June 21, 2010

Hear me, Beatrice

A week ago today, I gave a talk at the annual Pawling Shakespeare Club end-of-year luncheon. The club has been in existence for 112 years this year and is one of the oldest continually meeting clubs in the country.

Initially started as a book club for elite women (an endeavor unique in and of its own), eventually membership was opened up to men. The club reads two plays a year and meets on Monday evenings for three months in the Fall then again for three months in the Spring (much like college semesters). This past year, they read Richard III and Much Ado about Nothing. This year, club president Marie DiLorenzo proudly announced at the luncheon, the club would be reading the only two plays which have gone unread by its contingent for the past thirty years: Cymbeline and Pericles.

Sitting in the private party room of a lovely local Italian restaurant (made to look like a wine cellar) as a guest of the club, I couldn’t help but be inspired by the people around me. Here were individuals, all of them over the age of fifty and many of them holding much greater seniority than that, continuing to expand their own minds. There is Intellectual life after Graduate School! Here were people who continue to strive to connect with a world of literature that most chose to leave in the dregs of their college careers. Here were intelligent, creative and driven people who have the chutzpah to read not just one but two plays which may be entirely unfamiliar to them every year, meet together, and discuss these plays. Analyze. Critique. Speak theoretically. Most importantly, here were people who carried a long tradition of parlor Shakespeare to the present day.

By “parlor Shakespeare” I mean a romanticized practice all-but-outdated of individuals assembling to read aloud together for each other. “You be Romeo and I’ll be Juliet. Here’s a Norton…. Go.” This sort of chicanery is certainly not the soul purpose of the Pawling Shakespeare Club, but I have been told that it is of primary interest to club members. And I, personally, could not be more delighted.

Here’s a little tidbit for you; the word “audience” shares the same etymology as the word “audio” (the Latin word “audire”, “to hear”). Perhaps the connection seems obvious now that I’ve put the two words together, but I know I didn’t make it until it was pointed out to me. This little factoid becomes important imminently. In modern times, we assemble as an audience to “see a play”. In Shakespeare’s time, an audience would assemble to “hear a play”. The distinction is abundantly clear, and one lost to our visually-driven culture. What with film, television, video games, computer screens, and a plethora of other digital media, we are a culture that demands and craves constant visual stimulation. Without it, we (literally) tune out.

Perhaps this is why modern audiences sometimes find Shakespeare’s plays so inaccessible. You ask any High Schooler who hates Shakespeare (and my grandmother will gleefully reveal that once upon a time I was one of them) and that teenager will tell you it is because she finds dear William difficult to read. Well there’s a few good reasons for that. The first is that Shakespeare was never meant to be read, it was meant to be heard. Take this famous example;

Richard: Now is the winter of our Discontent,
Made glorious Summer by this Son of Yorke…

(Richard III I I 1-2). Reading this line, you say “Certainly, Son of York, we know who that is… it’s a man who was born into the house of York”. If you know a little something about the play, perhaps you even say, “Oh, check it out, he’s talking about Edward”. But what you probably do not say is what you miss by not hearing the line. Read the line out loud to yourself. Go on. Do it. Nobody’s watching. Okay, maybe if you’re in a library you may want to wait until you get home to do so, but at least try to whisper it.

Get anything you didn’t get before? How about a nice little double entendre? Take a gander at this… The winter is a time of cold. It is turned into glorious summer by a change in temperature. How else is a change in temperature created but by the presence of the sun? Try reading the lines again, but this time, read them this way…

Richard: Now is the winter of our Discontent,
Made glorious Summer by this Sun of Yorke…

The meaning is similar, but certainly tweaked. The Sun of Yorke evokes an image of Edward not just as the glorious monarch of England with his household heraldry wafting behind him in an action-movie-style breeze, but also one that will warm and please the world. He begins to have cherubim qualities, a golden halo that surrounds and suffuses those around him. Moreover, he appears to us in a sort of Monty-Python’s-God-esque motif (a la this). Shakespeare uses the verbal double entendre which his audio-centric audience would certainly have been sensitive to to establish Edward as a cosmic force; not just of an age, but for all time.

Thereby, if a group of people merely read Shakespeare and absorb him through the eyes, they miss an entire world of the playwright’s intention. This is part of what makes Shakespeare so important to experience rather than read. He is a playwright of the senses and much be treated as such.  Read.  Aloud.  Together.  

So back in the wine cellar, while we chatted and I waxed poetic about the quirks and eccentricities of the first folio that make it a text worthy of note rather than to be shoved to the back of the bookcase, it occurred to me. Though these people were hedge scholars, though they were brought together by interest rather than any expertise in the material (don’t get me wrong, there were certainly experts in fields other than Early Modern Theatre sitting in that room with me), they had caught onto something entirely lost upon most modern readers.

Shakespeare is communal. It brings us together as audiences, certainly, but also as friends. If we can sit in parlors and debate the meaning of Olivia’s epically cryptic “If one should be a prey, how much the better/To fall before the Lion, then the Wolfe?” (Twelfth Night III i, 1342-43) over coffee, perhaps this discussion can bring us closer to some communal harmony. We all know that Shakespeare touches upon the raw nerve of universal humanity, perhaps discussion and discovery of this can bring us together as humans.

Like any member of the Pawling Shakespeare Club can attest to, it can certainly bring us together as colleagues and friends. Especially if there are snickerdoodles involved.

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