Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Review : Heuristic Shakespeare with Sir Ian McKellen

This review is all kinds of late, given that the app was released back in April for Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary. But an app this complex takes time to review properly, and.I wanted to do it justice. I really, really wanted to like this app. I just don't, and it makes me sad.

I’ve imagined an app like Heuristic Shakespeare forever. A true multimedia creation that allows you to explore Shakespeare’s work in the way that works for you. Do you want to read, or watch video? Do you want it paraphrased and explained to you, or do you want the original text? How about both? How about actors like Sir Derek Jacobi and Sir Ian McKellen reading the text to you? I think that alone is part of the genius of this app. They're not acting it, this is not a performance. They’re reading it like an audio book - but, this being an iPad, there’s still video. So it’s like the greatest Shakespeare talent of our generation is your own personal tutor, reading alongside you.

The problem that there is just oh so much packed into the app, that the interface is a mess. Half the time I find myself just pressing random buttons, never sure what comes up next. Sometimes I’ve got the text, sometimes I’ve got a character map telling me (with little thumbnail faces) which characters appear in which scenes. Oh, wait, now it's a modern English translation. Hold on, now I’ve got essays and videos *about* the play.

I love that all of this stuff is in there. Imagine it, you’re on a particular scene you’ve always liked. First you have Sir Ian reading it to you. All the hard words are highlighted and footnoted so you an always pause and make sure you understand what’s being said. Do you understand what’s happening in the scene? Flip to the modern translation and get a quick refresher. How has this scene been performed? Click somewhere else and you get a historic list of famous performances, complete with images. If you’re into the academic side (maybe you’re doing your homework), there’s also a mode where you can learn all about character development and themes and all that fun stuff your teacher requires that sucks the life out of just sitting back and enjoying the show :)

I have a perfect example of my frustration. I’ve mentioned several times that our greatest Shakespeareans can read the text along with you, in video, right? I lost that. I cannot find it, and I want it. I can get audio, but my video has disappeared. I don’t know if it’s a bug in the app where it’s legitimately no longer showing me an option that it’s supposed to, or if I’m doing something wrong, or what. And I think my regular readers probably know that I’m not exactly a newbie at this stuff. If I can’t figure it out, something’s wrong.

[UPDATE - I found it!  The videos only appear when the app is in portrait mode.  I was reading in landscape.  Very happy to have found my videos again.  Of course, my iPad is in a keyboard case so it's much more convenient to keep it in landscape but I guess I'll live.]

This app needs to exist. It’s the closest I’ve ever seen to the ideal Shakespeare browser. If I recall it’s on the expensive side for a mobile app — did they want $5.99 for it? But if you told me that’s the “player” price and that I can add content for additional plays at a lower amount, it’s a no brainer.

I just hope that they rethink large parts of the interface. I don’t know how, exactly, but it needs something. This is an app that even has a built in “What level of detail would you like?” feature so that it can be enjoyed by amateurs and scholars alike, so you’d think that a great amount of effort went into the design of the interface. Unfortunately I think it all went into trying to cram in as many trees as possible, and they lost track of the forest.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

I Think I Resent This Article

I've often said "The mission is working" when random friends and coworkers bring me Shakespeare references.  I smile and think, "I've had an impact on this person's life. If they didn't know me, they would never have recognized and paid special attention to that Shakespeare."

So it was when my coworker Bryce tapped on the aquarium-like glass wall of my cubicle this morning, holding up a copy of the Wall Street Journal emblazoned with a huge First Folio image.  I immediately waved him over.

Conspicuous Consumption for Shakespeare Junkies

I don't know how to describe the tone of the article, but I don't like it.  "It's called one of the rarest books in the world," it begins, "but it's not - not by a longshot."  After all, 233 copies exist and "more are always turning up."

If you cringe at the term "bardolatry" you're going to have a conniption over "bibliographic fetishization" that "can't be explained in rational terms." Because, you see, most modern editions of Shakespeare don't even follow the First Folio, because it's so full of printing errors. The theory that all the punctuation and spelling choices are Shakespearean directorial choices is a "dubious" one at best, you see, because Shakespeare died before the FF was published and no original manuscripts exist.

It goes on like that, questioning whether there's any scholarly purpose for the Folger collection to even exist, and making it a point to let the reader know that Charlton Hinman's implausible theory of five compositors is "nothing of cosmic importance" and can only lead to the conclusion, "So what?"

I feel like the entire article is trolling us, and I'm not going to respond. I'm going to forget the author's name (which I have not bothered to include here), and will promptly forget it myself in the morning.  If Shakespeare makes life better, as we believe, I hope the author is happy with his average life. He doesn't understand what he's missing.

