Interesting piece in The Times today, which set off thoughts about loneliness, sadness, chronic pain and, you’ll not be surprised to hear from me, reading. Pavel Goldstein, a neuroscientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, The Times reports, has published a paper on hand holding and pain in the journal PNAS,
Neuroscientists think that the empathy one partner feels for the other can be passed on through touch as the pair’s brainwaves begin to dance to the same rhythms. This in turn helps to curb distress and floods the brain with reward chemicals that muffle the pain.
The pain relief appears to be tightly bound up with affection. It was most powerful in the couples who had the most closely connected patterns of electrical activity in their brains.
Lots to think about here, as the study did not find the same effects in both women and men. Further, other scientists, of course, disagree;
Flavia Mancini, of the University of Cambridge, said it was important to show that the effect could work on chronic pain as well as short, sharp suffering. “Social touch may help, but in my opinion what really matters is social connection,” she said. “We should not let others suffer in isolation, with or without the touch of a partner.”
What came into my mind as I read was the memory of Doris Lessing talking to me about people synching brainwaves (something she had learned in or through her Sufi practice, I seem to remember, but it is all so long ago, perhaps I’ve made that part up).
At the time – but what time? Shall we say late 1980s, when I was oh, not yet forty… At the time, I thought it was a deeply attractive, true-feeling possibility but also impossible to prove and maybe a bit crazy. Doris was utterly convinced. I paraphrase but she said something like , when people sit together and concentrate their minds sink and their brain waves all enter the same state…
I think Doris was talking about meditation or prayer groups (but look at the Nurenburg Rallies, I bet brainwaves were synched there, too) Later as The Reader developed, and I had many experiences in Shared Reading groups of people sitting together and directly their concentration in one place I knew that Doris was right. People get together in someway, and it feels good.
What has this to do with pain?
I don’t know, I was thinking about another recent study which showed that physical pain inhibitors such as paracetamol also inhibit emotional pain.
I was thinking I wish I would stop thinking of the body as one thing and the rest of me as something else.
I was thinking of the importance of physical touch and ridiculous risk-averse guidelines which routinely suggest children should not be hugged or kissed even by foster-parents? Can this really be true?
Thinking of love poetry, too.
Thinking of young (and old) lovers holding hands.
And thinking of a circle of people, linked and synched by the language of the book.
No time to work these thoughts out this morning, just jotting them there, for perhaps future reference.
This morning I’m going back to Silas Marner (find an online text here) … and thinking about class. But is it class? Or is it education? Or is it education of the feelings? Eppie is the daughter of a drug-addict mother and a nogoodnik posh-boy father. She’s got, like most of us, a pretty mixed gene pool. So there’s nature for you.
Now, as to nurture:
The tender and peculiar love with which Silas had reared her in almost inseparable companionship with himself, aided by the seclusion of their dwelling, had preserved her from the lowering influences of the village talk and habits, and had kept her mind in that freshness which is sometimes falsely supposed to be an invariable attribute of rusticity. Perfect love has a breath of poetry which can exalt the relations of the least-instructed human beings; and this breath of poetry had surrounded Eppie from the time when she had followed the bright gleam that beckoned her to Silas’s hearth; so that it is not surprising if, in other things besides her delicate prettiness, she was not quite a common village maiden, but had a touch of refinement and fervour which came from no other teaching than that of tenderly-nurtured unvitiated feeling.
I notice with a slight flinch ‘she was not quite a common village maiden’ and have to stop myself and try to think carefully about what this means so as not to knee-jerk a class-based response. I ask myself, what is fervour? What is refinement?
