The Winter’s Tale Day 4: That’s The Spirit


Bamboo in the  Woods at Calderstones Park, March 2018

Last week or the week before  Loubyjo  reminded me that it was 10 years since the Shakespeare Reading group had started  in the old Lauries office which used to house Get Into Reading. Ten years!

I don’t know how long it is since Louise took  that Shakespeare group over, or when Bernie decided she had done her stint…but congratulations to Bernie, who ran it for years and to Louise, who has run it for years ,and to Marion who has run it with Louise for years… This is one of the best things to come out of  The Reader…and what I would have hoped for, if I’d had the imagination to hope in that way, when I started.

I started the group  – I think – because I wanted to tell people that you could read Shakespeare in Shared Reading – it doesn’t have to be a short story and poem.

It does have to be  great literature.

The  form that the literature comes in (let me list some forms: nineteenth century novel in tiny weekly installments for two years, Shakespeare play for six months, one-off poem, one-off short story, one-off short story followed by ‘matching’ or ‘non-matching’ poem, modern novel, essay, Homer’s Odyssey for  two years, one-off incomprehensible contemporary poem) the form it comes in REALLY DOESN’T MATTER.

I’m shouting because one of the things that has gone wrong with  the growth of Shared Reading is that many people tell me  Shared Reading is reading a short story with matching poem.  No,  no, no.  You don’t have to match a poem. You could read any poem.  You don’t have to read a poem at all. Just read a chapter of War and Peace or a short story on its own.  Or you can only read a poem. I mean if you were going to read Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality’ you’d have to read it over two or three weeks. You couldn’t tag it on to a short story as a match. The short story and poem format means there is loads of stuff you can’t read! That can’t be right.

In the first group I read a short story, ‘Schwartz’, by Russell Hoban (find it in The Moment Under the Moment, a collection of  essays and other things). And I read ‘Crossing The Bar’. They do not ‘match’.  I just liked them both and was worried we might finish ‘Schwartz’ before the time was up (actually, I think it might have taken two weeks).

Because teaching, as we do on Read to Lead,  in three days is a sledgehammer activity,  and because we have the wonderful A Little Aloud series, for years some people have come away with the idea that Shared Reading = reading a short story with a matching poem. No. No. No.

That can be done. Yes. But as in all things it is not the form that counts, it’s the spirit. The form is important because it is a way of having, of being, the spirit. But you can have empty forms.  Don’t go for form. Go for spirit. I don’t think it is possible to have empty spirit.

Read great stuff. Moving,  powerful, human stuff that gets you feeling and thinking. And for me, if I was teaching,  sledgehammering, I’d say always be aiming to get to Shakespeare in the end.

Here’s the end of the opening scene of The Winter’s Tale:


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!
I think there is not in the world either malice or
matter to alter it. You have an unspeakable
comfort of your young prince Mamillius: it is a
gentleman of the greatest promise that ever came
into my note.
I very well agree with you in the hopes of him: it
is a gallant child; one that indeed physics the
subject, makes old hearts fresh: they that went on
crutches ere he was born desire yet their life to
see him a man.
Would they else be content to die?
Yes; if there were no other excuse why they should
desire to live.
If the king had no son, they would desire to live
on crutches till he had one.

Camillos speaks of the grown-up Kings’ boyhoods’ and  Archidamus  speaks of Mamillius, son of Sicillia, son of King Leontes. Funny little bit of  stagey business this –  two civil servants chatting before the big newsworthy public occasion, exchanging pleasantries but also giving clues to audience.  Last time I wrote about this play noticed some of the frightening language in Camillo’s speech about the Kings, now  I notice Archidamus’  underlying worry  about matter or malice. Can anything alter the  state of friendship between these two childhood friends? And for Mamillius, we have ‘promise’, ‘hopes’ and, says Camillo,

…a gallant child; one that indeed physics the
subject, makes old hearts fresh: they that went on
crutches ere he was born desire yet their life to
see him a man.

We live for the possibility held by the unfolding future, which we experience in a child. The child changes time, ‘makes old hearts fresh’ and gives the old a powerful desire to live. We want – me with my grandchildren, Camillo with his King’s son – to live ‘ to see him a man.’ That investment in the future is powerful. Otherwise,  Archidamus wonders, might we desire to die?

What else is there to live for? Camillo leaves open the possibility that there might be  other reasons, but he can’t think of any:

Yes; if there were no other excuse why they should
desire to live.

The play is not yet started ,yet we are already in the thick of its subject matter, even though we don’t yet know what that subject matter is… it is living, it is reasons to stay alive, it is death, it is loss of children.

While the two opening actors seem to speak lightly, merely socially, almost  meaninglessly, yet they  have set out the play for us in advance, and Archidamus now  puts the finishing touch to it:

If the king had no son, they would desire to live
on crutches till he had one.

A child gives you a reason to live, but no child also gives you a reason: you ‘ve got to let enough time pass to get one. This  is primogeniture: the King must have an heir! If he hasn’t got one, we’ve got to keep going until he does.  And so we will… Looking back at the opening of this piece, I see that I was bemoaning not having the imagination to hope for a future that has unfolded in real life.

This is what I love about Shakespeare. The form – two servants come into a room and start a preamble – turns out to be a  piece of life. A piece that might not yet have come into existence, but real nonetheless. The form holds the spirit. Spirit’s the thing. Forms change.

Don’t follow rules. Except sometimes when you need to.  Run a Shared Reading group by following D.H. Lawrence’s  rule:  ‘We must balance as we go’.



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