Review : Shakespeare At Play’s “Romeo and Juliet”

By very strange coincidence I received two independent requests for review recently for almost the exact same thing – interactive Shakespeare for my iPad. Here’s the thing, though – one is an interactive book, and one is an app. Other than this technicality they are nearly identical both in function as well as what they hope to accomplish. As such I cannot help but review them against each other. Here we look at the app.

Read the plays or see them performed?

It’s a question we’ve beaten into the ground over the years and my position has always been that it’s the “or” that causes trouble. You absolutely positively without doubt should do one and the other. The constraints of daily life are what decide which you have the better opportunity to accomplish.

Every time I have a new project I think to myself, book or app? The traditional book format reaches a wider audience with simpler requirements, but you sacrifice  your ability to really dig in and create a truly interactive experience.  An app is a more complex beast, taking longer to produce for what is ultimately a smaller audience, but you get to make it do exactly what you envisioned.
Today we have the Shakespeare At Play app for review.  Much like other offerings in this space, this product walks you through Shakespeare’s work by providing half a page of text and half a page of video.  Each scene gets an audio description, a textual description, and a textual description of the characters.
Before getting into the quality of the content, I want to mention a few other features. Under the global Menu option is a Shakespeare FAQ, whose purpose I did not truly understand. It’s just a text file, not even searchable. There is an integrated glossary, which is a nice touch.  As you read you’ll see some words in boldface.  Hold your finger on one, and you’ll get the definiton.
There is also a Download Manager. In my previous post I mentioned that without internet connectivity I was unable to stream the videos, thus giving a point to the more traditional book format. However, you can opt to download all the videos and take them with you. The thing is you need to plan to do that ahead of time, it’s still not going to work if your internet goes out :).
This is also a player app for multiple titles, and as such it has its own Library (unlike iBooks, where going to Library takes you out of each individual title).  As of this moment I think that their Library functionality needs work, it took me ages to figure out that I’m supposed to click on the unadorned price box under each title in order to complete the in-app purchase and actually get my book.
Lastly, what I think is perhaps the most useful feature of the entire app.  Running alongside the text is not what I’d call modern translation, but more like “director’s notes” telling you what’s going on, and why.  An example:

Presumably Gregory sees Tybalt approaches, which is confusing as it is Benvolio who arrives first. This could mean that Tybalt is seen by Samson and Gregory, but is positioned so as to surprise Benvolio.

This commentary runs throughout the play, and I thought it was an excellent addition.
Ok, with features out of the way let’s talk about the content.  In this particular case I’ve chosen Romeo and Juliet, since I did Macbeth in a previous review.  The company’s Hamlet is listed as “Coming Soon”.
Similar to the previous title I reviewed, each scene is a bare stage (that in this case blends almost completely into the page), tightly focused on the speaking characters. This puts an unfortunate focus on the quality of the acting, which is far from award winning.  It’s more like people just got in front of the character with the intent of demonstrating how the lines should go.  But that’s fine, it’s not like Sir Ian and Sir Patrick are just hanging out waiting for their phone call.  The value of these apps is in their interactivity, not their stagecraft.  I don’t mean to fault the enthusiasm of the actors who made this, I just don’t think that this nothing-but-character-closeups method of filming is the best way to present Shakespeare. 
Each video represents an entire scene, which you follow along by vertically scrolling the text in a separate frame. I would love it if these could be synced up in some way.  If you let the video run for a few minutes and then actually have a question, it’s going to take you awhile to find that spot in the text. Similarly if you’re reading ahead and want to jump the video to a certain place, you’ll have equal trouble.  
I’m at a complete loss as to what I’m supposed to do when I get to the end of a scene.  There’s no obvious way to move to the next one.  The unobvious way is to tap the current Act and Scene button at the top of the page, which brings down a menu and allows you to pick another scene.  I find this so unintuitive that I assume I’m just missing something.  Sure, it allows you to easily jump around the play.  But aren’t most reader/watchers going to most often want to simply say “next scene”?
What else….  the audio commentary I suppose is a nice idea, but the interface needs work. Unlike the video player which has the traditional pause buttons and progress bars, the audio offers none of that, just a play button. Every time you stop and start, it starts over.  Which I’d be fine with except for the fact that there’s no way to tell how long he’s going to talk!  Is this a 45 second commentary or a 12 minute one?  That makes a big difference.
I’d like to see many more features to bring an app like this on par with a book.  Highlighting passages and taking notes would be a big one.  That seems like an easy add.  As I mentioned I’d like the video and text to stay in sync, even going so far as to seamlessly jump between scenes so you could if you wanted just watch the whole book end to end.
Right now I think that the “director’s commentary” I spoke of is the best part of this app.  Perhaps they could marry this together with the video syncing and the audio commentary to produce something more like a modern DVD?  Where the user could opt to turn on the commentary track and then following through the play in text and video, while listening to the director’s notes?  That would be seriously cool.