What’s meant by refinement, I wonder? It seems a class word, about being posh, but when I look it up it’s about being pure or full of feeling. I think of Jeanette Winterson, (read her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal) little fighting kid of Accrington, and I’d say, she had her own kind of refinement. And what is fervour? It, too, is a feeling word, warmth, heat of feeling. I think of Jeanette as different from many other Accrington kids -why? She felt a lot and what she felt propelled her – few other homeless gay kids of her time got themselves into Oxford to read English. What Jeanette didn’t have was the kind of love Silas gives to Eppie. I look back at the beginning of the paragraph:
The tender and peculiar love with which Silas had reared her in almost inseparable companionship with himself, aided by the seclusion of their dwelling, had preserved her from the lowering influences of the village talk and habits, and had kept her mind in that freshness which is sometimes falsely supposed to be an invariable attribute of rusticity.
Still something for me to worry about in lowering influences? I’ll come back to that. Eppie grows up in a tiny world made up Silas – himself cut off from most of the village – and visits from Dolly Winthrop. The seclusion of their dwelling sets her apart physically, mentally and emotionally. What are village talk and habits, I wonder? The modern equivalent is life with the Kardashians, I suppose. Silly, commonplace, superficial influences about bums and jewellry. No one at the most serious times of their lives, real love, real pain, will be getting through life’s biggest or deepest moments with those influences uppermost. But they are there, lowering away, on a day-to-day basis. Eppie is set aside from all that by being in an intense parent-child relationship which is full of love.
I take some time here because it is easy to read badly, too fast, and make modern, mocking judgements about class. Eppie’s refinement and fervour
came from no other teaching than that of tenderly-nurtured unvitiated feeling.
‘Unvitiated’ = uncorrupted, pure, unsullied.
Perhaps such feeling is only possible at some distance from the world of Kardashians, or whatever the nineteenth century equivalent was? I’m thinking about Wordsworth – whom George Eliot read.
She was too childish and simple for her imagination to rove into questions about her unknown father; for a long while it did not even occur to her that she must have had a father; and the first time that the idea of her mother having had a husband presented itself to her, was when Silas showed her the wedding-ring which had been taken from the wasted finger, and had been carefully preserved by him in a little lackered box shaped like a shoe. He delivered this box into Eppie’s charge when she had grown up, and she often opened it to look at the ring: but still she thought hardly at all about the father of whom it was the symbol. Had she not a father very close to her, who loved her better than any real fathers in the village seemed to love their daughters? On the contrary, who her mother was, and how she came to die in that forlornness, were questions that often pressed on Eppie’s mind. Her knowledge of Mrs. Winthrop, who was her nearest friend next to Silas, made her feel that a mother must be very precious; and she had again and again asked Silas to tell her how her mother looked, whom she was like, and how he had found her against the furze bush, led towards it by the little footsteps and the outstretched arms. The furze bush was there still; and this afternoon, when Eppie came out with Silas into the sunshine, it was the first object that arrested her eyes and thoughts.
It’s interesting that Eppie never thinks about her biological father – she has no need to, because she has Silas, ‘who loved her better than any real fathers in the village seemed to love their daughters.’ The mother is a missing element, only known indirectly as a model in Dolly Winthrop and it is this missing element that Eppie is driven to seek, asking,
again and again asked Silas to tell her how her mother looked, whom she was like, and how he had found her against the furze bush, led towards it by the little footsteps and the outstretched arms.
Now we enter some pages of dialogue and plot, which I’m going to read through fast – Eppie raising the subject of her likely marriage and Silas doing his best not to be frightened at the change that is bound to come.
And so to the next chapter, XVII, where the scene changes and we are back with the posh folks. Nancy née Lammeter and her sister Priscilla are also discussing gardens, and also dairies, and finally, Nancy’s inability to bear children; then Nancy is left alone, reading her bible and letting her thoughts wander. They wander towards this issue of having children and her husband’s response to it. And this, George Eliot seems to imply, is in itself a kind of prayerful meditation:
But Nancy’s Sunday thoughts were rarely quite out of keeping with the devout and reverential intention implied by the book spread open before her. She was not theologically instructed enough to discern very clearly the relation between the sacred documents of the past which she opened without method, and her own obscure, simple life; but the spirit of rectitude, and the sense of responsibility for the effect of her conduct on others, which were strong elements in Nancy’s character, had made it a habit with her to scrutinize her past feelings and actions with self-questioning solicitude.
