The Winter’s Tale Day 10: A State Visit, Old Friends or an Affair?

myrtle3.JPG
Myrtle in the back garden – literally buzzing with bees – you can’t see them but there are hundreds 11 July 2018

If you are new to this group, welcome – it’s a  reading of Shakespeare’s great play about a man who wrecks his own life and lives with the consequences.  And life  in various ways mends itself and comes back to him.

Look up The Winter’s Tale in the search box to get the feel of how we’re  reading and what’s been happening. Find a text of the play here.

Last time, we were reading the moment when Hermione takes on the challenge of persuading Polixenes to stay longer. We’re in Act 1 Scene 2.  Leontes has failed to persuade Polixenes to stay a little longer and  has asked his Queen, Hermione, to try to win him. This she has done, by entreaty, gentle word play, perhaps a little flirting. We’re going to have to decide how much flirting…And we have to remember Leontes, standing near but not in the conversation, watching it unfold.

As the not-so-State-visit of the Unmentionable has unfolded before our eyes this last few days, I couldn’t help remember the play, these moments of strange cross-over between public and state affairs and the private. Look at photos of various bits of hand-holding.

But, back to the text! Let’s just read the next section:

POLIXENES

Your guest, then, madam:
To be your prisoner should import offending;
Which is for me less easy to commit
Than you to punish.

HERMIONE

Not your gaoler, then,
But your kind hostess. Come, I’ll question you
Of my lord’s tricks and yours when you were boys:
You were pretty lordings then?

POLIXENES

We were, fair queen,
Two lads that thought there was no more behind
But such a day to-morrow as to-day,
And to be boy eternal.

HERMIONE

Was not my lord
The verier wag o’ the two?

POLIXENES

We were as twinn’d lambs that did frisk i’ the sun,
And bleat the one at the other: what we changed
Was innocence for innocence; we knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dream’d
That any did. Had we pursued that life,
And our weak spirits ne’er been higher rear’d
With stronger blood, we should have answer’d heaven
Boldly ‘not guilty;’ the imposition clear’d
Hereditary ours.
HERMIONE

By this we gather
You have tripp’d since.
POLIXENES

O my most sacred lady!
Temptations have since then been born to’s; for
In those unfledged days was my wife a girl;
Your precious self had then not cross’d the eyes
Of my young play-fellow.
HERMIONE

Grace to boot!
Of this make no conclusion, lest you say
Your queen and I are devils: yet go on;
The offences we have made you do we’ll answer,
If you first sinn’d with us and that with us
You did continue fault and that you slipp’d not
With any but with us.
LEONTES

Is he won yet?
HERMIONE

He’ll stay my lord.
LEONTES

At my request he would not.

A good example of thinking about how much you might read ahead in a Shared Reading session. I’m the world’s slowest reader, except where I need to speed up in order to show or experience the run of the action. That’s what I’d do here, speed up – because I want my group to know where we are heading – that terrible, childish, petulant line ‘At my request he would not.’

This is the point at which Leontes  really begins to lose himself and his grip on reality.

I want the serious reality of this terrible moment live in the room before we go slowly through more verbal play from Polixenes. I want to get this moment in the room, because it sets an emotional tone and kind of background to what we are going to read.  So, as in a poem, we’re reading  not just a linear narrative but back and forth, up and down the ines.

A question someone asked me recently: how do you know  when to glide over and not be too bothered about not understanding things and when to slow down and work at it?

Let’s read the opening again:

POLIXENES

Your guest, then, madam:
To be your prisoner should import offending;
Which is for me less easy to commit
Than you to punish.

This is a moment of slightly complex or hard to easily get language that anyone might think – what? Not sure what he’s just said.  I’d glide here –  the first line contains the real meaning: he’s going to stay.  but just for interest, what does the next bit, which takes three lines, mean?

The word ‘import’ is an odd one here –  one of the reasons an ear unfamiliar with Shakespearean language would or might be  put off…but it just means, bring in, doesn’t it? Hhhm, not quite. Import as in suggest?  To be a  prisoner suggests you’ve committed an offence, that’s the import of it. I’m going to look the verb up in the good old Etymological Dictionary.

early 15c., “signify, show, bear or convey in meaning,” from Latin importare “bring in, convey, bring in from abroad,” from assimilated form of in- “into, in” (from PIE root *en “in”) + portare “to carry,” from PIE root *per-(2) “to lead, pass over.”

So that is  why Polixenes speaks of  a crime Hermione might punish: prisoner signifies offence.

