Look in thy iPad, tell the face thou viewest: let's get it on

Comprehensive app tackles Shakespeare's strange tools for seduction. Matthew Reisz reports

June 14, 2012

For the poet Don Paterson, professor in the School of English at the University of St Andrews, Shakespeare's Sonnets are just "too weird", too full of "post-coital freak-outs", to be of any use as "a lover's vade mecum", or handbook.

"The author is too strange," he continues, "a sort of trisexual - you wouldn't want the greatest writer in English to be too normal. [But the Sonnets] do make you feel like you're in love again - and it's not good."

Professor Paterson is the author of a notoriously provocative commentary, Reading Shakespeare's Sonnets, published by Faber and Faber in 2010, but here he is speaking as one of six experts on a new iPad app devoted to the poems.

It includes all 154 sonnets, read by contributors including academics; Cicely Berry, voice director of the Royal Shakespeare Company; and a range of up-and-coming and established actors such as Fiona Shaw, Sir Patrick Stewart, David Tennant and Harriet Walter.

Another actor, Ben Crystal, recites one sonnet in a pronunciation as close to the original as the evidence allows.

Each recorded sonnet is also linked to a facsimile of the 1609 Quarto, an old-spelling transcription and a modernised version, together with commentary from Professor Paterson's book and the more conventional Arden Shakespeare edition by Katherine Duncan-Jones, senior research fellow in English at Somerville College, Oxford.

"The obsessive world in which you are caught up in the Sonnets itself becomes obsessive," suggests Henry Woudhuysen, professor of English at University College London, another of the academic experts featured on the app.

The poems are also notorious as the Bermuda Triangle of literary scholarship, with many lives lost in pursuit of crazed theories about the identity of the "fair youth" and the "dark lady", whether the order of the poems is planned or accidental, and whether they "prove" that Shakespeare was very, partly or not at all gay.

The app guides readers through the debates by bringing together 43 short presentations on all the key issues, making up what Professor Woudhuysen calls "an interplay of different views in relation to what we know and what we think about the Sonnets. They cover all the contextual areas while keeping the focus on the poems themselves."

The Sonnets app, which will be released next week by the Arden Shakespeare, Faber and Faber, Touch Press and Illuminations at a price of at £9.99, builds on the success of Touch Press and Faber's iPad app for The Waste Land.

Yet unlike T.S. Eliot's dark masterpiece, comments Professor Woudhuysen, the Sonnets have long been used as "a token book" to impress potential partners.

"Perhaps we should have a Google counter to track the number of successful seductions," he adds.

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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