“Enter a messenger”

This is how they get the news in a Shakespearean play; a minor character comes in, with good news or bad, false tidings or true and the plot moves along with an exchange or soliloquy involving major players.

From the internet, artist unknown

From the internet, artist unknown

Nowadays, of course, messages are carried electronically and conveyed instantaneously and continuously. The soldier running in from the battlefield or the maid from the boudoir has been replaced by the journalist standing in the rain by the mudslide or the blogger/ tweeter/ texter/ face-booker tapping the story out on their mobile device. With pictures, of course.

I’m thinking about this because my friend Sylvia and I have just finished our reading aloud together of all the Shakespearean plays, along with the blog http://theplaystheblog.wordpress.com. I wrote about this here. We noticed early on that “Enter a messenger” was the most commonly used stage direction. (It came with variations, the most gruesome of which was, “Enter a messenger with two heads and a hand,” from Titus Andronicus.) Apart from the occasional fight or murder, a lot of the action in Shakespeare’s plays occurs off stage. It’s a demonstration of the dramatist’s genius that this doesn’t matter. (Some modern film makers could take note.)

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I can’t say I remember every play, but I’ve been reminded of ones I’d studied at school or seen performed and gained a few more favorites, such as Henry IV, Part II. It’s pretty commonly known that Shakespeare is the source of many phrases and quotes in common use, but just how many we recognised as we read was extraordinary. Who remembers that “to the manor born,” comes from Hamlet? Or knew that “one fell swoop” is in Macbeth? Now I wish I’d taken note, or at least tallied a count.

Sylvia and I are both sorry to have come to the end of these readings. I’m planning to read along with the new project by Dennis Abrams covering several books (in English) by the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami at wildmurakamichase.wordpress.com. I’m sure I’ll have something to say about this in due course.

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Reading Shakespeare

For the first time since I began weekly posts I have missed a Monday. During the preceding weekend, I thought from time to time, as I do most weeks, about what the next post might be. Often this has led to the piece being written ahead of time and sitting quietly on my computer waiting for Monday morning to be inserted into a new wordpress page.

This past weekend was no different, except that no idea presented itself and other things occupied my mind and I forgot about blog posting. Until this Tuesday morning.  Then my friend Sylvia arrived to read Shakespeare and I had my topic.

Sylvia, ready to read Act 5 of Cymbeline

Sylvia, ready to read Act 5 of Cymbeline

Dennis Abrams runs a blog dedicated to the reading of all of Shakespeare’s plays in the order in which they were written. (This order is disputed, but he settled on a version that he thought logical.) The first post was in June 2011, the last will be some time in 2014. This morning Sylvia and I finished Cymbeline and there are four more plays to go. DA posts two or three times a week and encourages comments. His posts are scholarly, with long sections from a range of literary critics, and many references to youtube clips from film and stage productions of the plays. Find the blog at http://theplaystheblog.wordpress.com

I started reading at the beginning, with The Two Gentlemen of Verona. I don’t remember exactly when Sylvia expressed an interest in joining in and we decided it would be more fun to read the plays out loud together, but it wasn’t far down the list. We don’t take roles, we take turns at reading – one speech for her, the next for me and so on. And we read, we don’t on the whole try to act. Most of our meetings are mid-week, alternating at each other’s homes.

An excellent aspect of reading plays this way is having someone to talk to when a line doesn’t make sense, or you’ve lost the thread of the plot or can’t remember the significance of a particular character – or even whose side they are on. And it’s great fun recognising known phrases (so many of these) and Shakespeare’s genius with language.

I’ve discovered well-known plays I don’t like so much (e.g. A Midsummer Night’s Dream), confirmed some favourites (e.g. Macbeth) and found some new favourites in plays I’d never met before (e.g The Life and Death of King John).

The book I bought about 1956.

The “complete works” I bought about 1956.

The book I read from is one I have had since school-days. I remember I bought it myself, probably with money given on my birthday, when I was about fourteen, intending then to read all the plays, having “done” The Merchant of Venice in my first year at secondary school. Almost six decades later I’m nearly there.

Footnote: This is my 100th post.