And the next bit? A bit of harmless flirting, harmless wit, wordplay…

Which is for me less easy to commit
Than you to punish.

meaning – harder for me to commit a crime against you, than you to punish it.

But if you were looking for a hidden meaning (as Leontes, watching, may be – look at him! ) it might mean, I’d never do anything against you, but you could hurt me. It might mean that. Might not. We’ll have to wait and see. Is Leontes waiting to see?

Whatever it is, Hermione floats over this and turns the subject and lays down a line:

HERMIONE

Not your gaoler, then,
But your kind hostess. Come, I’ll question you
Of my lord’s tricks and yours when you were boys:
You were pretty lordings then?

She’s saying: I’m your hostess. That’s it. Nothing more. Tell me about your childhoods, your boyhood friendship.

I wonder about Leontes, what is he doing right now? What do we see on his face?  – is this another ‘not a jar o’the clock behind what lady she her lord?’ – is she deliberately appeasing him? And that word ‘come’ implies a turning away – if you’ve got to be Hermione, on a stage, physical, are you  moving at that point? Are  yo taking Polixenes arm? Holding your hand out?

Oh dear times up, more next time.

The Winter’s Tale Day 9: Life Under A Time-travelling Magnifying Glass

shutters
Shutters and pines, Zakynthos,  29 June

If you are new to this group, welcome – it’s a  reading of Shakespeare’s great play about a man who wrecks his own life and lives with the consequences.  And life  in various ways mends itself and comes back to him.

Look up The Winter’s Tale in the search box to get the feel of how we’re  reading and what’s been happening. Find a text of the play here.

Last time, we were reading the moment when Hermione takes on the challenge of persuading Polixenes to stay. We’re in Act 1 Scene 2. She’s just said ‘you’ll stay?’…

POLIXENES
No, madam.
HERMIONE
Nay, but you will?
POLIXENES
I may not, verily.

HERMIONE
Verily!
You put me off with limber vows; but I,
Though you would seek to unsphere the
stars with oaths,
Should yet say ‘Sir, no going.’ Verily,
You shall not go: a lady’s ‘Verily’ ‘s
As potent as a lord’s. Will you go yet?
Force me to keep you as a prisoner,
Not like a guest; so you shall pay your fees
When you depart, and save your thanks. How say you?
My prisoner? or my guest? by your dread ‘Verily,’
One of them you shall be.
POLIXENES
Your guest, then, madam:
To be your prisoner should import offending;
Which is for me less easy to commit
Than you to punish.
HERMIONE
Not your gaoler, then,
But your kind hostess. Come, I’ll question you
Of my lord’s tricks and yours when you were boys:
You were pretty lordings then?

I’d been thinking about how it felt to be Leontes, having failed to persuade someone to do something (getting Polixenes to extend his visit) and having then to ask someone else (your wife, Hermione) to have ago.  Is there any way that could be ok? I try to imagine my feelings:  if I really, really wanted the person to stay, if I was totally secure with both that person and my spouse?  But there would still be the under-feeling of ‘he wouldn’t stay for me…’ I imagine Leontes watching this plea from Hermione.  I wonder how close he is to her: are they together, standing with their arms around each other? Is he across the room? I see them perhaps starting out close together and later, moving apart. When does that happen?

It starts off pretty straightforward, as if Hermione assumes that Polixenes’ saying no was a form, that really, he will stay. So she’s simple about it; ‘you’ll stay?’ she’s like an English lady in a flowery dress at a garden party: not much can go wrong here.

But when Polixenes continues to refuse what can she do? She chooses teasing; ‘Verily!’

Is that  the moment she moves away from Leontes? Her ‘Verily’ feels as if it is a reaching forward.

That’s a very real moment between friends. ‘I may not, verily’ (serious, grown up person with things to do) ‘Verily!’ (what do you think you are ! talking to me like that! I know you are not a grown-up with serious things to do  even if you seem to be one!) and that gives Hermione her teasing opening to have a go at him.

Her whole argument is a play on ‘verily’ and not so much the word as the way he said it, as if he were a grown-up, a King, affairs of state etc. Hermione offers a little friendly arm-wrestling; verily!

HERMIONE
Verily!
You put me off with limber vows; but I,
Though you would seek to unsphere the stars with oaths,
Should yet say ‘Sir, no going.’ Verily,
You shall not go: a lady’s ‘Verily’ ‘s
As potent as a lord’s. Will you go yet?
Force me to keep you as a prisoner,
Not like a guest; so you shall pay your fees
When you depart, and save your thanks. How say you?
My prisoner? or my guest? by your dread ‘Verily,’
One of them you shall be.