Review : Read and Watch Macbeth

By very strange coincidence I received two independent requests for review recently for almost the exact same thing – interactive Shakespeare for my iPad. Here’s the thing, though – one is an interactive book, and one is an app. Other than this technicality they are nearly identical both in function as well as what they hope to accomplish. As such I cannot help but review them against each other.

Read the plays or see them performed?

It’s a question we’ve beaten into the ground over the years and my position has always been that it’s the “or” that causes trouble. You absolutely positively without doubt should do one and the other. The constraints of daily life are what decide which you have the better opportunity to accomplish.

I’ve always been a big proponent of using technology to fix this gap, and Apple’s new “interactive books” make some important steps in the right direction. Unfortunately I think there’s still a long way to go before they can compete with dedicated apps.

New Book Press graciously sent me a copy of their WordPlay Macbeth for review. Keep in mind that this is a book, not an app, and you’ll find it in the Books section of the iTunes Store.

What goes into an interactive book? Well, start with the original text, that’s obvious. There’s a summary page for each scene which includes clickable images of all the characters in that scene. Click one and you get a summary of that character’s role as well.

But this is only half the page! The opposite page is filled up with a movie so you can follow along the text while the actors perform for you. This is actually pretty cool. Now you truly can read and watch and the same time!

There’s more. You watch the actors perform it. You can see the text as they do it. What if you still have no idea what they just said? Here’s something you can’t do away from your computer — hit that “Tap to translate” button and up pops an English translation of what you just saw/read.

Like any book you can also bookmark your place, and search the text. You can also take notes as you go, highlighting passages and adding your own thoughts. The website mentions “social sharing” functions, but all I found was the ability to email your own notes.

This is a great deal of functionality for a book, and it should be viewed as such. I don’t want to take away from that. I do, however, feel that there are a number of things that they may want to change, if the format allows it:

  1. The “Tap to Translate” button brings up the modern copy as a balloon style dialogue box, half atop the text and half over the video (which might still be playing).  That means there’s no real “side by side” comparison to what you’re reading. You can’t move it.  The video also doesn’t switch over, which I understand (that would double the already huge filesize), but it would be cool if you clicked that button and then got to watch the actors perform it in modern language.
  2. Every page is some text, and a video.  That means that you get very little text per page, and very little acting (since each video only represents what’s on the page).  So working your way through the book would be an exercise in “Play video, watch 30 seconds, flip…play video,  watch 30 seconds, flip…” for 4 hours worth of content.
  3. I’m not sure what they were going for with the acting, whether it’s supposed to be legit or campy or educational or what.  The background of the videos is pure white, along with the book itself, so when you play a video it’s as if characters are running out of the page right at you (which is actually kind of cool).  Monologues are frequently spoken directly to the reader, breaking the fourth wall, which was a little jarring to me.
  4. They doubled up on some actors, which is no big deal in a real stage production but if this is intended to be an educational resource, you have to assume that there’s a younger audience who is actually trying to pay attention and learn something … and when the guy that was just playing the third witch a minute ago suddenly runs up to report to Duncan about Macbeth’s exploits on the battlefield, many readers will be left confused.
  5. Each “chapter” (Act and/or Scene) comes with a summary page that contains clickable portraits of all the actors, and one or more still images of the videos to come, along with a high level summary of the chapter. I found this more confusing than anything else.  I wanted to click the still images and fast forward to those sections (you cannot).  The “bio” for each actor is the same no matter where they appear in the play, so once you’ve read one they just get in the way.  It might have been better to use that space to actually talk about what each character is going to do in the scene?
  6. I’m very confused by the name to look for. The web site calls these books WordPlay Shakespeare, but when you look on iTunes the book is called “Read and Watch Macbeth : Complete Text & Performance.” I don’t know if that’s because I got some sort of early review copy or what, and I apologize to the publisher if I’m calling it by the wrong name. But I also want people to be able to find it in the store!

 Overall, I’ll say again, I like the idea of the “interactive book” format and think it has potential. I witnessed one advantage just this week when my internet went out. As I mentioned above I have another interactive Shakespeare app that is very similar to this one — but without internet I could not watch any of the videos :(.  With this version I have everything I need downloaded, so I could take it with me places that may not have a live net connection.  That’s a bonus that we often forget.

Macbeth requires iBooks 3 on an iPad device with iOS 5.1 or higher.

