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The Bard lives on even in a digital age

When Nicole Owens announced to her English class that they would be studying Shakespeare, there was a collective groan.

"Their reaction is the same as most, which would be not excited," said the recent Brigham Young University-Idaho graduate who was completing her student teaching in Idaho Falls.

For educators like Owens, the battle begins in bridging the gap between educational pillars such as the works of William Shakespeare, while living in an increasingly digital world.

With the Utah Shakespeare Festival kicking off another season June 24, it stems the question: Is there a rift between the relics of the past and the innovation of the future?

According to Don Weingust, director of Shakespeare studies at Southern Utah University, this is a question as old as the Bard himself.

"The question of developing technology is one that has been going on since Shakespeare’s day. We are simply seeing the next generation of it," Weingust said.

For Shakespeare, it was a battle taking a step into a world with movable type, Weingust said.

"We are taking the next huge leap into the digital angle. We are struggling the way Shakespeare and his fellows were. It’s a matter of constant evolution,” he said.

But some educators would argue that because of the increased accessibility and onslaught of tools to understand iambic pentameter and early modern English, Shakespeare is more available than ever.

"We live in the best time for Shakespeare because there are so many tools you can use to prepare you before, during and after," said Michael Bahr, the education director for the Utah Shakespeare Festival. "Our job as storytellers and directors is to keep the language, character and plot clear so the language and words resonate. That's what the Utah Shakespearean Festival stands for."

Festivals like the Cedar City-based, Tony-Award-winning summer-fest act as a catalyst for education. Often, teachers help students connect with some of the most famous theatrical works by introducing them to their students on stage.

"It's drama. It's intended to be viewed," said Kip Hartvigsen, an English professor at Brigham Young University-Idaho.

But as the world dives deeper into a digital world, literary relics such as Shakespeare can be found in a variety of new media.

Online tools

Thanks to the emergence of the Internet, additional tools are available at the click of a mouse to help transcend the Shakespearean experience for students, teachers and theatergoers alike.

One of the best online tools is the Oxford English Dictionary, said Weingust.

When Hartvigsen first started teaching, he used audio recordings to help his students understand that what they were studying was more than words on a page. Now, thanks to the digital age, his students are finding ways to become more engaged.

Hartvigsen said many students watch performances of the plays they are studying on YouTube. The professor, who teaches a course on Shakespeare, said this resource is invaluable.

"When you hear someone perform (the language), you understand it even if you don't get every word," he said. "You feel the language."

Hartvigsen said that the experience students are having studying Shakespeare in his class is vastly different than what he experienced. While studying as an undergraduate at Brigham Young University, Hartvigsen said that he had virtually no access to any performance.

Now, access is practically unlimited.

"The Internet and technology educationally have done phenomenal things," Bahr said. "Now it's a matter of 'which choice do I use?' I like to go with the smorgasbord approach. I give (students) an assignment and let them wander.

The Utah Shakespeare Festival has held a long tradition of a strong educational emphasis throughout the festival.

For example, the festival has been telling Shakespeare's histories in order, part of the reason being an educational tool, Bahr said.

"We want everyone on board so they know who King John is."

Bahr said that online tools such as YouTube and Cliff Notes help enhance the educational experience of seeing these histories performed.

Social media

"It's Shakespeare's connectivity and understanding of the universal man, the story and characters that connect (with the audience,)" Bahr said. "It doesn't matter what framework you put them on. That's the nature of live theater."

Because of Shakespeare's universal adaptability, Shakespeare is having no problem finding a place among the millennials of today.

In fact, theater companies like the Royal Shakespeare Company are stretching the realm of tradition and, in 2010, performed the Bard's “Romeo & Juliet” in real time on Twitter

In the production, “Such Tweet Sorrow” five main characters tweeted the story of the star-crossed lovers over five weeks.

Other social media outlets such as Facebook are making Shakespeare’s oft times complex characters seem more modern.

“Stratford Shakespeare in Ontario has a Facebook account for the Montague and Capulet families,” Bahr said.

Bahr said he hopes the Facebook presence, which was inspired by the Twitter conversation, is helping audiences realize that the verse isn’t that daunting.

“Just yesterday I saw Entertainment Weekly advertize that you can buy the whole text of a Shakespeare version of Star Wars.”

The new book, "William Shakespeare's Star Wars," by Ian Doescher, will go on sale in July.

Bahr attributes the conglomeration of cultures to the widespread digital world.

“There is a beautiful cultural mash-up of technology,” he said.


Shakespearean scholar and educator Katherine Rowe and her partner, Elliott Visconsi, recognized a need for a new interactive approach for learning Shakespeare in the classroom. And thus, The Tempest for iPads was created.

The app includes commentary on the play from Shakespearean scholars, as well as audio of actors from The London Stage, one of the oldest Shakespeare touring companies in the world.

"The audio was incredibly important," Rowe said. "We wanted high quality acting performances rather than just recitations. It's important to convey in performances the flexibility of Shakespeare's language."

And the response has been outstanding.

"The students have been incredibly warm in their response," Rowe said. "I have students who tell me, 'You know, I sat down to read the play, turned on the audio and found myself reading and listening for two hours straight all the way through.' That was really exciting!"

The trick with interactive tools such as the iPad app is that students are able to pull from a variety of sources to connect with a seemingly difficult text, Rowe said.

Right now, the main demographic for the app is students, but Rowe said she is hopeful they will soon reach a wider audience.

In addition to The Tempest for iPads, Rowe and Visconsi are working on additional apps for "Hamlet," MacBeth," "Romeo & Juliet," "A Midsummer's Night Dream" and "Othello."


Time magazine recently published an online list for the greatest Shakespeare plays ever turned into a film. Among them was Kenneth Branagh's Henry V. The commentary indicated that part of this was due to the passion in which the cast crafts the play.

"Above all, one senses Branagh’s — and the whole cast’s — unabashed love for Shakespeare," the list said.

Ultimately, it’s all about the passion.

“The most important thing isn’t digital,” said Weingust. “It has to do with the passion a Shakespeare teacher has for his subject and letting that passion be visible to students."

Weingust said passion is such a key element because it acts as a natural contagion. But passion, combined with technology, creates the penultimate when it comes to learning.

“When students see how extraordinary this work is, and if I’m able to demonstrate and give them tools for their own reading and they realize this is amazing, there is a greater opportunity for passion to catch on,” he said.

Many educators agree. The digital world has only improved the Shakespearean experience.

“I don’t see the digital age as a threat. I see it as a tool to continue to tell the story that is there,” Bahr said. “You can get lost in the great and powerful Oz, when it’s really about the man behind the curtain."

It's actually because of technology that events such as the Utah Shakespeare Festival continue to be successful as entertainment and education.

Technology helps keep Shakespeare alive as audiences come to understand the characters more through the tools available, Bahr said.

"The hard thing is how to keep up. That's the daunting thing for everyone," he said. "You take a deep breath and do what you can."

The Utah Shakespeare Festival runs from June 24 to Oct. 19. This season is part Shakespeare, part musical, part courtroom drama and part childhood fantasy.

This festival will feature a lineup of "King John," "Love's Labour's Lost," "The Tempest," "Peter and the Starcatcher," "Anything Goes," "12 Angry Men," "Richard II," and "The Marvelous Wonderettes."

Tickets for the Utah Shakespeare Festival may be purchased online or by calling the ticket office at 800-PLAYTIX.

Emmilie Buchanan is an intern for the Deseret News with Mormon Times. She recently graduated from Brigham Young University-Idaho. Contact her by email: or on Twitter: @emmiliebuchanan