Not too long ago, I remember reading something fascinating Virginia Woolf said about her experience reading Shakespeare. Here is the quote, it is an extract from her “A Writer’s Diary“, dated April 13th.

I read Shakespeare directly I have finished writing. When my mind is agape and red-hot. Then it is astonishing. I never yet knew how amazing his stretch and speed and word coining power is, until I felt it utterly outpace and outrace my own, seeming to start equal and then I see him draw ahead and do things I could not in my wildest tumult and utmost press of mind imagine. Even the less known plays are written at a speed that is quicker than anybody else’s quickest; and the words drop so fast one can’t pick them up. Look at this. “Upon a gather’d lily almost wither’d.” (That is a pure accident. I happened to light on it.) Evidently the pliancy of his mind was so complete that he could furbish out any train of thought; and relaxing, let fall a shower of such unregarded flowers. Why then should anyone else attempt to write? This is not “writing” at all. Indeed, I could say that Shakespeare surpasses literature altogether, if I knew what I meant.

I am guessing that most of us have come to understand this torrent of images and ideas by reading through the text slowly while periodically wading through annotations and footnotes and fathoming the meaning of it all while trying to keep our bearings. Surely, Shakespeare could not be serious about anyone processing everything that is happening in the cosmic “Lear on the heath” scene for example, in real time in the theater?
I have always wondered if there was a way to experience an inkling
of this exhilaration that Woolf talks about and I have been having a lot of fun with this idea over the past couple of weeks trying various things.

Since one of the ideas seems to give me an indication of this feeling is something you can try at our readings, I thought I would share it with the group. Here is a recipe:

i) Pick a relatively unfamiliar play. For me this was Troilus and Cressida, I have read the play less than a half-dozen times ever and seen the BBC production once.

ii) Choose a good (complete) audio recording of the play, I chose the Arkangel recording for this play.

iii) Pick a good edition of the play with a sufficient number of annotations but not too many, the Pelican worked fine for me, the Arden had too much.

iv) Listen to the play, but focus chiefly on the annotations while the audio is playing, glancing peripherally at the main text only if you are unsure about which character is speaking.

v) Don’t stop and brace yourself for an interesting ride!

Of course, if you know all the unfamilar usages, puns and allusions typically explained by the annotations, this might not be necessary, but   
from my experience it was a great way to be viscerally engaged with the text and a change from  deeper more ponderous studies of the text. Also not looking at the text while it is being read seemed to make things more spontaneous and fresh.

This system can obviously be used in the context of our readings if you wish to give it a try.

Prashant Andrade

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