Crazy Eyes Went Full Shakespeare (PG-13)

Show of hands, how many people have checked out the Netflix Original “Orange Is The New Black? In Netflix’s own words, it’s “Trying to become HBO before HBO becomes us.”

Here’s the highlights if you know nothing about the show : It’s set in a women’s prison.  And it is original unrated content.  Which means highly NSFW and really potentially offensive to those with more delicate sensibilities.  If you hear “women’s prison” and you think “gratuitous nudity and lesbian scenes” then you’d be absolutely right – in the first episode.  The expected scene comes so quickly that I’m pretty sure the creators put it in there just to say “Here you go, everybody that came expecting that, you got what you wanted, now sit down and watch for the story.”

The theme of the show is about having nothing to hide, and having to come to terms with the ugly truth about who you really are. The inmate that’s your worst enemy one day may need a favor from you the next.  You’re innocent, it’s your cellmate that’s crazy…or is it the other way around?

Which brings us to “Crazy Eyes,” whose real character name happens to be Suzanne.  The first time we see her it’s in the context of another prisoner’s first day orientation and the lesson, “Don’t sit with Crazy Eyes at lunchtime.”  But Crazy Eyes has more depth than you might imagine!  She’s always singing, or rattling off some original poetry to her latest crush.  When an “acting opportunity” comes up for the inmates, she’s disappointed to learn that it is one of those “Scared Straight” programs for teens, because “other prisons get to do Shakespeare and sh*t. I want to play a role!” Not that that stops her.

This “Best Of Crazy Eyes” clip is all I could find. Warning again, these are highlights from a NSFW and potentially offensive show.  The Shakespeare starts at 1:37 and goes to 2:07. You’re going to want to stop at 2:10 unless you want to see how inmates in a women’s prison get back at each other when they are wronged (no violence, just a real WTF moment):

What I like about the clip is that it’s not random.  If Suzanne was just the generic lunatic that they had hanging out around the edge of the stage for random references, this would be strictly a comic piece – look, the crazy one throws down some Shakespeare.  But in later episodes we learn more about this character (just like all of them) and we learn that maybe she’s no more crazy than any others. She had a real life before she came to prison.  There’s another character who was a high school track star. One ran a restaurant with her husband. Maybe Suzanne was an actor?  I haven’t watched the entire season yet so I don’t know.

It’s a good show, but it’s hard to recommend.  There’s not much nudity or violence, but there’s an incredible amount of difficult language and content.  A character strapped to a bed in the asylum will make you cringe and reach for the fast forward button. Which is precisely why it’s so good.  Definitely recommended, if you think you can handle it.

Parent Teacher Drive-By

Ok so earlier this week I talked about going to see the teachers for my children who are currently in elementary school (second and fourth grade) and volunteering to do some Shakespeare with them, as I’ve done for the past several years.  My oldest is in middle school, where the rules are all new to us, so I have no idea if I’ll get a similar opportunity.

Or do I?

Tonight was “Geography Night” at the middle school.  We wandered around the halls playing geography bingo, geography simon says, getting henna tattoos in one room and eating africa shaped cookies in another.  In the cookie room a bunch of teachers have gathered who recognize my daughter, and introduce themselves to my wife. One says, “I’m the English teacher.”

“You do Shakespeare with them?” I ask immediately.  I’m getting better at this.

“Oh, definitely,” she says.

I nod, give an appreciative thumbs up and say, “Nice.”

“Why,” the teacher asks, “Are you going to come in and help us?”

I find myself speechless at how to respond, because I didn’t know it would be that easy. I’m left stuttering out words like, “oh yes…defin…yeah…”

“This is his thing,” my wife offers.

“Let’s just call it a long story,” I finally get out.

Looks like I’ll be doing plenty of Shakespeare this school year!!

Shakespeare’s Storybook

So a few weeks ago I’m at one of those elementary school fairs you see from time to time, where they set up some inflatable jumpy houses for the kids and a few arts and crafts picnic tables, and a bunch of local vendors set up tents on the lawn and showcase their wares.  This one actually is for my niece, and until that morning I had no idea I was even going.

I spy a booth with books!  As I always do, I scan for Shakespeare and quickly spot Shakespeare’s Storybook by Patrick Ryan.  The shopkeeper tells me, “That one is actually a collection of the fairy tales that Shakespeare used as the source for some of his stories!”

I give her the raised eyebrow.  “According to whom?”

“….research?” she replies, likely having never been asked that question before.  She flips to the back of the book and shows me the bibliography.

Fair enough. I buy it and take it home.  Worst case I’ve got blog content, and something for the kids to read.

