One great thing about Shakespeare plays is the totality, the wholeness, the 3-D-rounded-in-time-ness.
Perhaps this is true for all works of literature ? But I don’t have time to think about that today and it is definitely true of these plays. They are like 3-D objects, knit together, made of the same complex, changing, stuff all through.
And the more time you spend in them the more that solidity and wholeness is revealed. If I was to read a play new to me or one I’ve forgotten (I don’t know Alls Well That Ends Well very well, probably read it three times in thirty years, and only seen it once) would that 3-D solidity seem so obvious? I don’t think so. It’s something to do with knowing what is going to happen, not just in narrative terms but in terms of who people are. The less well I know the play the more like a ‘play’ it seems. The ones I know very well (King Lear, As You Like It, Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and above all, The Winter’s Tale) hardly seem like ‘plays’ at all. I don’t know what to call them. They seem like little working models of what is to be human.
Why do I say ‘little’? They last only two or three hours, whereas, we last, if we are lucky, threescore years and ten. The plays seem like what John Donne calls ‘a little world made cunningly’ .
If you’ve never read a Shakespeare play before and are reading it with a Shared Reading group for the first time – that is great: you wonderfully free and untramelled by experience, like youth. Read, struggle, enjoy!
But age and experience has its bounty. It helps deepen the experience if you know what is coming.
Here, the fact that I know what is going to happen affects how I read/hear Camillo’s line ‘the heavens continue their loves.’ Soon, the heavens will not continue their loves. The heavens will smash them.
When we are new to play, we don’t know that. Of course, in one sense, we are always new to the play because the story has to play out in time, a narrative unfolding before our eyes. So at this point I both know (because I’ve read the play before) and don’t know because I’ve just started again and I am also in the experience of narrative unfolding time. I’m in two timebands, two parallel, connected but different universes.
So I have two ways of understanding Camillo: the one in which he is speaking in normal-speak and by saying ‘the heavens continue’ he is only saying something rather empty (something standard, such as ‘god willing’, ‘godspeed’ – a figure of speech, a politeness); and another in which, with the resonance of what is coming, the line is loaded with anxiety.
At this point, like someone with superhuman powers, I see two possible futures unfolding -the one in which the heavens do continue their loves and a return state visit takes place in the predictable and normal course of events; the other in which the heavens do not continue their loves and all hell breaks lose. These two strands are woven together. I suppose that is what I mean about the 3-D-ness. This moment, short as it is, feels like a solid object. As all human time might, if we were able to slow it down enough to see what was happening, what was potentially unfolding.
Sicilia cannot show himself over-kind to Bohemia.
They were trained together in their childhoods; and
there rooted betwixt them then such an affection,
which cannot choose but branch now. Since their
more mature dignities and royal necessities made
separation of their society, their encounters,
though not personal, have been royally attorneyed
with interchange of gifts, letters, loving
embassies; that they have seemed to be together,
though absent, shook hands, as over a vast, and
embraced, as it were, from the ends of opposed
winds. The heavens continue their loves!
Looking in slo-mo at Camillo’s words, and lit with my anxiety about what I know is going to happen, I now see more worrying words: I’d like to paint them red with my highlighter.
Cannot / betwixt /cannot /branch /separation /seemed /absent /opposed
The genius of the great Director/reader is to feel the power of that set of words in what is a politely civil-servant normal-speech set of words. How are we going to get that foreboding, gently, into the room? In the theatre – good job we have one here on the table in front of us – maybe by lighting, or music, or stops and starts in Camillo’s inflection?
Agh, time’s up. More anon.