Did I get the idea of arm-wrestling from her word ‘limber’? Not sure what she means by that, but I think I thought she meant ‘strong’. I’m going to look it up here.  Hhm, so, pliant, flexible.  As if, ‘you’ll say anything’ and therefore I can’t take seriously anything you say. From limber, pliant, flexible , Hermione goes to a distant extreme –

but I,
Though you would seek to unsphere the stars with oaths,
Should yet say ‘Sir, no going.’ Verily,
You shall not go: a lady’s ‘Verily’ ‘s
As potent as a lord’s.

She exaggerates, because he’s not trying to unseat the stars with his oaths, he’s merely been gently protesting.  She’s playing – slapping down her own ‘verily’ to match his.  And then, ‘a lady’s ‘Verily’s’ /as potent as a lords.’

Can you take the word ‘potent’ without thinking of something  even mildly sexual?  Or is it only about strength of will! Would you like to try reading that line as a tease? As a bit of flirting?  As an assertion of your feminine power?

What’s happening while she is speaking? Where is she, in relation to Polixenes – and where, still, silent – is Leontes? I imagine her pretty close to Polixenes now, maybe  holding his arm or his hands… certainly this kind of conversation doesn’t take place across a formal state distance.  It’s intimate. It expects to win. But maybe he still needs more arm-twisting? Hermione continues;

Will you go yet?
Force me to keep you as a prisoner,
Not like a guest; so you shall pay your fees
When you depart, and save your thanks. How say you?
My prisoner? or my guest? by your dread ‘Verily,’
One of them you shall be.

That ‘will you go yet’ seems to imply he has made to go, seems as if she might be responding to some movement of his.  I see her putting her arms across him – blocking a possible movement.  Using her arms as  bars, maybe standing, laughing, sure of herself, blocking in his path.

Force me to keep you as a prisoner,
Not like a guest; so you shall pay your fees
When you depart, and save your thanks. How say you?
My prisoner? or my guest? by your dread ‘Verily,’
One of them you shall be.

All  sweet, funny, winning. And then I think of Leontes, watching.  It don’t feel good to imagine being him’! You’d have to be a pretty secure person to watch all this and not feel undermined.  But so far the text doesn’t give us a clue to him (though we saw last time we read, Hermione reassuring him – ‘I love thee not a jar o’the clock behind what lady she her lord’ and that was a little worrying).

I’m aware of different kinds of time going on as we read. The straightforward reading time, where things happen straight consecutive linear unfolding… and the time travel we can do up and down the lines, thinking back and forth in time : looking back, once we’ve heard that key line, ‘I love thee not a jar o’the clock behind what lady she her lord’, we can’t help see what came before it in its light, too. It’s like being in psychoanalysis  or time-travel everything counts and every moment  influences every other moment. It’s all one.  Life is like that but usually we can’t see it, too busy in the moment or  in the past or future, rarely  holding it all in mind at once.

Is it because of Leontes (and where is he as all this happens, where is he positioned on the stage? How close or distant is he?)  that Hermione turns the conversation as soon as she has won Polixenes assent? I’ll stay he says and she replies, tell me about when you and  Leontes were boys…

 

The Winter’s Tale Day 8: That Jar o’ the Clock and the Questioning

cow parsley
Cow Parsley in Calderstones Park

 

If you are new to this reading of Shakespeare’s great play, find earlier posts by typing ‘winter’s tale’ into the search box. Find the entire text here. Or, as if you’d just arrived at a Shared Reading group for the first time, just jump in. It’s mainly happening in the moment. Think of reading Shakespeare as some time with the most human of thinkers, this carefully observant psychotherapist, the great listener. He hears so much in a single moment, in the movement of the hand of a clock…

Hermione, Queen of Sicillia has been charged by her husband, Leontes, to persuade their visitor, his childhood friend, King Polixenes of  Bohemia, to stay a bit longer.  She’s doing her best. We pick her up in mid-flow:

HERMIONE
To tell, he longs to see his son, were strong:
But let him say so then, and let him go;
But let him swear so, and he shall not stay,
We’ll thwack him hence with distaffs.
Yet of your royal presence I’ll adventure
The borrow of a week. When at Bohemia
You take my lord, I’ll give him my commission
To let him there a month behind the gest
Prefix’d for’s parting: yet, good deed, Leontes,
I love thee not a jar o’ the clock behind
What lady-she her lord. You’ll stay?

