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The app's the thing as Shakespeare goes digital

By Natasha Baker

TORONTO (Reuters) - William Shakespeare's plays are getting a 21st century-style makeover in the form of new apps for tablets and smart phones nearly 500 years after the Bard took pen to parchment.

Plays such as "Romeo and Juliet" and "Macbeth" spring to life in iPad apps released by Cambridge University Press, which pairs the texts with audio performances, commentary and other interactive content, transforming the classic plays for the digital age.

The apps are part of a new series called Explore Shakespeare that was introduced by the British publishing house to expand the playwright's reach to casual readers.

"A lot of people have a copy of Shakespeare on their bookshelf that they never got around to reading because they have this idea that Shakespeare is hard or has to be studied to be appreciated," said John Pettigrew, executive producer of the Explore Shakespeare series.

Pettigrew believes the plays are meant to be enjoyed and are accessible provided readers are given context to overcome outdated or poetic language.

While the core focus of the app is on the actual text, readers can consult glossaries, notes, photos and synopses at any point in the script.

"Everything there is designed to keep you in the play and to put you in the mind of the actor, director or writer," he explained.

To understand less common language, readers can tap on words and phrases to delve into their meaning.

"A classic one is in 'Romeo and Juliet' which is `wherefore art thou Romeo?' It's not 'where are you Romeo?', It's `why are you Romeo?` So that kind of phrase gets a glossary to explain what is meant," said Pettigrew.

The apps also include full audio performances from stars such as Kate Beckinsale and Martin Sheen. Other features help readers to visualize relations between actors in a scene, understand how Shakespeare interweaves themes throughout the play, and to analyze the text more thoroughly.

"You can delve into the language or themes or interpretation, but our first task is to show that it's just a good story," Pettigrew said.

Although the app was designed with consumers in mind, Pettigrew believes it could also play a role in education, with students embracing the app over its print counterpart.

"For a 13-year old, Shakespearean language can be a barrier and to have something right there on the page is really helpful," he said.

According to Pettigrew, the publishing house chose to develop it for the iPad because it is the dominant tablet platform in schools, but he said they are considering Android and Windows 8 apps in the future.

Four more apps including "Twelfth Night," "A Midsummer's Night Dream," "Hamlet" and "Othello" are due to be released in coming months. They are available worldwide for $13.99 each.

Pettigrew said the app is vetted for accuracy by experts and includes ancillary material, which is designed to augment the original text.

"To borrow a Shakespeare phrase, ‘the play's the thing.'"

(Editing by Patricia Reaney and David Gregorio)

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