I have spent the last forty-eight hours trying to get used to a new pair of glasses and so any form of extended reading has been very difficult. Past experience has taught me that this will sort itself out in time, but at the moment it’s all very blurry and rather nauseating so I was more than usually interested in the discussion that I managed to plough my way through yesterday in Simon Palfrey’s Doing Shakespeare about Elizabethan audiences and the manner in which they listened. (The ploughing, by the way, was down to the glasses and not the writing; the book is very good.)
Palfry makes the point that because of the very high levels of illiteracy (90% of women and 60+% of men) ‘[m]ost school learning was by rote, absorbed aurally.’ These people were read to, and it wasn’t just lessons that they experienced this way, but also ‘fables, stories, songs , ballads, news – and in a very real sense plays.’ They knew how to listen in a way that we have forgotten, nay in a way which we have never learnt.
For us sound is perpetual, we are surrounded by it constantly, to the point where complete silence, if we do ever experience it, is frightening. But the corollary to this is that we have stopped listening. I would consider myself to be far more aurally aware than many of my friends. I watch almost no television and rarely go to the cinema. Most of my non-reading entertainment and all of my news coverage is absorbed from the radio or via CD, but even so, I know that I do not actively listen to any more than about 20% of what I hear. I am not an Elizabethan. This past weekend I have wished I was. It takes practice to listen actively and I’m not good at it.
So, if it is permissible to make a new year resolution half way through May, here is mine. In future when I put a programme on the radio that I want to hear I am going to stop doing whatever else I was multi-tasking and really listen to it. I am also going to start downloading audio-books and listen to those. There is a real issue here for me because my mother lost her sight and was unable to read during her latter years. While the condition she had is not inherited, the shape of eyes that are likely to develop it is and so there may come a time when I have no option but to be an Elizabethan listener. If that time should come then I don’t want to have to learn how to do it in my eighties. Whether I will ever reach the listening heights that Palfry claims for Shakespeare’s contemporaries and be able as a matter of course to pick out the rhetorical figures of speech that dominate his works is another matter, but I’m going to have a really good try.