No, you know what? I'm not going to end there.  I'm going to remind my readers of the time I got to see the Most Beautiful Book in the World, and something a different co-worker said to me:
"You look so happy!" she said. "Look how happy you look! It must be amazing to be that passionate about something that it can make you that happy."
The author of this article will never understand that.

How To Think Like Shakespeare

Scott Newstok is a name I recognize. He was one of the very first contributors to Shakespeare Geek, dating all the way back to January 2008 when he sent me a copy of his book about Kenneth Burke.  This was at a time when I was still re-blogging links to Wikipedia pages and pretending that I knew anything at all about the subject :)

So when I saw everybody sharing How To Think Like Shakespeare by Scott Newstok I thought, "Hey, I know him!" Sure enough, by the time I got home from work there was an email from Scott waiting for me.

Scott's article, taken from a convocation address he delivered, is what I mean when I say, "Shakespeare makes life better." I've always seen our mission statement as having a great deal in common with "The unexamined life is not worth living." It's not about "How will memorizing passage X, Y and Z get me a job that pays 10% more than the other guy?" That's such small thinking, I've never understood what to do with that. It's about a picture so much bigger than that, and I love pointing to places where people smarter than I have said it better than I can.

Through Shakespeare, Scott reminds the class of 2020 that they have "an enviable chance to undertake a serious, sustained intellectual apprenticeship. You will prove your craft every time you choose to open a book; every time you choose to settle down to write without distraction; every time you choose to listen, to consider, and to contribute to a difficult yet open conversation."

"Do not cheat yourselves," he tells them. I tell that to everyone I meet, whenever the subject comes up. Oh, you never paid attention to Shakespeare in school? So what, what's stopping you now? There comes a time when you are in charge of your own education, and it never ever stops. Why would you ever miss an opportunity to make your life worth living?

Great job, Scott! Always happy to show off your stuff.

Monday, August 29, 2016

We Are The Music Makers, and We Are The Dreamers of Dreams

You've likely heard by now that Gene Wilder has passed away. He was 83.  As has become tradition here on the blog, we like to look back at those icons of stage and screen who made life better with the help of Shakespeare.

Mr. Wilder's most famous role must surely be that of the original, the one and only Willy Wonka.  Here's our good friend @Bardfilm's video take on all the Shakespeare references in this masterpiece from our childhood:

Did you know that Wilder's first performance in front of a paying audience was in a production of Romeo and Juliet when he was 15?  He played Balthasar.  (That's ok, I didn't know that either until I read his wikipedia page :))

But wait! There's more.  Gene Wilder was actually born Jerome Silberman. Where and why did he get Gene Wilder?  "Jerry Silberman as Macbeth didn't have the right ring to it," he thought when he joined the Actor's Studio, choosing Wilder from Thornton Wilder and Gene from Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel. He later said that he couldn't imagine Gene Wilder playing Macbeth either :).  Our loss - I can't find any record of him ever trying.

Though it has nothing to do with Shakespeare, I love the trivia that Gene Wilder basically rewrote the part that made him famous, Willy Wonka, including such specifics as the entrance where his cane sticks in the cobblestones and he does his little somersault entrance. He also entirely redesigned the costume.  So shines a good deed in a weary world...

Those who know a little more about Wilder's personal story know that he never fully got over the death of his wife Gilda Radner from ovarian cancer.  At last they're reunited.

Good night, sweet prince. Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Review : A Midsummer Night's Choice by Choice of Games, LLC

Everybody remembers "Choose Your Own Adventure" books, right?  Always told in the second person, you read a few pages, then it said "If you choose to open the door, turn to page 74. If you choose to jump out the window, turn to page 123."  I loved these things as a kid. Not only would I read through all the different combinations (and really, there weren't that many as no matter what you picked you eventually ended back up in the same spot), I'd hack them backwards by opening to random pages and then trying to figure out what decisions I would have had to make in the story to get to that page.

It  was an easy jump for these stories to make it to the digital medium, and Shakespeare's always a great source.  Back in 2012, Ryan North pulled off an ultra-successful Kickstarter with To Be or Not To Be : That is the Adventure.  Truthfully I think I've got that one kicking around someplace, I'm pretty sure I've never reviewed it and I probably should.

But! This is not about that. This post is about an entire company dedicated to the medium called Choice of Games, and their latest offering, A Midsummer Night's Choice (or, Frolic in the Forest). These folks have actually got a content management system designed for creating these kinds of stories, and their library (user generated as well as their own stuff) is gigantic - I lost count at 50+ titles.

