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Digital, print, oral: Shakespeare's Sonnets for iPad brings reading full circle

Digital, print, oral: Shakespeare's Sonnets for iPad brings reading full circle


Sonnets by William Shakespeare for the iPad is the new high-water mark for what we can and should expect from a deluxe digital edition of a great work of literature.

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Gallery Photo: Shakespeare's Sonnets Image Gallery
Gallery Photo: Shakespeare's Sonnets Image Gallery

Most e-books don't actually need multimedia bells and whistles. Textbooks, travel guides, encyclopedias, sure — but literature? Adding more than a few photos and hyperlinks spoils as much as enhances a typical piece of narrative prose. To justify a dedicated app instead of an EPUB, a book needs layers to make the reader linger, rewarding his or her return. Touch Press has designed beautiful, award-winning reading applications for the iPad, including The Elements, Leonardo da Vinci's Anatomy, and (with publisher Faber) T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. But The Sonnets by William Shakespeare — a collaboration between Faber, Touch Press, Arden Shakespeare, and Illuminations — is arguably the first work of literature to pull off the deluxe tablet edition right. Not only is the execution top-notch, but the work itself is perfectly suited to the task. At $13.99, the price isn't bad either.

"poetry lends itself inherently to this kind of treatment"

"With The Waste Land and Sonnets we've found that poetry lends itself inherently to this kind of treatment," says Henry Volans, head of digital at Faber. "This is as pleasing as it seems surprising. The Sonnets are short and modular — perfect, we're finding, for an app."

Shakespeare's sonnets were themselves hybrid media objects, bridging established oral and manuscript cultures with the still-young form of print. We know from historical witnesses that Shakespeare read aloud at least some of the sonnets and circulated them in manuscript among friends years before they were collected and printed. So the poems are both songs and texts, individual entries and complex sequences, designed to be read both in and out of order, and infused enough complexity to be re-read forever. Even the shape of the 14-line poem makes a nearly perfect square on the printed page — or in this case, the tablet screen. The app plays up all of these contradictory and complementary elements even as it updates them for our own moment of media in transit.

Shakespeare's Sonnets Image Gallery


Let's start with the various media layers gathered in this book. First, there's the Arden critical text of all 154 sonnets and A Lover's Complaint, a poem attributed to Shakespeare that was included in the first edition of the Sonnets in 1609. There's also a full facsimile of this 1609 edition, so you can compare early modern spellings (and in some cases clear misprints) with the current critical text. The Arden text also gets you all the explanatory notes, spelling out puns, allusions, and unusual vocabulary that most readers miss.

A brilliant blend of the contemporary and the historical; readers dive exactly as far as they wish and no further

"Doing justice to the richness of the Arden text while fitting the new form has not been easy," says Faber's Volans. "The hyperlinked notes are far from the glitziest piece of functionality in the app but they are the fruits of much labour behind the scenes." It's a brilliant blend of the contemporary and the historical, letting readers dive exactly as far as they wish into the scholarly extras and no further.

The video and audio extras take the same approach of blending old and new. Every single one of the poems gets its own reading by a scholar, actor, or poet, contributed by Illuminations. You can view each reading as a video or hide the video stream and listen to the reading in audio-only. It's effectively a fully modular, interactive audiobook, but also one you can stream via AirPlay to an Apple TV.

The trained Shakespearean actors like Sir Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood handle the bulk of the readings with predictable skill, but Stephen Fry positively nails Sonnet 130 ("My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun") and Sex and the City's Kim Cattrall, The Wire's Dominic West, and Doctor Who's David Tennant all acquit themselves well. Actor / linguist Ben Crystal's reading of Sonnet 141 in "Original Pronunciation" (an approximation of Midlands English circa 1600 sporting hints of Scottish, Welsh, Australian, and a half-dozen other vernacular dialects) is a treat, especially matched with the 1607 spellings that are the basis for the reconstruction. Each of the consulting scholars who provide video introductions to the book get to read at least one poem, too.

Monumental = yes; embalmed = no

It's a monumental treatment, but not monolithic; it somehow manages to avoid embalming the poetry and presenting it as a stuffed and mounted trophy overweening with authority. Here, the inclusion of poet Don Paterson's Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A New Commentary and its often irreverent, always conversational takes on each poem is a great help. Paterson is unafraid to pronounce some of the sonnets to be crap where other critics only see a perfectly-constructed masterpiece. But in fact, none of the readers agree with each other, even about core principles like whether the first edition of the poems was authorized or a piracy, or whether Shakespeare (whose sonnets are addressed to both men and women) shows himself to be gay, straight, bisexual, or someone our sexual categories can't seem to capture.

An honest, grown-up take on Shakespeare's Sonnets

"He's actually meaning fucking," pronounces the Royal Shakespeare Company's Cicely Berry of some undeniably sexual imagery in Sonnet 129 — but just who or what discharged the authorial persona's "expense of spirit in a waste of shame" is up for grabs from poem to poem, sequence to sequence, reader to reader.

There's also a social layer. Readers can make their own annotations to jostle with the experts' commentary. They can also share favorite poems or lines on Twitter, Facebook, or email, complete with the video readings. The whole thing is hosted on the web. The app's value is simply as an especially graceful interface, well-optimized for both portrait and landscape and tailored to fit the specs and strengths of the tablet.

It's an honest, grown-up take on the Sonnets, poems that most Americans might skim in high school to learn about iambic pentameter and easy morality lessons, then never read again. It's unafraid of contradiction and complexity, even as the design makes these juxtapositions feel as natural as possible.

This treatment makes the poems alive again, with the same mixture of bodily lust and metaphysical wit Shakespeare brought to everything he wrote. Moreover, it's a new high-water mark for what we can and should expect from a deluxe digital edition of a great work of literature. It's suitable for scholars, new readers, or anyone willing to give the real thing the time and attention it deserves.