Near the end of The Tempest by William Shakespeare, the magician Prospero promises that he'll retire, that "deeper than did ever plummet sound, / I'll drown my book."
Starting with the 1623 First Folio collection of Shakespeare, where it is the very first play, books have brought The Tempest to millions and millions of people.
And now . . . there's Shakespeare's The Tempest for iPad. Prospero would love it. It's like Ariel in a box.
This app is, for one thing, an e-book, a carefully edited text of the play you can read just as in a book, 1616- or 1990-style. It's also a multimedia experience that (if you want) can bring in audio of performances, including - very cool - alternative performances of some passages. And it includes expert commentary by scholars, artists, designers, and actors; notes, and a social-media connection, through which you can share impressions with other readers. All for $13.99 on iTunes or Apple's app store.
But the folks who developed the app don't want to drown The Book. They just wonder whether the app will change our experience of The Tempest.
"This isn't a competition," says Katherine Rowe, professor and chair of English at Bryn Mawr. She codeveloped the app with Elliott Visconsi, associate professor of English at Notre Dame University. "We love books. That's what we do. But we also know we absorb Shakespeare in a lot of different ways. We're letting the user have access, seamlessly, to all these different ways of coming at Shakespeare and his work."
Rowe teaches a class divided into five "acts," rather like a play, one act for each way we get our daily dose of Shakespeare: reading; recitation; seeing plays onstage; movies/TV; and the proverbial bits of Shakespeare people say every day ("brave new world"; "such stuff as dreams are made on").
"The marvelous thing about drama," Rowe says, "is that it circulates already in these multimedia ways. The app allows us to bring hearing, watching, and reading closer together - close the feedback loop."
Visconsi started thinking about the project about a year ago. "New tools were surfacing all the time to help people read and research texts," he says. "I began to think about all the ways the iPad could bring all these tools together for, say, an author like Shakespeare." He pitched the idea and got seed money from Notre Dame's then-vice president for research, Robert Bernhard, and started working with experts at the university's Center for Research Computing. Rowe (who'd been trying, without success, to persuade an academic press to make such an app) came on board in July.
Why The Tempest? "It's such a beloved text," says Rowe, "beautiful, challenging, and one that rewards intense reading."
An intriguing feature of The Tempest for iPad is that you can customize it. "You can make it as quiet or as social as you want," said both Rowe and Visconsi at different times. "Quiet" means, pretty much, just you and the text. "Social" means you and other readers, scholars, and experts. "If you don't want a bunch of buttons," says Rowe, "you can turn them off."
An attempt to change reading itself? Or just a new delivery system? "It's definitely a new delivery system," says Visconsi, "and in our classes, we're testing whether it's affecting the way our students read." It's a full-blown study, and the numbers won't be out for a while.
Jen Rajchel is in Rowe's Global Shakespeare class, and she is a definite Tempest for iPad fan. The class is a paperless experiment, to see whether students can read the play, sources, and commentary, and write their assigned work all via the app and other virtual tools. What's most exciting, she says, is how the app "foregrounds the play and allows me to more deeply engage as a reader."
"We live in a very unstable time in the history of reading," says Rowe. "And the students are eager to read electronically, hungry to see whether it can change how they learn." Plus, Tempest for iPad lets you play, see what's around, mix and match. Says Rowe: "It's an app by Shakespeare fans for Shakespeare fans."
In the old paper days, Rajchel would read a little, write notes in her book, go look something up, make note cards, back, forth. Now, she says, "I find myself lingering in the text longer because my tools for annotating, gathering passages, and consulting scholars are within the app and ready to be called up when I need them."
How like Ariel, so ready to serve his master: "be't to fly / To swim, to dive into the fire, to ride / On the cur'l clouds"!
at 215-854-4406 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow
him on Twitter @jtimpane.