What I find cool, as a programmer, is that these "books" are really small interactive apps that can be read as part of the web site, but also treated like apps for your mobile device.  This is a game changer, because now you can bring things like variables and character attributes into it, and make all of the choices that much more complex.  In other words, whether or not the king has you executed for speaking your mind in chapter 7 is going to be directly related to whether the king is 90% angry with you, or only 10%, based on your previous choices in the story.  (That example is totally made up.) In the iPad version (the one that I played), you see all the key status bars while you're reading the story, and several times I'd make a decision, watch one of them go in the wrong direction, then silently curse that I'd made the wrong move.  What's also cool is that there doesn't appear to be a back button, so no cheating - you play the hand you're dealt.

The story itself, an original concept by professor Kreg Segall, consists of over 190,000 words that tell a mashed-up novelization of a number of Shakespeare stories.  To quote from the site:
When your father, the Duke, tries to force you to marry, you'll leave civilization behind as you flee in disguise, cross-dressed, into the enchanted forest. Mistaken identities, inexplicable bears, and tiny but fearsome fairies await! (Seriously, they wear little walnut shells for helmets, and ride armored baby bunnies into battle.)

Will you fall into the mysterious Faerie Queene's clutches? Will you (or your identical doppelganger) find true love? Or will your father's spies find you first?
I haven't finished it yet - the thing is *huge* - but I have to admit, I'm enjoying it far more than I thought I would. It doesn't play like an old fashioned text adventure game that's light on story and description and really just wants to walk you through the action. It also doesn't feel like one of those old fashioned ones I read as a kid that comes across like a 50 piece jigsaw puzzle, where you may think that your 10 choices result in 1000 different paths through the story, but really they all converge (typically in an awkward an unbelievable manner) down to a dozen endings.   As I work my way through this one I honestly can't tell how I'm affecting the story because it just continues to flow smoothly as if my decision was the one the author had in mind all along.

One of the absolute best things, to me, is that for the most part the decisions are not of the "turn left or right" variety, but get at more of the character psychology, instead asking questions like, "You realize that your friend is looking at you like he wants to be more than friends, how do you feel about that?" and then you'll have choices like, "I'd be open to exploring that relationship," or "Absolutely not." If this engine is complex enough to factor in evolving character relationships and still work through the plot in a believable manner, I'll be quite impressed.

As I mentioned, the various status bars are a neat touch - but I'm not fully sure what to do with all of them.  I have a charisma score of 23%, ok, now what? Is that good or bad? How is that changing the story?  Which of my decisions is changing that?  One UI feature I'd like to see is that when something you do changes a status bar, it should flash to let you know that.  Since I couldn't figure out how my choices were changing those, I basically started to ignore them.

However, some of them detail your relationship with the other characters, and those are interesting and easy to follow.  The story starts and your father is angry with you.  Depending on your decisions you can make it better or worse.  I made it worse :).

I'm very impressed, a bit surprised that I hadn't heard of these folks before, and hopeful that they're doing well for themselves.  Wired magazine isn't writing up efforts like these that just continue to plug along at their craft, churning out a good quality product on a regular basis.  It's hard to even describe it well enough to market it. Is it a book, or an app? Is it a game?  Educational? Sure, it's all of those things.

There's a few UI things that I'd change.  As noted, I think the status bars should flash or something. I think there should be a back button so I can return to previous parts of the story to see how my decision would change things (although, full disclaimer, I know that I'd use this to reverse engineer how all my options stack up against the changing status bars and then optimize my path :)).  Although the text of the story is put on the right half of a landscape-mode iPad, it still uses vertical scroll, which meant that sometimes (often) I'd have to scroll just a tiny bit to get to the Next button.  That was a little annoying and disrupted the "page flipping" flow.  In fact, knowing that iPad offers a "page flip" layout, I'm wondering if that wouldn't be better than the vertical scrolling.

How's the story? It's compelling enough.  It's got plenty of Shakespeare elements, and is self-referential enough to have fun with it. It's only a matter of time before you're cross dressing and lost in the forest, for example.

What I wasn't thrilled with was how much it tries to force a love story.  The site claims that you can play as gay, straight or bi -- which basically means answering questions about what gender you want to play as, what gender your friends are, and how you feel about them.  I made it pretty clear that I was interested in playing it "straight" :), but found myself having to answer questions repeatedly about whether I wanted to do anything to encourage this other guy's advances.  If you want to play the game that way I suppose go ahead (note - I did clarify with the publisher that this is not erotica and there are no choices that will get you sex scenes), I just wasn't interested in that. I was here for the Shakespeare.

I'm going to keep playing through to the end, because I'm genuinely interested to see how much Shakespeare they've thrown into the soup, and how the story works out.