On stage  Hermione’s own son is present – Mamillius, aged about eight or nine.  He’s a much-loved boy. It’s natural perhaps that Hermione  thinks a longing to go home after a nine month state visit might be prompted by missing your boy.  But Polixenes hasn’t said that at all.  That’s Hermione’s own thought, she’s so moved herself – it’s an excuse she’d be glad to hear.

I ask myself now, what kind of Mum thinks the most powerful thing she can think of  is missing her child? I don’t answer that question, just ask it.

And what’s a distaff, someone might ask.  Hmm, something about women, about the female side of a family? We’ll have to look it up. So we do and we find or remember ,or someone in our group will know, that a distaff is the spindle used in spinning, a deeply  female bit of kit. It’s a bit  like saying I’ll hit him over the head with my handbag, comic but also serious at some level about womanliness, about woman power. Charged by her husband to make this old friend stay longer, Hermione is using charm, wit, her femininity. When she makes the distaff joke others will be (gently) laughing. So, having got a laugh, she homes in with a realistic ask:

Yet of your royal presence I’ll adventure
The borrow of a week.

The word ‘royal’ is good there, just after her pantomime-style joke  – pulling herself back a respectful distance, acknowledging Polixenes still a king, despite her feminine power. And a week – it’s hardly anything after a nine month stay. It’s a ‘borrow’ she offers to pay back with high-rate  interest:

Yet of your royal presence I’ll adventure
The borrow of a week. When at Bohemia
You take my lord, I’ll give him my commission
To let him there a month behind the gest
Prefix’d for’s parting:

A week for a month? Irresistible bargain. Yet she pulls herself up now, as if she fears she may have gone too far.

yet, good deed, Leontes,
I love thee not a jar o’ the clock behind
What lady-she her lord.

it’s worth reading this whole speech of  Hermione’s through at a rush to get the gist of it and feel the movements of her mind as she powers through her  ask of Polixenes. In that context, this last section – an aside to her husband – seems worried to me.

We might want to stay here for some time thinking about a ‘jar o’ the clock’, seeing a hand move,  asecond-hand, or the moment when a minute hand actually moves.  That jars. We might need to think about  old-fashioned mechanical clockwork clocks. Did they really have clocks in Shakespeare’s time? I think of a sundial, or the hourglass, but not clocks. Over to wikipedia I go.

The first mechanical clocks, employing the verge escapement mechanism with a foliot or balance wheel timekeeper, were invented in Europe at around the start of the 14th century, and became the standard timekeeping device until the pendulum clock was invented in 1656. The invention of the mainspring in the early 15th century allowed portable clocks to be built, evolving into the first pocketwatches by the 17th century, but these were not very accurate until the balance spring was added to the balance wheel in the mid 17th century.

and later, still in the same article, I find the Queen Elizabeth 1 was given a wrist watch by Robert Dudley.  Lovely. That’s a poem for someone to write. So mechanical clocks, yes.

Do we want to think about the word ‘jar’?  A jar o the clock. A moment when something changes, moves. time has moved on; we are in a new moment. Has something now clicked? Does Hermione turn to her husband at that moment?  Why would you say something like that, in public? Does it jar?

Let’s replay it in my own vernacular:

Leontes – aren’t you going to ask him? Hermione – of course!   persuades persuades to now vail , jokes about good reason to go (your son)  offers the swap – a week for a month,  then ‘but Leontes, I really do love you!’ and then, to Polixenes, brightly, hopefully ‘ You’ll stay?’

What kind of husband has to be reassured of his wife’s love in public when she is flirting (is it flirting? persuading? playing? teasing?) with his best friend?

A lot of questions must be raised about the likely relationships between these three.  Let’s say we agree that she’s only playfully teasing in order to get Polixenes to do what Leontes wants… but now I am bothered about Leontes asking her to do that. Is it just that Leontes knows she’s a good talker?  Is it because he needs her help with this kind of thing? Is he a bad talker? Does he think Polixenes will be more easily persuaded by Hermione?

Under what circumstances would you say to your beloved, go on, you ask… ?

If I try to imagine that, I think it would only happen when I was sure the beloved would  have more sway than me.  And perhaps I might not like that feeling – that my beloved has more sway than me, with my best friend.  I might be quite wrong to have that anxiety. But it was me who asked the beloved to do it. Is this test of some sort?

What is Leontes’ state of mind when he passes the responsibility for securing Polixenes longer stay to  Hermione? It’s always horrible when you fail to persuade someone to something, especially in public. Is he humiliated? We can ask – should ask – all the questions we can think of… we turn the little three-D model one way and then another. We look at it all in one light, and then change the light. How does it look now?  You cn stay here a long time, thinking. But as the play know, only unfolding time will give the answers. And those answers  may only provoke more  questions.  The questions are the thing!