I look up rectitude. It means straightness. Nancy’s a person who tries to be straight and decent, and has self-knowledge, examining herself and her actions.
Her mind not being courted by a great variety of subjects, she filled the vacant moments by living inwardly, again and again, through all her remembered experience, especially through the fifteen years of her married time, in which her life and its significance had been doubled. She recalled the small details, the words, tones, and looks, in the critical scenes which had opened a new epoch for her by giving her a deeper insight into the relations and trials of life, or which had called on her for some little effort of forbearance, or of painful adherence to an imagined or real duty– asking herself continually whether she had been in any respect blamable. This excessive rumination and self-questioning is perhaps a morbid habit inevitable to a mind of much moral sensibility when shut out from its due share of outward activity and of practical claims on its affections–inevitable to a noble-hearted, childless woman, when her lot is narrow. “I can do so little–have I done it all well?” is the perpetually recurring thought; and there are no voices calling her away from that soliloquy, no peremptory demands to divert energy from vain regret or superfluous scruple.
George Eliot is very interested in the lot of women who have nothing to do. In real life she was Marian Evans, an incredibly intelligent, self-educated midlands woman, who in her early years had run her father’s house, and in mid-life developed a career in the London literary world ,editing the Westminster Review before beginning her work as a novelist at the age of thirty-nine. She had no children.
I’ve gone away from the book! Back to the text, go back, go back!
But will pick up here next time – lots to do today, garden calling.
A token it is that time is precious: for God, that is given of time, giveth never two times together, but each one after other.
Am reading on my phone on one of those ancient Northen Line trains (no Powerhouse, this chunterer…) and struck by the connection of the anon author of The Cloud to a contemporary life like mine – never two times together but each one after the other… many years since I last read this ancient text. Good to be back with it.
A quick explanation for anyone who wouldn’t naturally find themselves reading such a poem: I’m interested in acts of translation from one way of thinking to another, particularly from Christian thinking in poetry – Dante, Milton, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and many others – to my own a-religious thoughts. Many years ago, when I wrote my Ph.D, on what I called ‘Visionary Realism’, I realised that I was interested in what happens to religious experience when people no longer believe in religion. Are there, for example, still experiences of ‘grace’? Do we ever experience ‘miracles’? Are there trials and tribulations of the soul? Is there ‘soul’? …and so on. I came into this area of thinking through Doris Lessing’s novel-series Canopus in Argos, and particularly the first novel in that series, Shikasta. There’s a partial account of this in previous blog post, ‘Lifesavers’.
In the last reading of Paradise Lost I had I short half hour and managed to read a couple of lines. That brought me to about line 375 in Book 1. Now Milton asks his Muse to help him list the names of fallen angels:
Say, Muse, thir Names then known, who first, who last, Rous’d from the slumber, on that fiery Couch,
At thir great Emperors call, as next in worth
Came singly where he stood on the bare strand,
While the promiscuous croud stood yet aloof? [ 380 ]
In what order of power/evil/fallenness do they appear? What is, Milton’s eyes most evil?
The chief were those who from the Pit of Hell
Roaming to seek thir prey on earth, durst fix Thir Seats long after next the Seat of God, Thir Altars by his Altar, Gods ador’d
Among the Nations round, and durst abide [ 385 ] Jehovahthundring out of Sion,thron’d
Between the Cherubim; yea, often plac’d
Within his Sanctuary it self thir Shrines,
Abominations; and with cursed things
His holy Rites, and solemn Feasts profan’d, [ 390 ]
And with thir darkness durst affront his light.