The book itself is simply structured, offering up a very high level summary of the play, followed by its connection to the fairy tale.  Some connections are more questionable than others.

First we have Romeo and Juliet connected to a story called Hill of Roses, about the star-crossed couple who use red and white roses to communicate their plans to meet secretly.  That is, until Julietta’s kinsman Tibbott causes the death of Romeus’ friend Quicksilver, and tragedy piles upon tragedy.

What I can’t fully figure out is whether these are supposed to be stories that already existed, that Ryan has compiled?  Or originals that he has rewritten?  Because when I search for “hill of roses” and “shakespeare” I get literally no hits … other than references to this book.

But then later in the book we get the comparison of King Lear to the “Cap-o-Rushes story”, a connection which is well documented, if tenuous.  The story itself has almost nothing to do with Lear, other than the opening about what disagreement might have caused the falling out between father and daughter in the first place.  Other than that the story is classic fairy tale and looks more like Cinderella than Shakespeare.

It’s a fun book, and I think the kids will enjoy it, but there’s not really any Shakespeare in it other than a couple of plot devices. We learn that As You Like It is really a cross between Snow White and Robin Hood.  Our Petruchio and Katherine have to deal with an evil water spirit, and our Portia is happy to live the single life.  So I’m finding it amusing to read about how closely each fairy tale mirrors Shakespeare’s story, and where I’ve seen elements of it elsewhere (such as the Cinderella one).

The really neat coincidence, and I mentioned this in a previous post, is that my son’s second grade teacher brought up the fairy tale connection to Shakespeare before I could suggest it.  So it looks like this book will fit in perfectly!  Either I can pick a story they know (like Snow White) and cross over, or I can pick some Shakespeare they are more likely to know (Romeo and Juliet / Gnomeo and Juliet) and come in that way. Should be fun!

Parent Teacher Time Is Here Again

Loyal followers of Shakespeare Geek know what’s coming. Ever since my children were old enough to go to school, I have taken the early year “parent teacher conference” as an opportunity to volunteer to bring some form of Shakespeare content to the classroom, adjusted for whatever age we’re working with. I’ve read a children’s version of The Tempest to first graders, I’ve done recitation with the Brownies, I’ve done sonnets with the fifth graders and last year we did Midsummer Night’s Dream with the third graders.

This year I’ve got a second grader (7yr old boy) and a fourth grader (9yr old girl and veteran of Midsummer).

How’d it go?

Second grade teacher loves the idea, and in fact brings up the idea of fairy tales as inspiration for modern literature. Which I find an absolutely fascinating coincidence because in a future post I’ve got a book that claims to be a collection of fairy tales that inspired Shakespeare. Perfect fit! I can come in, read one of the fairy tales, and talk about the parallels to Shakespeare’s story. Works for me.

Fourth grade teacher, while admitting her own weakness in the realm of Shakespeare, is also chomping at the bit to try it. Her idea was to go more down the path of biography (something I’ve always wanted to tackle and not done yet) which fits in with her class’s existing book report schedule, where their second book must be a biography. She suggested that as a special guest I can come in and do a presentation on Shakespeare’s biography. Sounds good to me!

So it looks like it’ll be showtime for me again at least twice this year. My oldest is now in middle school where the rules about parent volunteers are entirely different, so I have no idea whether I’ll be able to get in there at all. But if the opportunity presents itself I will try!

I told the teachers today, “I know that the high school actually has a very good Shakespeare program. What I’m hoping is to create this wave of children back in elementary school that have already got enough Shakespeare experience that when they get to high school and are “introduced” to the topic officially they’ll all be, “No problem, we got this,” and the teachers in charge of that program will be left wondering, “Wait, what just happened?”

The World Series of Shakespeare

Loyal readers know that your Shakespeare Geek is born and raised in Massachusetts, which makes me a lifelong Red Sox fan.  Baseball changed forever for us in the 2004 World Series when we broke the curse by shutting out the Cardinals 4-0.

Speaking of the Cardinals….(oh, that was a cheap shot over the bow and I’m not ashamed of it)…it happens to pass that our pal Bardfilm is a Cardinals fan!  And lo and behold look who has made it back to the World Series this year.

A wager!  There must be a wager!

There is.  And here it is: The loser has to write and post an original sonnet on his blog, praising the other team.  So should the Cardinals win, I would have to pen a sonnet singing their praises (what rhymes with grumble?)  And, when the Red Sox win, Bardfilm will need to join the choirs that already sing our many praises.  I hope he doesn’t think he can plagiarize one of the songs already sung about our hometown heroes, as I will be checking.


Play ball!

