Are Shakespeare multimedia packages the hottest thing to galvanise secondary English lessons or just the baseless fabric of a vision? Jack Kenny and Sue Lambert enjoy new takes on the old master. Review the complete works of Shakespeare," said the note. Really! Electronic copies of Shakespeare's plays, the Bible and Wuthering Heights are now pretty common, available on numerous CD-Roms, and you cannot move around the Internet without stumbling across Shakespeare in some form or another.
What would Shakespeare have thought of all this? He might have worried about the copyright issue; might have smiled at the reverence, and he might have considered that we spend too much time on the text and not enough on the performance. However, more importantly, what does the average English teacher think of this wealth of material? Unfortunately, in my experience, teachers are seriously underwhelmed because they are still paper-based. No one is arguing that a disc such as this one will replace a well-produced book. However, we do need to consider what an electronic version will do before we dismiss it out of hand.
Because the texts are electronic they are pliant, like plasticine. Students can pick them up, play with them, explore them, change the shapes, modify the meanings, alter the purpose, change the audience, shift the genre, re-write for another era and add notes and annotations. If you have the IT skills you can lift Mercutio's Queen Mab speech in Romeo and Juliet, present it to your students and invite them to interpolate a line or two of their own. It is a speech of wonderful exotic imagery and the task will test their understanding and sympathy with the passage. It is not easy to do this task on paper.
Take another scene and edit it down to make a fast moving screen play. The student just has to think about film, the stage, the purpose of the scene, about what is lost when the language is pared down. Give your students a scene and ask them to prepare it as an acting edition complete with notes for all the characters. Possessing the text in this malleable form opens up many of these possibilities. You can also locate words, characters and events in seconds; follow themes and imagery across the play; test your ideas about the play. Any Shakespeare scholar from the past would have given a great deal for this.
Electronic texts are here to stay. There is a good reason - they are cheap, the texts don't curl at the edges and they don't grow brown. These days, with the acid in paper, you are fortunate if the average paper book will last more than 30 years. Discs are easy to store; you can carry around the complete works in your pocket. Once the book is in digital format, printing can be done on demand. It is very simple to print a single copy, something that is impossible with conventional publishing.
To the purist there are problems with the provenance of the texts. At least one of the Shakespeare texts, Romeo and Juliet, that is circulating round the world is bowdlerised. The word "etcetera" is substituted for one of Shakespeare's bawdier terms. The strange thing is that all the electronic versions of that play that I have ever seen are bowdlerised in the same way, suggesting a common source. The good news is that this edition's text is clear.
This is an excellent disc. It comes complete with comprehensive notes for 12 of the most widely studied plays, a simple word processor and good search tools. Every word in every text is linked, so if you click on one it will bring up a list of all the occurrences of the same word. It's possible to buy the plays cheaper but the extras make this version well worthwhile.