If you’ve ever struggled to read a Shakespeare play, don’t feel bad: Ian McKellen is here to assure you that reading Shakespeare is impossible. In fact, he argues, actually reading and interpreting a Shakespeare play is a task meant only for actors, in much the same way reading sheet music is a task meant only for musicians. In both cases, the audience should ideally hear the final product, not just read the behind-the-scenes text. At least that’s the thinking behind his new iPad app, Heuristic Shakespeare, which gathers together some of Britain’s best Shakespearean actors to make Shakespeare’s work more comprehensible.
So far the only play on the app is The Tempest, but McKellen and his business partner Richard Loncraine hope to eventually include all 37 of Shakespeare’s works. The app is sort of a middle ground between simply reading a play and actually seeing it performed. The actors—who include McKellen, Derek Jacobi, and Frances Barber–speak the lines directly to the camera while the play’s text scrolls beneath them. That allows users two different ways to engage with the play, while also giving users the ability to take notes and highlight passages. The app also offers additional information on the play, which can be geared towards three different levels of complexity. That bonus content includes images from previous productions, visual breakdowns, and videos in which McKellen and Professor Jonathan Bate discuss the play’s themes.
The Tempest app costs $5.99 on iTunes and each play will be released in its own app for an additional cost. McKellen discusses the project at length on the Empire Podcast (the conversation starts around 15:40), where also points out that he’s “the man who invented blogging.” Considering McKellen’s been running his own blog since 1999—not to mention taking the internet by storm thanks to his friendship with Patrick Stewart—maybe we should all start taking our technological advice from the 76-year-old thespian.