presented here in this collection, along with a longer narrative poem entitled "Love's Complaint", and it is very instructive to see the evolution of ideas and themes, as the poems are arranged as they were in the original 1609 edition. Each individual poem takes up the entire screen of the iPad, which makes reading easy and pleasing to the eye.
As an alternative to the full printed page, each poem is presented in a half-page format, where the poem is accompanied by a short video reading, done by a profusion of well-known actors, such as Patrick Stewart, Jemma Redgrave, Stephen Fry, Kim Cattrall and Oliver Ford Davies, all masters of their craft. As the poem is being read, the lines turn to red so the reader can easily follow along. The videos can be started and paused again anywhere along the way by a simple tap of the screen. Having a reader bring the poems to life helps a great deal, especially for those unsure of the cadence of each poem. Words and phrases that may seem extremely hard to understand on the page suddenly gain a new life and meaning with the voices of these wonderful performances. Sitting down to read the bard's poetry can be a little scary; this kind of multimedia presentation makes the experience a lot easier and a lot more enjoyable.
For those who wish to get the full Shakespeare experience, the sonnets are also presented in a reproduction of the 1609 Quatro, which was the first published edition of the poems. The reproduction includes the cover, the end papers and every page of the book. The typeface is more difficult to read, but it is a beautiful addition to the app, and it is nice to be able to see the poems in the way contemporary readers of Shakespeare would have seen them.
The real meat of this book, for serious readers, scholars or students, is to be found in the scholarly references provided for the reader. To begin with, there is the "notes" view of each poem. Here, you will find notes and word definitions from the Arden Third Series edition of "Shakespeare's Sonnets", written by Professor Katherine Duncan-Jones, a Senior Research Fellow at Oxford. Also, there is a commentary for each poem, taken from "Reading Shakespeare's Sonnets" by Don Paterson. This work has been described as a "masterclass for the lay reader", and it is a most appropriate resource for those new to Shakespeare or to reading poetry for enjoyment or study. The app also gives you a space to type in your own notes for each poem, so the reader can record his or her thoughts. All in all, it's a great way to delve as deeply as you want in the poems, or to simply enjoy them for the remarkable pieces of art they are.
Another major resource section is entitled "Perspectives". In this area of the book, the reader will find detailed information about the sonnet form in general, and more specifically, a discussion of the sonnet in Elizabethan England. There is also an in-depth presentation of Shakespeare's sonnet and their relation to his personal and artistic life. Some of the main themes are explored, and there is a great section on how to pronounce and read the sonnets. What should they sound like? How has pronunciation changed since the time of Shakespeare? It's all fascinating information, and for anyone in a college course on Shakespeare or on English Lit., this app will be absolutely invaluable. I know I would have been consulting this book daily back in my college days, so English Lit. majors: heads up! Get this book now!
Finally, there is one last scholarly resource: the full introduction to the sonnets from the Arden Shakespeare, one of the best critical references to Shakespeare's works to be found anywhere. This is not to be missed by anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of Shakespeare and his poems.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, even though it's been almost three decades since my college days as an English major. The poems are beautiful, the performances are flawless, and the supporting resources are some of the very best available. I highly recommend this wonderful book to anyone who wants to discover Shakespeare's poetry, or who simply wants to experience some of the most beautiful words ever put to paper. For less than the price of a regular book, you get a wealth of well-coordinated resources, and all the help you'll ever need to understand and appreciate one of the greatest writers who ever lived. Don't think this is a book meant only for scholars; everyone with a love of reading and literature will find this "The Sonnets by William Shakespeare" a true delight. It's one of the very best books released so far for the iPad, and it will be one of the highlight apps of 2012. I loved it, and I think you will too.