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.

The Winter’s Tale Day 2: Two Men Walk Into A Room

snowdrops.JPG
Snowdrops emerging near some Buddlea cuttings – hurray for soon to be Spring

My main feeling when I start reading a Shakespeare play with other people is the excitement of  wanting them to love it. But love can’t grow in an atmosphere of fear and many people fear Shakespeare.

So my main task in an opening session, before anything has happened, but when my fellow readers may be  fearful or anxious, is to make it real and human, so that readers can see it is not a foreign language, or out of their league and  is going to be o.k.

Shakespeare writes about Kings, about courts, so first we have to  get past that strangeness and think what might be the equivalent to a King or a court  in our lives today. Boss, parent, family, boardroom, gang.  The Council. Government.

Here’s a play that begins in the middle of a state visit – I’ll say remember Mrs May and her husband Philip in China?

I  will ask my group to imagine a little mini-theatre, here in the room with us, in the middle of the table. We might want to decorate our table-top theatre with  posters made of blown-up photos of that China trip, or  we might want to make it your Auntie Sheila’s visit from Australia – she hasn’t seen your Mum for fifteen years…Let’s use family photos as a backdrop – here they are when they were little girls together in the Lake District. And say Auntie Sheila has brought all her friends and relations…  or  that’s getting a bit unreal, let’s make it LFC visiting the Boston Redsox for a summer training camp. All those hangers-on and old coaches coming along for the ride, all the wives and girlfriends and children, and Klopp’s Mum because she loves Boston.

I want to get some ideas of visits, of the fun and tensions of visits. And when I’ve got my theatre set up, with various possibilities, I’d let the first two actors walk in.

Here are two  men, one from the home family (business, country, team) and the other from the visiting team.  Who do you know who could play a good careful, intelligent civil servant – not a Yes Minister! More of  Jane Tennison visiting a distant New Zealand Police Force as part of a Royal Tour.

I’m like Whitman’s spider, casting out filaments, hoping one or more will catch somewhere and connect this old play with our lived reality.

Camillo is our man, the home player, Archidamus the visitor. They are perhaps parallel players – equally  matched in their home organisation, uncle with uncle, Chief Operating Officer with Chief Operating Officer.  Goalie with Goalie.  Cousin with Cousin. Let them walk on  – Enter Camillo and Archidamus. Anyone like to read?  No? ok, I’ll do them both. But I can’t do them with different voices.

One of you might take pity on me and help me read. A clue about reading  – use the punctuation! Head for a comma and then have a rest. And if you do read, and you realise you haven’t got a clue what you’ve just read… stop and call for help!

When I’m talking like this I’m just vamping, passing time, while waiting for someone to offer to help me with the reading. I know that someone in the group may be willing, and they just need a little time to get ready to offer to help. So I’ll keep talking for a while.  And then Lucy offers.

Oh thanks, Lucy, you’ll do some reading. Ok – I’ll be Camillo – you set off as Archidamus.

(I’ve set out the parts like this on purpose, because I am not sure if Lucy can read well, or will want to go on very far. Camillo is a big part – she might be stuck in him for ages. Giving Lucy a short part gives her a get-out, and she can always come back in as someone else once we get going. Or I might have said :we’ll each just do a couple of lines while we get going)

Arch-i-dame-us. Or maybe it’s Ark-i-damus?  Not sure. Vic, can you keep a list of the names – you’re a great pronouncer! We’re going to need to remember them.  So Lucy, when you are reading Archidamus – are you going to be Helen Mirren? Inspector Jane Tennison. Very capable, professional. And I’ll be David Morrissey.

If Lucy hadn’t offered, I would read both parts, but I’d moan about it a little,  how hard it is trying to  do both voices! so as to keep saying, indirectly, come on, someone, help me! And someone would, in the end, help me.

In an established group there would be no trouble with this – people love reading  once they’ve got used to it and will, in my experience, have a crack at anything.

 

ACT I

SCENE I. Antechamber in LEONTES’ palace.

Enter CAMILLO and ARCHIDAMUS

ARCHIDAMUS

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.

CAMILLO

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

ARCHIDAMUS

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

CAMILLO

Beseech you,–

ARCHIDAMUS

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
us.

CAMILLO

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

ARCHIDAMUS

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

I’m going to stop it here, just as we get going, because I want to be sure that everyone is with me. Lucy, reading Archidamus with the actor Helen Mirren in mind might not, for all our laughing here, be very sure about the language of what she has just read.  Or she might be struggling. Others in the group may be troubled or feeling agitated.

I want to know how everyone is doing. I want to take the temperature.

What do you think so far, Mikey?

I mean this as a way of making eye contact with Mikey, the least able reader in the group, but Mikey takes it as an exam question.  He pulls a face. Agh, my mistake! But, surprising me, Mikey is ok.

Well, he’s like saying, you coming to ours later, isn’t he? He’s going to go round to his?

Spot on – that’s it, I reply.

Jean says, but isn’t Archidamus saying –  he’s going to be ashamed? What of? He says, ‘Wherein our entertainment shall shame us…’

Mikey, ‘but he’s already said there’s a difference , maybe he’s really wealthy and  they’ve been laying it on…’

Jean, ‘like when Trump comes here for his state visit and wants a golden carriage and everything?’

Kay, ‘This was it when  my cousins from Tobago came – you know they haven’t got much they are  from the north, and they just fish and take tourists fishing… they couldn’t see I was not wealthy, you know because I have a car and a washing machine and big TV…’

Mikey ‘Big TV, eh, Kay?

We’re off text now, but I’m happy. My group is reading Shakespeare. Very slowly, yes, but making it our own. We connect things in the play to things we know. It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle. Does this piece fit with any piece of my experience?

Let’s start again I’ll say. Enter Camillo and Archidamus. We read again.

 

 

Mikey, what’s ‘sleepy drinks’?

Kay, Ovaltine, isn’t it?  Like hot milk drinks, get’s you to sleep.

No, it’s drugs, says Kev, speaking for the first time today.  He’s saying  we’ll have to drug you so you don’t notice how we don’t match up.

Me: Could you read it, Kev?

Kev: Ok – blows out a long stream of air –  here goes  – We will give you sleepy drinks, that your senses, unintelligent of our insufficience, wow that’s a mouthful. Unintelligent of our insuffience may, though they cannot praise us, as little accuse us.

Kay: we can’t  give you back what you’ve given us.

Me – but that might not be true – this is court –  it would just be the way these people talk. It might be just politeness?

I say this because I want to throw an extra layer into the mix.  It may or may not be true. But I want to remember that these two men are not just men, family visitors from Australia or Tobago, but also courtiers.  I ask everyone to think of the protocols of China and Mrs May. It might be rude to say you could match your hosts hospitality.

But look, Mikey says, pointing. He says he means it. Archi – Archi –  he says…Believe me, I speak as my under … under …standing in…structs me and as mine honesty puts it to utt…utt…utterance.

We’re off. I think that’ll do for today.

 

 

 

The Winter’s Tale Day 1: Flying Upward

sparks.jpg

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.

ACT I

SCENE I. Antechamber in LEONTES’ palace.

Enter CAMILLO and ARCHIDAMUS

ARCHIDAMUS

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.

CAMILLO

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

ARCHIDAMUS

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

CAMILLO

Beseech you,–

ARCHIDAMUS

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
us.

CAMILLO

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

ARCHIDAMUS

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

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!

ARCHIDAMUS

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.

CAMILLO

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.

ARCHIDAMUS

Would they else be content to die?

CAMILLO

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

ARCHIDAMUS

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