A picture is worth a thousand words but there are some names worth a thousand pictures. Even though I’ve experienced limited contact with Shakespeare, just reading his name conjures up a whole world of images and expectations. Expectations of wonderful characters immersed in fantastic stories of high adventure, political intrigue, deception, and slap stick comedy. Expectations of colourful costumes and fanciful sets. Expectations of brilliantly delivered lines of amazing complexity and rhythm flying by at a pace that leaves me simultaneously scratching my head and grinning in foolish delight. All of this without an actor or decorated stage in sight. So when SFU offered a course on reading Shakespeare, the opportunity of spending six weeks capturing some of these wonderful characters and stories in my head, without the possibility of them escaping offstage, was irresistible.
The reading journey through passages of The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale is nearing its destination and the time has arrived to reflect on this experience. How am I now connected with Shakespeare? Do I understand Shakespeare any better? Do I understand myself any better? What possible relevance could two diverse assortments of 16th century characters and their power struggles have for me living in 21st century modernity? Is there a kernel that joins our stories together? Well, perhaps there is an impulse for all activity to draw into a central place. My own activity is reading. The plays’ activities are the interactions of stories and characters. And we all meet up, occupying an imaginary circle within my consciousness.
So what is reading all about anyway? The only activity is sitting in a chair (probably) looking at words in a book. Assuming that I’m paying attention, there is a budding relationship unfolding between the author (let’s say Shakespeare for this example) and myself; there are one or more characters introducing themselves to me; there are events occurring that are pleasing or troubling these characters. The interesting part of the story is: none of it is real. Somehow the imagination of the author has jumped from his mind into my consciousness. And it was all premeditated. Of course, in picking up the book, I agreed to this transfer. What I’m trying to say is the author and I have entered into a real and imaginary place where our minds blend into oneness. A stage has been erected and Shakespeare and I are center stage acting out an imaginary life. So now, what possible relevance could this have to the two plays we have been reading over these past six weeks?
Along with the complete and secret fantasy I’m privately enjoying with Shakespeare, there has been a meeting of minds in the physical world actually reading and interpreting The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale together and out loud. We have come together in a circle for the purpose of understanding what the plays are saying to each and all of us.
In Shakespeare’s The Tempest there is also a circle that draws all the characters into its center. It’s a magic circle. All of the The Tempest is magic and illusion. Prospero is a magician. The tempest is a storm in the characters’ imaginations, and almost everything else is either a concoction of spells or, at least, a significant break from realism. If we were each personally following the procedures outlined in the play, we would find them completely ineffective in our daily interactions. Yet there is definitely a purpose or a problem demanding resolution. And that problem is: on this unknown magic island there are four groups of self absorbed and lost people who must somehow transcend their limited vision so they might know the truth and return home. Being human, they are unable to think their way out of their predicaments which, in this case, make no sense at all. It is only through the coercion of spirits summoned by Prospero with magic spells and threats that the veil is lifted and all four disparate groups meet in the harmony of the magic circle from which they can all peacefully return home as a functional unit of civilization. The circle is, once again, whole.
In The Winter’s Tale there is another storm. A storm perhaps even more sinister than the magical gale in The Tempest. It’s a storm of raging jealousy, viciously blowing to shreds all remnants of reason in the mind of Leontes, King of Sicilia. This storm has also displaced members of Leontes’ once peaceful kingdom. Losing control of his reason has, in effect, fragmented the identities of his daughter, his wife, his best friend, and his trusted advisor. It has also left Leontes and Sicilia without a legitimate heir to the throne and the prospect of a stable future. They all must return to the circle of a harmonious kingdom to regain their personal and cultural legitimacy.
In order for all the characters to return to the circle of the harmonious kingdom they must enter their own individual inner circles of self knowledge and harmony. Leontes must understand the nature of his jealousy, moving from his Hyper Zone of Arousal into his balanced center or Window of Tolerance where he can transcend his pride and rule from a place of wisdom and compassion. He must trust the oracle and live from a place that encompasses the combined wisdom of his kingdom. Hermione must leave her Hypo Zone of Arousal breaking free of her numbing statue to join her husband. Perdita must discover her true identity as Leontes legitimate heir. The split in the alliance between Sicilia and Bohemia must be mended through the unblemished and legitimate union of Perdita and Florizel. Camillo must regain his homeland and rightful place as wise royal advisor. Through the passage of time and the endurance and power of love and forgiveness, all this is accomplished and the factions are able to return to their home circle and all is once again whole.
Now, as the curtain falls and the actors are taking their final bows, our Shakespearean reading circle is about to break and become a memory. A memory of Shakespeare`s meditation on humanity; his era; his artistry; his ability to reach through the fabric of time and touch each one of us in combined and personal ways; and, most of all, a memory of another circle that will never dissolve. A circle that is always intact and lively with the voices of Shakespeare and his marvellous cast of characters alive and interacting with me any time I snuggle into my favourite wing backed chair, open the pages, and begin, once again, reading Shakespeare.
Andrea is a passionate life long learner with a particular dedication to the humanities. When not traveling in the geography of ideas, she’s out exploring and revelling in the world of nature.