You can try the game for free, so take it for a spin and see what you think!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Bardy Bunch

We join the Bradys and the Partridges in 1974 just after the ABC Network ceased airing their chronicles. No longer under America’s watchful eye, the two families meet on a collision course in a blood-soaked, vengeance-fueled, lust-filled crossover episode of Shakespearean proportions. THE BARDY BUNCH is a mash-up of a dozen Shakespeare plays set in the 1970s that star the two classic TV families. The New York Times deems this show as “irresistible.” The production will make audiences fall in love with the Bradys and Partridges all over again!
This just showed up in my inbox, I'm just not quite sure what to do with it :).  When something calls itself anything "of Shakespearean proportions" I roll my eyes and reach for the "Next" button - but this show is also calling itself "a mash-up of a dozen shakespeare plays set it the 1970s", and that's got my interest.  The problem is that I can't find a single reference to what those plays might be, or how they integrate with the plot?

What do we think?  Anybody in the neighborhood familiar with this group, or going to go check it out?

The Bardy Bunch

UPDATE!  I asked for more detail about the Shakespeare connections and got back, "The show makes comparisons of the characters of the families to famous Shakespeare characters. For instance Marcia Brady is Juliet and Keith Partridge is Romeo."

Which makes me happy, because we all remember how much Marcia wanted to play Juliet!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Challenge : Non-Shakespeare Shakespeare Movies?

At lunch today we were discussing movies.  Which led to Star Trek.  Which led to a discussion of Star Trek VI, which led to a discussion of Shakespeare movie references.  Ok, I may have been driving the discussion in that direction. :)

Here's the question I was asked: What movie, that is not fundamentally a movie about Shakespeare, contains the highest amount of Shakespeare references?

Star Trek VI, of course, would be a good example.  Shakespeare in Love would not.

What do we think?

EDIT : I wasn't very clear by "references," I meant "actual quotes."  Not just plot lines or character names.

Monday, August 01, 2016

Singles Nights At The Folger!

Hey!  You there, in the Washington DC area!  Got any plans?  Starting today, single tickets to the Folger Shakespeare Library performances are now available for sale!  Everybody knows that the best way to see more shows for less money is to scoop up those single tickets. (Take it from me, I'm a Red Sox fan, I know a little something about trying to make tickets affordable.)

Bring a date, fine! Go out for drinks before or dinner after - but at the door, give him his ticket and say, "See you at the end of Act V."

Don't have a date?  Maybe the person sitting next to you doesn't either, if you know what I'm saying.



*(elbow, because Shakespeare is the first documented instance of its use as a verb)*

*say no more*

I Want My Shakespeare TV

The good people over at (the definitive Shakespeare app) just sent out an email announcing ShakespeareTV for AppleTV.

The only problem is, I don't have an AppleTV ;).  We've got Roku boxes in the house, and generally more Android devices than Apple.  But I expect I know exactly what the app is - a "video jukebox" of Shakespeare content.

I actually have a Plex server in my basement, and a good amount of Shakespeare content that I can watch at any time.  So I'm not really sure what this app would give me that I don't already have, expect perhaps the surprise that comes with incoming content, because the only new content that I get right now is whatever I go out and discover for myself.  I've already got more than I will ever watch.

You know what I'd really like, though?  I'd like an actual Shakespeare channel, like something that would show up in the tv guide.  I'd like to see that at 2pm, the 1999 Midsummer Night's Dream with Kevin Kline is coming on.  And after that, the 1934 version.  Just a steady stream of Shakespeare content that I could turn on at random.  Maybe I look ahead and "bookmark" something to save it, DVR style.  (When I first thought of this idea 10 years ago it seemed silly. Why have your computer running constantly, playing video that no one is watching?  I don't think you'd have to do that -- just have a list of movies and a timer, and whenever you flip on that stream, jump to the current video and timer and nobody is the wiser.)

That sounds backwards - isn't the trend all about on demand "binge" watching?  True, but I think there's a weakness there.  "I can watch it any time" means it goes in the pile with everything else that I can watch at any time, and now there's competition over what I want to watch.  Most of the time I don't get the television to myself until maybe 10pm.  So is that the best time to start in on Paul Scofield's King Lear?  I'll fall asleep before Cordelia is banished.  I speak from experience :).

I don't watch anything live anymore if I can help it. A dude jumped out of an airplane without a parachute the other night and I still recorded it (mostly because you know perfectly well that for an hour long special they're just going to talk for the first 45 minutes - fast forward!)  I think that one of the reasons is just commercials. If you can skip them, why wouldn't you?  So if I had a steady stream of video without commercials, that would be very tempting indeed.

I'd also like to see something that mixes in interviews and documentary bits and such.  Even the most hardcore fans can't forever sit through nothing but 3 hour tragedies.  There's value in short form content.  Hey, now that I think about it, I wonder if somebody could pull off a multi-episodic tv version of a play, maybe doing a single scene per episode?

What would you like to see in a Shakespeare TV channel?