The Winter’s Tale Day 1: Flying Upward


Being a human isn’t easy,  even for a very lucky human like me, born in England in the twentieth century,  having had some education and not having to work at manual labour and having food and warmth and house insurance and many other luxuries…being human isn’t easy. So it’s not surprising that people often want to stay on the surface in Shared Reading and not go too deep into sorrow. We’ve got enough of it already!

Yet the fact remains that for most of us, even wealthy third-worlders, life is hard, as the Book of Job (6th century BCE) asserts:

Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.

The implication – look at the picture –  is, how should it be any other way? We  are mortal. yet we live with powerful consciousness that feels immortal.  There’s always death, pain, illness, breakages. Lots of the time, naturally, we want to  keep whistling and pretend it is not so.

Yet the very best experiences in Shared Reading often come when  we stop whistling and look up and listen to the crackle of the sparks and the silence behind  them. You  gotta go down to get up.

A Reader Leader  developing a group has a tough job on, partly coaxing non-readers towards literature in the first place, then keeping a balance between the wishes of some  members to ‘stay light’  (as one reader said to me, ‘we’ve got enough sorrow at home’ ) and the  task of creating the intense experience that comes from sharing the most complex, and often sad or troubling, texts.

In groups I’ve run I’m always aiming towards the best and greatest,  even if it might take a while to get there. For me that best and greatest is usually Shakespeare (other great writers are harder to share: I’ve only once read Dante and rarely Wordsworth, and never Milton in a normal weekly community Shared Reading group, though have read all of them on Saturday Dayschools. Would I try it?  Yes probably, depending on the stability of the group). When I say best and greatest, I think I am talking about levels of complexity. Which writers use up the greatest proportion of my brain and heart?

And  while there are many great Shakespeare works you might decide to start trying to talk your group into starting – I’ve read Hamlet, All’s Well , Macbeth and probably others that I’ve forgotten in Shared Reading groups – for me the play I love and would most like to share is The Winter’s Tale.

Starting The Winter’s Tale here is partly for myself – haven’t read it for a couple of years, so I’ll enjoy spending some time with it. But partly I offer my reading as an encouragement to anyone who can’t imagine reading a Shakespeare play in their Shared Reading group. And for readers who don’t run groups ( why don’t you?)  I hope it will simply be a meditative joy to read some complicating deep stuff very slowly.  Breathe! Breathe!

There’s an online text here, and you’ll find paper texts  in libraries and bookshops everywhere. We don’t need a text with  exceptional scholarship, though it’s fine if you have one.

How to start?

Talk them into it!  Start talking about it long before – in the middle of  run of short stories, or half way through Silas Marner. Sell it! Tell them how great it will be, and  remind them it won’t be like school.

Some tips before you begin:

  • If you can,  watch it in a couple of different productions (I still  like the 1981 BBC Shakespeare version directed by Jane Howell and starring the great Margaret Tyzack as Paulina.).
  • Close your ears, now The Reader Quality team, but I’m not a great fan of prep for Shared Reading – I like to find my reading live and without a safety net. Of course I’ve been falling off that highwire for decades so I’m used to landing with a splat. But here I’d definitely recommend you working on the text in advance if possible, because you want to feel reasonably confident.  Get a scene or so in advance of your group.
  • Make sure your group know this is going to take a while: we’re not going to rush. Treat it like a poem, let every word, every phrase and sentence have its right amount of time.
  • Be prepared to say, many times over, ‘I don’t know! I haven’t a clue!’
  • Let discussion wander all over the shop but keep coming back to the text and asking everyone to think again or try to imagine it.
  • To imagine it, build a little invisible theatre-in-the-round in the middle of your reading space and ask group members to visualise the play – try it with different sets, costumes, actors from the telly. Make it move!
  • Know the story and be able to tell it to entice your more reluctant group members towards the play – be ready with translations into modern-day life – who do we know who is like this? Have you ever seen a person do this?
  • Ask one of your group to keep a list of characters (and clues to who they are) which could be pinned up in the room as you read –  people new to Shakespeare will really struggle with the names in the this play.  (Polixenes= King of  Bohemia, boyhood friend of King Leontes / Mamillius= son of King Leontes, aged about 9 or 10. / Paulina= wife of courtier Antigonus, speaks her mind).
  • Beware the academic – no fancy talk. Your job as Reader Leader is to keep it real – this is not an old studied for A level play, it’s a piece of our heart.

Ah, run out of time now. But here is the opening scene, which I’ll pick up next time.


SCENE I. Antechamber in LEONTES’ palace.



If you shall chance, Camillo, to visit Bohemia, on
the like occasion whereon my services are now on
foot, you shall see, as I have said, great
difference betwixt our Bohemia and your Sicilia.


I think, this coming summer, the King of Sicilia
means to pay Bohemia the visitation which he justly owes him.


Wherein our entertainment shall shame us we will be
justified in our loves; for indeed–


Beseech you,–


Verily, I speak it in the freedom of my knowledge:
we cannot with such magnificence–in so rare–I know
not what to say. We will give you sleepy drinks,
that your senses, unintelligent of our insufficience,
may, though they cannot praise us, as little accuse


You pay a great deal too dear for what’s given freely.


Believe me, I speak as my understanding instructs me
and as mine honesty puts it to utterance.


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.