I went over to Stratford at lunch time for a dialogue between Ewan Fernie and Paul Edmundson about the latest volume in the Shakespeare Now! series, Shakespeare and I.  Ewan is one of the series’ General Editors as well as having contributed to the new book and Paul has written the Afterword.

The of the title is, as one of our Post Graduate students pointed out, a fractured because the volume comprises a number of essays in which a variety of writers, not all from academia, but all very reflective and highly intelligent thinkers, examine their personal responses to particular Shakespearian plays or poems and explore the extent to which their development as individuals, or in some cases their understanding of that development, has been influenced by their exposure to this author’s works.

So, as an example, Ewan Fernie’s essay considers Angelo’s speech from Measure for Measure when the character first realises the attraction Isabella holds for him and explores the need Ewan himself recognises of desiring to possess something that is good in a way which ultimately and selfishly destroys the very goodness that attracts.  (As an aside, this is the first essay I have ever read in which the writer sees the need to declare not once but twice ‘I am not a rapist’.)

I can see the intellectual impetus behind the argument the book is proposing in as much as any piece of criticism, however objective it purports to be, is going to be influenced to a greater or lesser degree by the personality and experiences of the person who writes it.  There is no such thing as complete objectivity so why not bring the subjective element in the response into the light.  However, what does bother me is that all the contributors to this book are people who have learnt and practised the control of writing ‘objectively’ to meet the criteria of academia and are therefore unlikely to go off on a completely uncontrolled, bare everything, ego fest.  I am not so sure that the same is true for the majority of undergraduates; it certainly wasn’t true of me at eighteen.

Please, any undergraduate out there reading this, believe me when I say that I am not intending to belittle you in any respect.  As I said, I know that some of my own essays went off into areas that were more to do with me than they were with the text I was supposed to be commenting on.  My point is that it takes practice to be able to write objectively about your subjective response to a work of art.  The contributors to this book are able to do that but they are all practised commentators, students reading these essays are unlikely to have developed the skills necessary for a similar level of control.  As someone who worked with undergraduates for many years I would be concerned about their approaching criticism in this way.  To draw a musical analogy, it seems like trying to improvise on a theme by a great composer before you have learnt how to interpret the original work itself.

Am I worrying too much, I don’t know.  Does anyone else have any experience that might put my mind at rest?  Or is there anyone with other strong views?

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A Different Type of Listening

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.