App Review: The Heuristic Shakespeare

The impact of e-books on mainstream paper publishing is a hotly disputed topic. Several years ago the demise of the physical book was confidently predicted in some quarters, while fiercely denied by others. Recent research has suggested that sales of e-readers has been in steady decline for some time, although how much this is the market levelling off after an initial rush on new technology, and how much it represents a fresh migration back to traditional media, remains to be seen. Undeniable among all of this, however, is the fact that our reading habits have been forever changed by the advent of digital publishing; and as new ventures reach the market month-on-month this shows no sign of tailing off.

Occasionally products are released which give a glimpse of just how much of an impact digital publishing could potentially have on the experience of those who love literature or wish to be introduced to it. It is perhaps fitting that one of the most cutting edge reading experiences to emerge in recent days is centred around the works of William Shakespeare. Originally timed to coincide with events marking 400 years since The Bard’s death, The Heuristic Shakespeare is an app which offers a deeply enriched encounter with the works of the best known playwright in history. Given Shakespeare’s place in the new printing technologies which were so much a part of the Renaissance, it is highly significant that his work is once again at the cutting edge of how we encounter the written word.

Available exclusively on iPad, The Heuristic Shakespeare takes what is strongest in app development and combines it with the power of Shakespearean drama. Where e-books have traditionally sought to approximate the printed page as closely as possible, this app seeks to transcend traditional boundaries, packing resources that no printed matter could provide. Along with the entire text of The Tempest) is a full video recording of a to-camera performance of the play by top notch actors, headed by Sir Ian McKellen.

This is accompanied by other video resources, such as scholarly articles, as well as the full notes from the Arden Shakespeare integrated with the text. Additionally the characters within the play are cleverly mapped so that the reader can see the entire dramatis personae along with their location in the play at any given moment. Readers can tailor the level of notes they require, from beginners at level one, to scholars at level three. An interactive timeline is also included, showing the point in history at which Shakespeare’s entire dramatic output was published. On top of this are other delightfully quirky details such as being able to trace where one is reading in the original Folio edition of the play. Heuristic Media have set a goal of producing 37 such apps over time, with a similar emphasis on quality scholarly materials and stunning visuals.

There is at work here a marvelous synergy of content and presentation which is bound to spell something of a revolution in terms of how we encounter and engage with textual content. The features of the app work because they are not bundled as a resource which the reader needs to ‘work through’, but come as an intuitive experience where visual, textual, and historical materials flow seamlessly as the play is read through.

One imagines that the strengths of The Heuristic Shakespeare could easily be transferred to other works across all genres, and it interesting to entertain just what kind of impact this kind of product could have on the Christian world. Looking back to the early days of the Renaissance, the progress of technology and the progress of the gospel were inextricably linked, with new virtual platforms (books) providing vistas not enjoyed by previous generations. Products such as this show just how far technology can potentially go in bringing people into contact with the vibrant world of a text, even though its language and concepts are historically removed from our own. It surely falls to Christian creatives and textual scholars to seek to exploit these avenues for the progress of the cause of Christ.

It is difficult to commend this app too highly, nor to overestimate the degree to which it will revolutionise the study of Shakespeare in school contexts, as well as its ability to open up the playwright’s world to the uninitiated, and the confirmed devotee alike.

The Tempest is available on the App Store.

*A version of this review originally appeared in Solas Magazine*

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