 

The Winter’s Tale Day 7: A Moment in a Marriage   

 

best viburnum
My favourite Viburnum, (maybe  Carlessii Juddii, look at those rounded leaves),Calderstones Park April 2018

New to this Shakespeare lark?  Here’s the story so far: Leontes, King of Sicilia, married to Hermione, is hosting a visit from his boyhood friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia. They were like twins as boys together. Polixenes, been here 9 months, is now saying he’s got to go. Leontes has been trying to persuade him to stay a little longer, and has made no headway and now turns to Hermione, asking ‘Tongue-tied, our Queen?’ We’re in Act 1 Scene 2. Find the entire text here.

Last time, I’d been reading with microscopic slowness (to mix a metaphor) and was remembering how important it is to read to word by word, look by look, tone by tone. Because all that we uncover, when we read at that slow speed, is happening, at that level, and is real and needs notice taking of it, indeed as much notice as we can bear to give. But it’s also important to read for sprawl.

Sprawl reading is rushing along getting the gist. You especially need to do that in a group where anyone is new to reading to Shakespeare.  But you always need to do it, just as in life you do. Concentrate! Concentrate! Read deep! Then rush ! Rush and  run along…I think a really good reader does both of these, mingling them so fast that it is hard to tell whether we’re stopping one or starting the other. You are balanced between subatomic particle and cosmic view.

So get a  run at it, find the level of ‘story’.  You saw me give the gist at the top of the page. It’s story – get those storyhooks into your readers. But wait up! Slow down – did you say ‘been here nine months’? Go back to microscopic, because someone will undoubtedly have noticed, even if they didn’t know they had noticed, that you said ‘nine months’, and you don’t have to be a Freudian psychoanalyst to know that nine months is an unusual portion of time, generally making us think of pregnancy.

Just saying.  Notice it.

LEONTES
Tongue-tied, our queen?
speak you.
HERMIONE
I had thought, sir, to have held my peace until
You have drawn oaths from him not to stay. You, sir,
Charge him too coldly. Tell him, you are sure
All in Bohemia’s well; this satisfaction
The by-gone day proclaim’d: say this to him,
He’s beat from his best ward.
LEONTES
Well said, Hermione.
HERMIONE
To tell, he longs to see his son, were strong:
But let him say so then, and let him go;
But let him swear so, and he shall not stay,
We’ll thwack him hence with distaffs.
Yet of your royal presence I’ll adventure
The borrow of a week. When at Bohemia
You take my lord, I’ll give him my commission
To let him there a month behind the gest
Prefix’d for’s parting: yet, good deed, Leontes,
I love thee not a jar o’ the clock behind
What lady-she her lord. You’ll stay?
POLIXENES
No, madam.
HERMIONE
Nay, but you will?

We have to wonder how Leontes speaks that ‘tongue-tied’ line. It feels a little aggressive to me. I think we say ‘tongue-tied’ when we want and expect someone to speak and unexpectedly, they are not speaking.  Tongue tied? It means ‘you are unusually quiet!’. it means ‘I was expecting to hear from you.’

We have to begin, because of that phrase, to wonder what kind of man Leontes is.  Just a little worry.  Little, because the moment passes quickly and Hermione doesn’t seem at all phased by it and responds happily enough, and what she says next draws praise from her husband, so perhaps, in noting my anxieties about tongue-tied, I was reading too much into it. I told my breath on that. We’ll note the anxiety and wait to see.

HERMIONE
I had thought, sir, to have held my peace until
You have drawn oaths from him not to stay. You, sir,
Charge him too coldly. Tell him, you are sure
All in Bohemia’s well; this satisfaction
The by-gone day proclaim’d: say this to him,
He’s beat from his best ward.
LEONTES
Well said, Hermione.

Did Leontes ‘charge him too coldly?’ There’s an interesting thought. Because imagine this playing out in your kitchen.  You’ve been too cold in the way you asked him, you say to your partner. Would you say that? If it was true, would you say? If it wasn’t true, would you say it? If it was (a bit) true would you say it in a joke? Is she joking?  Could we go back and ask the actor playing Leontes to do his begging and pleading a little coldly…?

HERMIONE
I had thought, sir, to have held my peace until
You have drawn oaths from him not to stay. You, sir,
Charge him too coldly.

