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All the World’s a Page

July-August 2014

In the e-book version of <i>Macbeth,</i> the witches&rsquo; dark mischief unfolds beside the text.

In the e-book version of Macbeth, the witches’ dark mischief unfolds beside the text.

Image courtesy of Alexancer Parker and The New Book Press

The lark or the nightingale? <i>Romeo and Juliet</i> grapple with their fate.

The lark or the nightingale? Romeo and Juliet grapple with their fate.

Image courtesy of Alexancer Parker and The New Book Press

Shakespeare, performed in the palm of one’s hand. So proposes educational technologist Alexander Parker, Ed.M. ’96, whose company, The New Book Press, has created full-length e-books of Macbeth and Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Romeo and Juliet due in August. What’s different and exciting is that when these are downloaded onto a Mac or iPad (streaming versions for all other devices are coming in September), the left-hand “page” displays a chunk of text while on the right side, professional actors play out the scene, bringing the language truly alive.

This multidimensionality, Parker believes, will make all the difference to middle- and high-school students, and even many adults, who might otherwise struggle with the centuries-old text and thus miss out entirely on the bard’s timeless themes. “What trips up the readers is not the ‘thees and thous,’ but the more dense, knotty passages,” notes Parker, who was born and raised in England and now lives in Manhattan. “What we provide are visual footnotes: the text is illuminated by the performance which, in turn, clarifies what is going on and permits a closer reading, understanding, and, dare I say it, enjoyment.

He points to act one, scene five, of Romeo and Juliet. Young readers could be confused because Capulet “is basically reining in his nephew Tybalt, ‘a saucy boy’ who is being a hothead, while also trying to keep a party going—‘Well said, my hearts!...More light, more light!’—[lines] that are actually said to other people,” explains Parker. “You would never get that, or the feeling of dual purpose, without seeing Capulet’s body language and hearing the different inflections in his voice.”

Or take the opening of Macbeth. The text whimpers compared to the e-book’s arresting performance by the three witches, whose bodies writhe together as they speak in a slithering, sliding, chanting verse—“Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air.” It’s viscerally frightening and foreshadows the unearthly evil ahead. These are plays, after all, that were primarily designed to be seen, heard—and experienced. “It’s striking,” Parker says, “when you see that there are limits to what words alone can convey.”

The videos themselves are a new art form. Tightly framed by the camera, the actors move minimally, eschew histrionics, carry only essential props, and wear simple, dark clothes. There are no stage sets: actors are silhouetted against a stark white background. “We don’t focus on spectacle,” Parker explains. “The actors are much more out there on their own and have to really know their Shakespeare and deliver the meaning through diction, context, and subtle body language, along with word-perfect performances, which is very hard to do.”

Parker has worked steadily with his director, Jessica Bauman, and cast members “to figure out the language of this new medium and use it intelligently,” he says. He also consults with Yale’s Shakespeare scholar, Bodman professor of English David Scott Kastan (a New Book Press advisory board member), who has helped ensure that nothing is “dumbed down.”

With the products now in hand, Parker has moved into marketing and distribution, with an initial focus on school districts. An extensive pilot program across the country during the last year indicated a desire for WordPlay Shakespeare, as the series is called. The medium fits well with the new Common Core State Standards education initiative, and also accommodates some of the “multiple intelligences” identified by Hobbs professor of cognition and education Howard Gardner, whose classes Parker took at the Harvard School of Graduate Education. “Linguistic intelligence, of course, focuses on the text while the visual and auditory learners may engage better with the video,” Parker asserts. A third group, the multitasking video game-playing generation, seem to watch, listen, and read simultaneously, while students with learning disabilities can pause, rewind, fast-forward, or isolate the audio and video portions.

Parker is also eager to reach lifelong learners and those who “didn’t quite get on the Shakespeare merry-go-round the first time. Every adult who has seen these e-books, including myself, has expressed a wistful wish that they’d had them when they were young,” he adds. “You begin to realize that there is this troubled relationship with Shakespeare, that very few of us got it immediately, and there is this distance between what we think we should like and what we actually enjoy.

Parker, who was raised by a Venezuelan mother and Boston-born father, moved to America to attend Yale. He then studied technology in education at Harvard and worked for the Instructional Computing Group in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, developing some of the first large-course websites with such early adopters as Knafel professor of music Thomas Forrest Kelly and Jones professor of classical Greek literature Gregory Nagy. He left for other jobs in New York City, but returned to Harvard in 2008 as the director of research computing in the humanities, a field, he reports, that “has been largely about a relationship with books: that’s how knowledge until recently has been stored and transmitted and it’s very powerful.”

Paper books are “here to stay,” he adds. But an increasing fascination with their other potential incarnations led Parker to find investors and, in 2011, move back to New York City to develop his ideas.

The first to launch was Eroica, in 2013, featuring the works of Harvard poet Kevin McGrath, an associate of the South Asian studies department and special program instructor in the Division of Continuing Education: on the left-hand “page” are the texts and on the right are videos of the eloquent McGrath reading and discussing the poems. “Even the shape of the book as we know it—a series of paper sheets bound at one edge that gives you access to text,” was once an innovation, Parker points out. “So then you begin to ask yourself, When do things like sound and movement get incorporated? I think we are at the dawn of a new era.” Readers and viewers of his Shakespeare e-plays may think we’re already there.

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