While virtually everyone educated in an English-speaking country will be expected to have read some Shakespeare by the time he or she completes secondary school, for many of these younger readers and spectators Shakespeare’s language presents a major stumbling block to understanding and appreciation. The combination of Shakespeare’s resilience in school and college curricula and the challenges his plays pose to the typical student has given rise to an industry devoted to offering the plays in more accessible formats. Shakespeare in Bits, a collection of interactive multimedia editions of Shakespeare’s plays produced by the Irish MindConnex Learning Company, comes out of this larger trend and aims to make Shakespeare’s works more readily appealing to readers who have grown up in the digital age. The “bits” in Shakespeare in Bits is of course a pun: the editions present a digital Shakespeare made up of bits and bytes and they break up the plays into manageable bits for easier comprehension and greater enjoyment.
The Shakespeare in Bits editions are centered around an animated version of each play with a soundtrack, presented in a carefully designed interface side-by-side with the complete play-text. The text is accompanied by the digital equivalent of footnotes and endnotes, adjusted in their scope and content for an audience of students rather than a mixed audience of students and scholars as would be the case with most hard copy editions. In a separate section of the software package there is also an extensive background apparatus, comparable to what one would expect to find either in the introduction or appendix of a traditional paper edition. This includes an overview of the characters and a map of relationships between them; mini essays on topics such as Shakespeare’s language, Shakespeare’s life, the play’s themes, or the play’s historical background; and a selection of the most often cited quotations from the play. The soundtracks for the animated versions of the plays are adopted from Naxos Audiobooks, which are in turn based on the New Cambridge Shakespeare series. This means that the text that accompanies the animation is an unabridged scholarly edition of Shakespeare’s original text.
Because the prospect of wading through an entire Shakespeare play, or even through a single scene, can be daunting to many students, the play-text is divided up into smaller “bits.” Each “bit” is approximately twenty lines long and represents the longest unit of the play’s text that will appear on the screen at any given time. The “bits” correspond to segments of the accompanying animated soundtrack so that the viewer can easily move back and forth through both the textual and audiovisual “bits” using an interface similar to multimedia players such as Youtube. And even within each “bit” of the text, an unobtrusive color change of the font informs the user which specific lines are being played by the soundtrack at a given moment.
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