Yes, she’s joking, as he may have been joking when he said ‘Tongue-tied, our Queen?’ Those ‘sirs’ of hers do something too, don’t they? Do they say, I’m playing! I’m teasing!

Is there something amiss in their marriage? Is there a communication problem? Just observing my reactions and they are, when I read these words, to feel worried.

I would want to stop both the rush of story and the microscopic analysis of voice, tone, word, at this point to ask my readers how they saw it playing out. After all, it is a play.

We are the Director. We stage the play, vision it, get the actors to move and be in the way we see.  So what do we see? How are the three of them standing? Who is near? Is everyone on the court overhearing this?

If this is a public demonstration of both the Kings’ friendship and the marriage of Leontes and Hermione then  every word, every look, every gesture counts. Everyone is watching! Does Hermione touch Leontes, lay a hand on his arm, hold hands, put his arm around her waist? Is she looking at Leontes or Polixenes when she speaks, or from one to the other?

HERMIONE
I had thought, sir, to have held my peace until
You have drawn oaths from him not to stay. You, sir,
Charge him too coldly. Tell him, you are sure
All in Bohemia’s well; this satisfaction
The by-gone day proclaim’d: say this to him,
He’s beat from his best ward.
LEONTES
Well said, Hermione.

I’d have her moving toward Leontes as she speaks so that by the time she says ‘You, sir/charge him too coldly…’ she is standing by him, close to him. Her body language is saying  ‘I love you and am loyal to you’.  She can say ‘you charge him too coldly’ because she has protected herself from his anger at hearing that criticism by standing close to him, perhaps  putting herself into his arms. They look at Polixenes together, from a place of safety. She speaks a bit like a ventriloquist. It’s not Hermione who is tongue-tied, we realise, it’s him, Leontes. She stands slightly in front of him, wrapped in his arms and speaks for him, speaks eloquently. When she says ‘say this to him’, I’d have her glancing up at him. She’s won her husband over and navigated a tricky place in the stream of their marriage. And Leontes? He seems happy.

Leave him there for now.

 

The Winter’s Tale Day 6: Is Something Up?

euphorbia black pearl.JPG
Euphorbia  ‘Black Pearl’ springing into beauty, March 26

Last time, we’d got a little way into Act 1 Scene ii, with Leontes, King of Sicilia,  trying to persuade his childhood friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia, who has been on an extended visit to the court of  Sicilia, to stay longer. Polixenes seems pretty set on leaving.

In my opening sessions I’d noticed some words which had given me  cause for concern – ‘if the King had no heir’  in particular – but nothing has yet happened to make  these more than  very slight, almost sub-atomic alarms.  All seems well.

I’d want to pick up the reading and get another goodish rush at it and get some rhythm going, even at the expense of meaning – wait, wait. The meaning  will come eventually. Just get the feel.

 

LEONTES
Stay your thanks a while;
And pay them when you part.
POLIXENES
Sir, that’s to-morrow.
I am question’d by my fears, of what may chance
Or breed upon our absence; that may blow
No sneaping winds at home, to make us say
‘This is put forth too truly:’ besides, I have stay’d
To tire your royalty.
LEONTES
We are tougher, brother,
Than you can put us to’t.
POLIXENES
No longer stay.
LEONTES
One seven-night longer.
POLIXENES
Very sooth, to-morrow.
LEONTES
We’ll part the time between’s then; and in that
I’ll no gainsaying.
POLIXENES
Press me not, beseech you, so.
There is no tongue that moves, none, none i’ the world,
So soon as yours could win me: so it should now,
Were there necessity in your request, although
‘Twere needful I denied it. My affairs
Do even drag me homeward: which to hinder
Were in your love a whip to me; my stay
To you a charge and trouble: to save both,
Farewell, our brother.
LEONTES
Tongue-tied, our queen?
speak you.

I’d ask my group to imagine two old boyhood friends in a slight argument – are we seeing a  bit of arm-wrestling? I get that from Leontes lines, ‘We are tougher, brother,/Than you can put us to’t.’ This feels slightly aggressive,  perhaps mildly so, but I don’t think you’d mention your toughness if you weren’t feeling a little the need for it. but I’m rushing ahead!

When Polixenes explains why he must leave, he first gives a reasonable political reason:

I am question’d by my fears, of what may chance
Or breed upon our absence; that may blow
No sneaping winds at home, to make us say
‘This is put forth too truly:’

A literal translation into contemporary English might read: I’m worried about what could be going on at home. ‘Sneap’ means rebuke so  I think that second part must mean, ‘am worried that something may happen which would make me think that hints I should return to govern my  country may  have been true…’ Slight worry, what if it had a basis in fact?