Those pagan gods whose shrines resided inside the temple come first. This is interesting to me, as someone who has shied away from organised religion since the age of nine or ten. Are there still false gods intertwined with real God? can bad stuff be housed within good? I move from thinking about religion to say thinking about Social Care. Is Social Care, paid for from our taxes a good idea? I believe so. Is some very bad stuff done within Social Care? I’m sure so. Is Milton’s thinking about his religious universe a different layer of the same reality I think of in terms of Social Care? That thought is what keeps me going in this very long – two hundred lines long – list of fallen angels. I read through it, but I’m reading very fast, getting the rough outline, looking for anything that interests me, that connects to something I know. I rush through the ancient middle Eastern deities and places of Old Testament history, and stop for a moment at this:
For Spirits when they please
Can either Sex assume, or both; so soft
And uncompounded is thirEssence pure, [ 425 ]
Not ti’d or manacl’d with joynt or limb,
Nor founded on the brittle strength of bones,
Like cumbrous flesh; but in what shape they choose
Dilated or condens’t, bright or obscure,
Can execute thir aerie purposes, [ 430 ]
And works of love or enmity fulfill.
I wonder if Milton has been reading The Tempest and met Shakespeare’s Aeriel? It’s interesting, too, that the nature of spirits does not change even after the fall – they are still pure Essence, uncompounded and can take any shape they choose in order to do their works of love or emnity. What does that say to me abou t the way works of love or emnity come to me/from me?
I wonder what purpose this lists serves or served?
It has to be a different experience for us reading now, mostly not knowing any of the Biblical source material. But to Milton and his contemporary audience (fit audience, though few, as he says) is it a making live an old text, is it reanimating the old material and making it now: here they are, those ancient names of bad gods, and here they are – somehow – with us still –
Belial came last, then whom a Spirit more lewd [ 490 ]
Fell not from Heaven, or more gross to love
Vice for it self: To him no Temple stood
Or Altar smoak’d; yet who more oftthen hee
In Temples and at Altars, when the Priest
Turns Atheist, as did Ely’s Sons, who fill’d [ 495 ]
With lust and violence the house of God.
In Courts and Palaces he also Reigns
And in luxurious Cities, where the noyse
Of riot ascends above thir loftiest Towrs,
And injury and outrage: And when Night [ 500 ]
Darkens the Streets, then wander forth the Sons
Of Belial, flown with insolence and wine.
We move from Old Testament (To him no Temple stood/Or Altar smoak’d😉 into the present tense:
In Courts and Palaces he also Reigns
And in luxurious Cities, where the noyse
Of riot ascends above thir loftiest Towrs,
And injury and outrage: And when Night [ 500 ]
Darkens the Streets, then wander forth the Sons
Of Belial,flown with insolence and wine.
and then we move from the Old Testament to another mode of being, Ancient Greece, so that Milton is covering all knowledge bases: whichever civilisation you trace it through – Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian – same story: the fall from Heaven and corruption brought to Earth:
These were the prime in order and in might;
The rest were long to tell, though far renown’d, Th’ Ionian Gods, of Javans Issue held
Gods, yet confest later thenHeav’n and Earth Thir boasted Parents; TitanHeav’ns first born [ 510 ]
With his enormous brood, and birthright seis’d
By younger Saturn, he from mightier Jove
His own and Rhea’s Son like measure found;
So Jove usurping reign’d: these first in Creet
And Ida known, thence on the Snowy top [ 515 ]
Of cold Olympusrul’d the middle Air Thir highest Heav’n; or on the Delphian Cliff,
Or in Dodona, and through all the bounds
Of Doric Land;
I’m reading very fast, because there is not much here for me. But as the list begins to wind down, I pay more attention:
All these and more came flocking; but with looks
Down cast and damp, yet such wherein appear’d
Obscure some glimps of joy, to have found thir chief
Not in despair, to have found themselves not lost [ 525 ]
In loss it self; which on his count’nance cast
Like doubtful hue: but he his wonted pride
Soon recollecting, with high words, that bore
Semblance of worth, not substance, gently rais’d Thir fainting courage, and dispel’dthir fears. [ 530 ]
I’m thinking about the psychology of mass despair and mass revival: the fallen angels see their chief ‘not in despair, ‘ Good, isn’t it, the way Milton puts it so that the key word, ‘despair’ is still hugely present, only slightly made negative by the much smaller ‘not’. The fallen angels still see loss in him, ‘which on his count’nance cast/Like doubtful hue’ yet their sense of despair is overcome by Satan’s semblence, his appearance of ‘not despair’, his pride carries him through , and carries the fallen angels through, too. I can imagine in real life being carried by such pride, or allowing myself to be tricked. I think of dictators and false leaders, the willingness to follow, to be duped.
