Ian McKellen seeks to demystify Shakespeare with new app

Heuristic Shakespeare -- "The Tempest" is the first of 37 new apps to help students better understand the works of the famous bard. Actors McKellen, Helen Mirren, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Suchet and John Lithgow review the app.

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Bonnie Burton
Journalist Bonnie Burton writes about movies, TV shows, comics, science and robots. She is the author of the books Live or Die: Survival Hacks, Wizarding World: Movie Magic Amazing Artifacts, The Star Wars Craft Book, Girls Against Girls, Draw Star Wars, Planets in Peril and more! E-mail Bonnie.
Bonnie Burton
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William Shakespeare words, "I long to hear the story of your life, which must captivate the ear strangely," in his play "The Tempest" best describe the appeal of a new app created to excite students about his often hard-to-comprehend work.

Actor Ian McKellen and professor Jonathan Bate have joined forces to help us understand the world-famous Arden Shakespeare texts and their extensive essays and notes, all thanks to a new educational app.

"Anyone who finds studying Shakespeare difficult should remember that Shakespeare didn't intend you to read these plays," McKellen says in the video.

Heuristic Shakespeare -- The Tempest app from Heuristic Shakespeare Limited is the first of 37 separate apps designed to make Shakespeare's plays easier to understand by a modern audience.

To help you best understand Shakespeare's play from a variety of approaches, the app includes such features as the full text of "The Tempest" as published in the First Folio; a digital version of the Arden Shakespeare "Tempest" including full notes and commentary; a linked historical time line of Shakespeare's life, plays, and historical context; and explanations of every character, with a visual rundown of all their lines across the scenes.

App users can also see "The Tempest" at a glance with illustrations and summaries to explain the plot with key quotes and events; check out a history of all the major productions of "The Tempest," from the 17th century to current day; and take advantage of the ability to jot down exportable notes and highlight and copy text.

Actor Sir Ian McKellen makes "The Tempest" easier to enjoy, with interactive displays and character explanations.
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Actor Sir Ian McKellen makes "The Tempest" easier to enjoy, with interactive displays and character explanations.

Actor Ian McKellen makes "The Tempest" easier to enjoy, with interactive displays and character explanations.

Video screenshot by Bonnie Burton/CNET

Best of all, you can watch a cast of professional Shakespearean actors, which includes McKellen, performing the play. The app also includes video talks by both McKellen and Professor Bate on characters, themes and the overall play.

McKellen isn't the only well-known actor impressed by the app's ability to both entertain and educate the masses about Shakespeare. In a video testimonial, some of his fellow Shakespearean actors, including Helen Mirren, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Suchet and John Lithgow, to name a few, all sing the app's praises.

"It's about accessibility," Cumberbatch said about the app in a video posted on McKellen's Twitter. "It makes the plays come alive. You have video of the actors reading so you can see where they're taking their breath, actually see them performing and giving intention to every line."

"You have a wonderful thesaurus to help you make it into plain English, to paraphrase it into language that is 21st Century and therefore illuminate some of the more arcane expressions," Cumberbatch added. "It's a wonderful educational tool."

While "thought is free," as quoted in "The Tempest," this app retails on the iTunes store for $5.99 (about £4.17, AU$8.24), and requires iOS 8.0 or later. The app is compatible with the iPad.