From high-brow to hi-tech: Shakespeare on the iPad

The launch of a new literature app sees the world's most famous playwright re-invented for the digital age.

New Statesman
iPads for sale at the flagship Apple Store in New York (PHOTO: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Once again, the luddites are being left behind.

If you are the sort of person who associates the term ‘browser’ with a bookshelf rather an internet page, you may be less than delighted to learn of the launch of yet another literary app.

Cambridge University Press have launched two new iPad apps designed to bring Shakespeare’s plays into a new lease of interactive life. Romeo and Juliet and MacBeth have just been released in their new digital form, their prose augmented with photos, audio readings, timeless, diagrams and articles by experts.

The appearance of this product should come as no surprise in a market that in recent years has demonstrated not so much a gap as a gaping hole for app-entrepreneurs. The new Shakespeare app is following hot on the heels of previous literary successes. TS Eliot’s The Waste Land was released as an app last year to great critical and commercial success. A few months ago, Shakespeare's 154 sonnets were also transformed into tablet-friendly forms in an app which saw famous actors giving video readings of the poems.  Demand for such products is so great that earlier this year Apple announced literature apps were the second most popular category in their app store, toped only by gaming.

On the whole, book-lovers have reacted to literary apps in the same way they did the fearful threat of the Kindle. First came condemnation on the defence that you cannot replace “the feel” of a book, later a reluctant acceptance that the times are a-changing.

One target audience guaranteed to be happy with this product, however, are teachers. New technology is an invaluable asset to those tasked with retaining famously fickle adolescent attention spans. Prior to its realease, Cambridge University Press tested their app at a local high school, where it proved a resounding success at re-igniting the interests of teenagers in sixteenth century monologues.

Will these apps become commonplace on school curriculums? Considering that even those possessing doctoral degrees in literature benefit from some extra context when reading Shakespeare, there is clearly a broad need for products like this. In an age where our reading habits are undoubtedly changing, it seems a user-friendly, well-designed app may be exactly what's needed to re-invent historical fiction for a future audience.