So far, so sensible.  But then he adds what might be a throwaway politeness: ‘besides I have stay’d/ To tire your royalty.’

Is it throwaway?  Leontes now responds with his ‘I am tough’ thought.

Has Polixenes really tired him? Is something wrong? Are they -while all seems fine of the surface – really beginning to tire? to fall out? Now the arm-wrestling really does begin:

POLIXENES
No longer stay.
LEONTES
One seven-night longer.
POLIXENES
Very sooth, to-morrow.
LEONTES
We’ll part the time between’s then; and in that
I’ll no gainsaying.
POLIXENES
Press me not, beseech you, so.

Let them be  playing – arm-wrestling, playing table tennis, play boxing. Just while we imagine it. Get the feeling of that back-and-forth into the room. But now the rhythm changes as Polixenes seems to think more seriously about  what or who might persuade him to stay:

There is no tongue that moves, none, none i’ the world,
So soon as yours could win me: so it should now,
Were there necessity in your request, although
‘Twere needful I denied it. My affairs
Do even drag me homeward: which to hinder
Were in your love a whip to me; my stay
To you a charge and trouble: to save both,
Farewell, our brother.

There seems the possibility of real love in this belief that there  is no tongue that could win him ‘so soon as yours’. That’s one bit of what Polixenes says. But what follows: a second thought which remembers the business of being King : ‘Were there necessity in your request, although/’Twere needful I denied it. ‘

I think that means that  if Leontes has a good reason to plead with him to stay, he would, even though  he needs to go home.

I notice that there are mixed feelings here: that the feelings move thick and fast – are they really close friends? Could any thing cause them to fall out?  Does Leontes really want  Polixenes to stay? I look more closely at the language:

My affairs
Do even drag me homeward: which to hinder
Were in your love a whip to me; my stay
To you a charge and trouble:

Polixenes does not want to go, his business, affairs of state, are what drag him away. Hindering that movement makes an act of love painful – Leontes may  think he is keeping him   out  of love, but staying is hurting Polixenes.  Is it true that his staying is to Leontes a ‘charge and trouble’ ? Is that  a thing we say – I’m putting you to trouble? Or is it a get-out?

All these microscopically slow reading decisions must be made in a flexible way – we’ve got to be able to change our minds later as things unfold. As in life we do.That’s one of the great things about reading Shakespeare: it requires this practise of flexible attention.

And now, suddenly, Leontes, apparently out of the blue turns to his wife, Hermione, who so far we’ve not noticed:

LEONTES
Tongue-tied, our queen?
speak you.

Again, a slight air of menace or up-for-a-fight? Why not, ‘Hermione? Cn you persuade him?’ Leontes words feel abrupt. Surely if we’d said ‘tongue tied, Jane?’ in ordinary colloquial language we’d mean – I’d expect you to have something to say on this’. It’s a small-scale accusation.

You might think this is too slow as a way of reading. Are we really going to discuss every word, intonation, possibility?  I hope we are! Because this is what makes the reading our own, rather than what someone else says it is. We work out what it means, word by word,  inch by inch.  We do the work.

As in life we do. In real life we have sometimes to pick up deep and extended meanings from small words. Judging someone’s character in a trial or in a job interview or on a first date or by their email… each word may hint something. May, or may not. We do well to read them carefully, always remembering we might be wrong.

I’d ask my group now to reread this scene so far, all of it, in one reading, then to think again: what just happened, and what do you think of these two men? Then we’d  note in pencil what we thought, ready to rub it out, if necessary, as time unfolds. Actually what happens in life – speakig for myself anyway – is that we write in pen. Awfully hard to rub out later, when you change your mind!

 

The Winter’s Tale Day 5: Shaking Up The Kaleidoscope

kaleidoscope
Shifting possibilities of the Kaleidoscope

I starting reading Shakespeare here  (i) because I miss reading Shakespeare (ii) as a way of reminding people who run Shared Reading groups that Shakespeare can and should be read  and (iii) to celebrate ten years of the Shakespeare Reading group which  currently meets in Birkenhead library.

I started reading The Winter’s Tale because it is  my favourite play. Why? Because it is the story of a life that for no accountable reason  gets broken – breaks itself – and then has wait a  long time to get going again. This is my subject matter, a very real, very normal sort of  story, and I imagine lots of people will recognise its  outline.

Find a full text here. Search  for previous posting using the search box to the right and enter The Winter’s Tale.

We’re at scene ii.

SCENE II. A room of state in the same.