That’s my time up for the day. Must get out into the garden while the sun is shining.
One great thing about Shakespeare plays is the totality, the wholeness, the 3-D-rounded-in-time-ness.
Perhaps this is true for all works of literature ? But I don’t have time to think about that today and it is definitely true of these plays. They are like 3-D objects, knit together, made of the same complex, changing, stuff all through.
And the more time you spend in them the more that solidity and wholeness is revealed. If I was to read a play new to me or one I’ve forgotten (I don’t know Alls Well That Ends Well very well, probably read it three times in thirty years, and only seen it once) would that 3-D solidity seem so obvious? I don’t think so. It’s something to do with knowing what is going to happen, not just in narrative terms but in terms of who people are. The less well I know the play the more like a ‘play’ it seems. The ones I know very well (King Lear, As You Like It, Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and above all, The Winter’s Tale) hardly seem like ‘plays’ at all. I don’t know what to call them. They seem like little working models of what is to be human.
Why do I say ‘little’? They last only two or three hours, whereas, we last, if we are lucky, threescore years and ten. The plays seem like what John Donne calls ‘a little world made cunningly’ .
If you’ve never read a Shakespeare play before and are reading it with a Shared Reading group for the first time – that is great: you wonderfully free and untramelled by experience, like youth. Read, struggle, enjoy!
But age and experience has its bounty. It helps deepen the experience if you know what is coming.
Here, the fact that I know what is going to happen affects how I read/hear Camillo’s line ‘the heavens continue their loves.’ Soon, the heavens will not continue their loves. The heavens will smash them.
When we are new to play, we don’t know that. Of course, in one sense, we are always new to the play because the story has to play out in time, a narrative unfolding before our eyes. So at this point I both know (because I’ve read the play before) and don’t know because I’ve just started again and I am also in the experience of narrative unfolding time. I’m in two timebands, two parallel, connected but different universes.
So I have two ways of understanding Camillo: the one in which he is speaking in normal-speak and by saying ‘the heavens continue’ he is only saying something rather empty (something standard, such as ‘god willing’, ‘godspeed’ – a figure of speech, a politeness); and another in which, with the resonance of what is coming, the line is loaded with anxiety.
At this point, like someone with superhuman powers, I see two possible futures unfolding -the one in which the heavens do continue their loves and a return state visit takes place in the predictable and normal course of events; the other in which the heavens do not continue their loves and all hell breaks lose. These two strands are woven together. I suppose that is what I mean about the 3-D-ness. This moment, short as it is, feels like a solid object. As all human time might, if we were able to slow it down enough to see what was happening, what was potentially unfolding.
Sicilia cannot show himself over-kind to Bohemia.
They were trained together in their childhoods; and
there rooted betwixt them then such an affection,
which cannot choose but branch now. Since their
more mature dignities and royal necessities made
separation of their society, their encounters,
though not personal, have been royally attorneyed
with interchange of gifts, letters, loving
embassies; that they have seemed to be together,
though absent, shook hands, as over a vast, and
embraced, as it were, from the ends of opposed
winds. The heavens continue their loves!
Looking in slo-mo at Camillo’s words, and lit with my anxiety about what I know is going to happen, I now see more worrying words: I’d like to paint them red with my highlighter.
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?
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.
SCENE I. Antechamber in LEONTES’ palace.
Enter CAMILLO and 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.
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–
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.
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.
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.
Enter CAMILLO and 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.
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–
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.
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. Exeunt