Ideas and Suggestions

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

Those who attended the “Twelfth Night” reading, will recall the short discussion we had at the beginning of the session on handling the run-on lines or the enjambment that Shakespeare often uses extensively for verse in  his later plays. I have some more ideas about this that I wanted to share with you before our next reading. Please share any thoughts you might have about this topic that can help our reading! I apologize if this discussion is not interesting or useful to you.

An example from the Winter’s Tale is given below. Enjambment means that the end of the line of verse does not correspond to the culmination of a thought and meaning flows as the lines progress.

I am not prone to weeping, as our sex
Commonly are; the want of which vain dew
Perchance shall dry your pities; but I have
That honourable grief lodged here which burns
Worse than tears drown.

Contrast this with the end-stopping that is often seen in Shakespeare’s earlier plays, where a verse line corresponds to a thought. Here are some lines from Romeo and Juliet:

A glooming peace this morning with it brings.
The sun for sorrow will not show his head.
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things.
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished.

One of the dilemmas of reading Shakespeare aloud is how to handle these lines when reading. Sir Peter Hall, one of the founders of the Royal Shakespeare Company, maintains that a tiny sense break should be adhered to at the end of every line to show the verse nature of a speech into clear relief. There is a wonderful discussion about this in Ron Rosenbaum‘s book “The Shakespeare Wars” and Sir Hall cherishes being called an “Iambic fundamentalist” for spearheading what he thinks is the “War on Error” in reading Shakespeare:-).

On the other hand, some readers prefer to read by following the punctuation
thus preserving meaning albeit sometimes at the expense of losing the verse shape of the speech and making it sound like prose. One interesting observation is that no one really knows how Shakespeare would himself have punctuated the verse so almost any edition of the plays that we pick up has had editorial decisions on punctuation.

I have been recently watching the much revered John Barton and Trevor Nunn master classes on “Playing Shakespeare” where Barton and Nunn work informally with a group of actors including David Suchet, Ben Kingsley, Patrick Stewart, Alan Howard etc and the ensemble demonstrate their ideas on acting Shakespeare. The key idea that keeps coming up is balance and needing to be aware of whether the speech is heightened or just “conversation”.

I have found it useful to go through the play, especially through the verse portions and identify the lines where I would adhere to the verse with a small pause even at the end of a verse line with no punctuation and where to read the verse in a run-on line fashion (I precede these lines with a small pencil mark). The amazing thing is that if I find I clearly understand the meaning of the particular lines of the speech, the decision on what to do suggests itself! Shakespeare varies the structure of his sentences so that small tiny pauses at the end of some lines even without punctuation give punch and energy by emphasizing the verse nature of the speech, (especially during heightened speeches, but not exclusively) and sometimes it is best to read the line as a run-on line for the sake of conveying meaning and smoothness.

The nice thing is that it is up to every reader/actor to arrive at his or her own idea of how the text should read giving us one more variable to work with in portrayal of a character. On the other hand, it seems like there is always one more thing to consider when reading Shakespeare, but I believe challenges like this led researchers to conclude that “Reading Shakespeare Has a Dramatic Effect on the Human Brain” (see PhysOrg link below) or Google Shakespeare and Brain and see what comes up!

Prashant Andrade

Here are some ideas that I had to complement the reading experience.

  • Many of the plays contain whole songs or snatches of songs. I play the guitar and I am sure some of the readers play musical instruments. If someone wants to sing one of the songs it might be fun to have a musical interlude in the reading with a little practice prior to the reading
  • Invite a professional theatre actor in the area to read a character for one of the sections in the play  

I would love to hear any other ideas or suggestions you might have to add to this list.