Enter LEONTES, HERMIONE, MAMILLIUS, POLIXENES, CAMILLO, and Attendants

In a group, I’d begin by a longish read through, which we’re going to miss here, which is a shame.  There’s a great rhythm to this scene, and you need to feel some of that, the back and forth between people, the switching from formal to informal, from State Occasion to personal aside.

You might want to have a video/online performance to  watch too. I’d save that for after you’ve done your own reading: I want my readers to know they can make decisions about how to put on the play, how to realise its meaning,  before accepting someone else’s version. Though, having done that, it’s great to see how other minds do animate the words. The Winter’s Tale is on at Shakespeare’s Globe later this year : plan your trip!

So explain to your group that you are not going to stop every minute, that there’ll be things which are incomprehensible, that we’re just trying to get the drift, that we’ll come back.  Your main job is to reassure people that they are going to enjoy it once it gets going, and they don’t need to worry.

I’d read down to the moment Polixenes agrees to stay (sorry this text has no line numbers!):

POLIXENES
Your guest, then, madam:
To be your prisoner should import offending;
Which is for me less easy to commit
Than you to punish.
HERMIONE
Not your gaoler, then,
But your kind hostess.

This gives us a good run and chance to feel the rhythm even if  we don’t get a lot of the meaning. We can go back.

I’d notice the stage directions – it is a room of state. This is perhaps to be set up as a state occasion. I’d ask my group to think about ways to make a set – we’ll keep coming back to this, because I want to imagine we are putting this play on, and that helps at times when we are trying to understand that a character is saying – so we’ll talk about  using a  traditional ‘shakespearian’ style or modern, and perhaps about what any of us might have experienced that is a bit like a state visit. When Aunty Barbara came over from Australia…planned for years, and too long in the happening.

Finally, I’d want to do something about the names – they are particularly off-putting in this play –  so maybe make a list to keep track of who is who and  what they are to anybody else. You won’t need it for a more than a couple of weeks.

Polixenes, then is the visiting King, the King of Bohemia.  When he begins he sets off in the most pompous language of the play:

POLIXENES
Nine changes of the watery star hath been
The shepherd’s note since we have left our throne
Without a burthen: time as long again
Would be find up, my brother, with our thanks;
And yet we should, for perpetuity,
Go hence in debt: and therefore, like a cipher,
Yet standing in rich place, I multiply
With one ‘We thank you’ many thousands moe
That go before it.
LEONTES
Stay your thanks a while;
And pay them when you part.

Your books will have notes. It’s a good idea to use them – sparingly. But someone will be able to read the note and tell everyone that ‘the watery star’ means the moon. Take your time here, in Polixenes opening lines, because you want everyone in the group to think : this was incomprehensible but actually I do understand it. Use the punctuation as clues for stopping/units of possible sense.

Nine changes of the watery star hath been
The shepherd’s note since we have left our throne
Without a burthen:

literally translate: nine changes of the moon have been noted by  shepherds since I left my country:

time as long again
Would be find up, my brother, with our thanks;
And yet we should, for perpetuity,
Go hence in debt:

I could spend  nine months saying ‘thank you’ but still leave in your debt (I can’t thank you enough! a group member might offer)

and therefore, like a cipher,
Yet standing in rich place, I multiply
With one ‘We thank you’ many thousands moe
That go before it.

‘Cipher’ is interesting (look it up here) and this is a joke about zeros on the end of numbers,  weirdly, zero makes  the number more.  But I also find the idea of nothing or zero  a bit worrying too. Is he nothing?  Can anyone be nothing? But that is a fleeting thought, before we are on to the rest of the meaning and the ordinary… Leontes responding rather tersely, as if interrupting,

LEONTES
Stay your thanks a while;
And pay them when you part.

I might use this moment to try to get some play with the words, to see how  timing matters, how tone of voice. I might ask group members to read with different speeds of cross-over between the two actors, asking Leontes to respond kindly, aggressively, casually, carelessly, formally.

I multiply
With one ‘We thank you’ many thousands moe
That go before it.
LEONTES
Stay your thanks a while;
And pay them when you part.

All these possibilities  must be available to us as we read. And it is that, the tumbling kaleidoscope of possibility that makes reading Shakespeare so rewarding. Thousands of possibilities and the opportunity to use your mind on as many of them as you like.

The Winter’s Tale Day 3: Being 3-D, In The Round & Slo-mo

calderstones trees.JPG
Light on late afternoon trees at Calderstones Park

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, MacbethOthello 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.

 

CAMILLO

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.