We’ll Always Have Paris, Or Will We?

On Twitter we’re discussing an apparent trend toward cutting out the Romeo/Paris confrontation at Juliet’s tomb.

@WhitneyJE got us started earlier today, and it’s been going from there:

What do you think?  Check out the link to see the whole conversation as of this posting.  Is it just an easy place to cut an unnecessary scene?  Does it break the momentum of Romeo getting to Juliet?  Do we not care enough about Paris at that point?

While I agree that the audience doesn’t have much opportunity to feel for Paris one way or the other, I don’t think that makes him a bad guy who needs to die. He’s an innocent in this. From his point of view, he’s doing everything right. His betrothed died, he’s gone to the tomb, he thinks Romeo is going to do something bad, he tries to do the right thing and pays for it.  Is it necessary?  Maybe not.  But it’s still a good scene.

I think it adds to Romeo’s character, though.  Just like we have to stop and consider that Hamlet sent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (again, two relative innocents) to their death, Romeo plows right through this guy who gets in his way.  It’s not as if Romeo has time to say, “Aha, Paris! You’re the one who caused this whole problem, and I shall take my revenge!”  I’m pretty sure that Romeo doesn’t even recognize him until after he’s dead.  This is one of the reasons I like this scene in the Luhrman version of the movie, because DiCaprio’s “Tempt not a desperate man!” scream really does make me feel like he’s a guy that knows exactly what he’s doing, he just isn’t going to let anything stop him.

What do you think?  I won’t ask “Keep it or cut it” because who voluntarily cuts Shakespeare?  Instead I’ll ask, “When you go to a production and discover that it’s been cut, how upset are you?”

Shakespeare Said It First

Hanging out at lunch yesterday, my manager is talking to our latest hire.  The topic lately has been husbands getting in trouble with their wives, and I think this will be a funny story because my manager’s wife has told me that she reads the blog ;).

Anyway, our latest hire happens to be female, and chooses to argue the woman’s point of view by citing an example of how she and her fiance had a disagreement that could have turned into an argument, but instead they were able to work it out.

“Yeah, but you’re engaged!” manager tells her, “It’ll change once you’re married.”

“Hang on a sec,” I tell them, and bring out my phone.

*tappity tappity tap*

“Men are April when they woo, December when they wed. Maids are May when they are maids, but the sky changes when they are wives.”

“…did you just quote Shakespeare at me?”
“Yes I did, and I double checked to make sure I got the quote right.  Once again proving that Shakespeare said it first, whatever the subject.”
“You have a *Shakespeare* app on your phone?!” new coworker says.  “That is so cool!”
Oh, wait’ll she gets a load of me.  How long you think before I’ve driven her crazy?  Anybody want to take that bet?
[ In case my manager’s wife is reading this, might I suggest having “I have no other but a woman’s reason: I think it so, because I think it so.  – William Shakespeare” locked and loaded the next time Mr. Manager isn’t seeing your point of view. 🙂 ]

Old, Bold and Won’t Be Told : Shakespeare’s Amazing Ageing Ladies

Old, Bold and Won’t Be Told
Shakespeare’s Amazing Ageing Ladies
By Yvonne Oram

Revealing Shakespeare’s old ladies – a scholarly yet lively exploration of the presentation of ageing women on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage.

Thoroughly researched and accessible, Old, Bold and Won’t Be Told considers closely Shakespeare’s development of his older female characters, who defy conventional stereotypes and act with power, influence and creativity. Shakespeare refers to standard characteristics of the ageing woman – her loss of looks, ‘inappropriate’ sexuality, flouting of male governance and inability to hold her tongue – but, unlike his contemporaries, also further develops and celebrates the strength and importance of this figure.

Shakespeare’s most notable older woman is Paulina in The Winter’s Tale, the only older woman in early modern drama who is still vocal and powerful at the end of a play – a play which owes its conclusion to her directorial creativity. Through her, Shakespeare highlights the importance of the old woman to family and society. The study also explores other rich examples of Shakespeare’s developed older women, including Queen Katherine (Henry VIII), Volumnia (Coriolanus) and Queen Gertrude (Hamlet).

Thames River Press
Paperback, 146 pages
Published: June 2013
ISBN: 978 0 85728 203 3
£9.99 / $16.95

About the Author

Yvonne Oram started her working life as a journalist and later studied literature, history and creative writing at the University of East Anglia as a mature student. She has taught these subjects in Adult Education and for the Open University. She was awarded a Doctorate from the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham, for work on Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. She gives talks on this subject to literature and history groups in the UK and Europe, and is currently National Literature Subject Advisor for the University of the Third Age.