Review: Shakespeare at Play for iPad

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Shakespeare. A word that can strike terror, or delight into a person. For me, mainly terror as I endure flashbacks of my A-level English Literature teacher screaming “Potter! How is Caliban portrayed as evil?!” as I sat there looking shifty trying to adjust my Kurt Cobain style curtains (hair, not material).

The app Shakespeare at Play is an effort to use the strengths of the iPad to combine various types of media into one package to further the study of the Bard. The app comes with the text of several well known plays, and has the option to make an in-app purchase to upgrade to a video edition, and/or a notes edition, the latter containing lots of annotation which goes into depth with the text of the play. More on the in-app purchase issue later.

The user interface of the app is very solid indeed, with the text of the play taking up the bottom half of the screen, and the video taking up the top half. In the middle, are different options to turn on and off an audio description of what the scene is about, a written description of the scene, and a list of characters in the scene. The nice thing about the text in the play is that it is scrollable, ensuring that the options mentioned above stay where they are while you read the text. You can then dip into the video if you want to see the scene acted out. There are also some notes by the side of the text which pull out key points in that scene and also pose questions for the user to think about.

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I purchased the video edition and flashed it around to a few members of the English department in my school. I must say, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. They loved the idea of everything being in one place, in that currently, they have the text, then they have to find a YouTube video with a clip of the scene, and then describe the scene. The big tick in the box here is that this app streamlines that process completely. The acting in the video seems fine, although I’m not Ian McKellen enough to know for sure (although there are some rather strange juxtapositions in the costumes where some characters are wearing period clothes, and some are wearing modern clothes), and the audio descriptions are to the point with minimum waffle, which is excellent for the classroom situation. There is a slight negative point in that you can’t add your own annotations within the app, as you can with iBooks or Kindle, but if you are making annotations elsewhere, this isn’t a problem.

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Really, my only issue with the app is the in-app purchases. This app could be really useful in a school one to one iPad environment, but currently as Apple don’t support in-app purchases for the Volume Licence Program, I struggle to see how schools could distribute this app to their students, unless they buy the student a gift card (brave option). I am of course looking at this from a teacher’s perspective and the target audience for the app may well be individual users, rather than lots of school kids, but it’s a shame to see a well crafted app held back from entering the classroom on a wider level because of in-app purchases.

Thinking back to my school days studying Shakespeare, I think this app would have really helped me, simply because the different types of media in it would have appealed to my different learning styles. I’m sure it could have given me a wider understanding of the Shakespearian plays, that is assuming my curtains weren’t covering my eyes.

Shakespeare at Play is available on the App Store here. Video editions of each play are $3.99, notes editions are $1.99, and the plays themselves are free.

Disclosure: I used my hard earned money to purchase the Macbeth video edition play. Hubble bubble toil and trouble.

James Potter

My day job is Director of Technology at one of the UK's leading independent schools. I'm on a daily mission to use, and learn to use technology in the most creative, innovative and transformational ways. The iPad ticks all of these boxes. My geekery also extends to a passion for cricket, amateur astronomy, video gaming and bad guitar playing. You can contact me on Twitter with the link below.

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