CHROME WEB APP REVIEW: Shakespeare in Bits by

In the past week, while sifting through stories in my news feed for content for my Tuesday This Week in Shakespeare podcast, I came across a press announcement touting the release of an app for Chromebooks, Shakespeare in Bits by from Dublin, Ireland. Now, you may not know this but this blog and its podcasts are written and recorded on a Chromebook. I love that device. Anyway, I don’t often see Chromebook-specific Shakespeare apps (actually this is the first one), and since I know many of my former brethren (teachers still in the trenches) are now working with classes outfitted with Chromebooks, I figured I’d download the free demo version of their Hamlet app, and check it out.

Now the app’s supporting website touts Shakespeare in Bits as bringing “The Bard’s most popular plays to life through magnificently animated re-enactment, full audio and unabridged text in one comprehensive package.” Well, let’s break down that marketing spiel, shall we?

  • Most popular plays… check: they have the five plays most often taught in high schools (Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
  • Full audio…check: it even has sound effects.
  • Unabridged text… check: the presentation is side-by-side: the animation plays on the left, while the text is on the right, and the text scrolls and highlights as it’s being performed. In the margin, you have a number of clickable icons: L – language, T – themes, and M – miscellaneous, which feels like a catch-all); click on those and you get a pop-up with a quick note. Better are the ghost-highlights in the text itself, click on those and the word or phrase magically changes to its current meaning (which is great if the word in question has only one meaning… but I’m asking for the impossible here).
  • One comprehensive package… check: the other sections of the app are pretty well done. You can access the animations via their “Scenes” interface, which has a screen capture and a one-sentence synopsis. The “Cast” breakdown is pretty thorough, with the animation’s rendering of the character and a discussion of the character’s major characteristics and what the character does in the plot. A comprehensive “Analysis” section with lengthy articles on plot, themes, imagery, language quotes (with both their literal meaning and significance in the play), and background on Shakespeare) is very informative. And there’s a section for “My Notes” which is helpful for any student using the app (since there’s no way to capture the text in the articles, which is actually a good thing: I can only imagine how much this would be a plagiarist’s dream).

So, it lives up to the marketing boast mostly. The only problem comes with their statement that the app is “magnificently animated.” Not so much. I found the quality of the animation to be somewhere between Speed Racer and South Park (though closer to the latter than the former).

Shakespeare in Bits animation
Shakespeare in Bits animation

It’s kind of off-putting, actually. I mean, it’s a shame to match up what sounds to be pretty solid vocal performances with this animation.

It’s a pretty damned good app, save for one of its major selling points.

One small interface issue: if you attempt to maximize the screen, then you lose access to two controls for the video (auto-play [the animation is broken down into mini-scenes] and subtitling). It’s fine if you’re not maximized, but you’d figure if they’ve gone to all the trouble to port this app from iPad/iPhone, Mac and PC platforms to the Chromebook, they would have accounted for screen resolution. But I digress…

The bottom line is this: this is a great idea, pretty well executed, but for $14.95, Shakespeare in Bits feels a bit overpriced (especially with South Park-ish animation).

[IF one is on the iPad, she might be better off with the Shakespeare at Play app (doing much of what appears in the Shakespeare in Bits app [without the analysis section}), which is free for text editions, $1.99 for text editions supplemented by notes, and only $3.99  for full versions with a video performance with live actors. I say “might be” better off because I haven’t given that app a test drive yet… guess I have to borrow my wife’s iPad…]

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