Another reason to read Shakespeare slowly

Esoteric: Designed for, or appropriate to, an inner circle of privileged followers

I’m reading this book, Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing, by Arthur M. Melzer, because I’ve been curious for many years about the contradiction in Shakespeare’s works between what would have been accessible for most theater-goers of the time, be they lower or upper classes, and the underlying and often hidden significances of so many aspects of Shakespeare’s plays. Melzer’s book is about the long tradition of writing that includes bits “intended for or likely to be understood by only a small number of people with a specialized knowledge or interest.”

Melzer says a number of things that remind me of the close-reading group that I run on Sunday mornings (and in which which some on this list participate!). For instance, Melzer writes, “Esoteric reading, being very difficult, requires one to slow down and spend much more time with a book than one may be used to. One must read it very slowly, and as a whole, and over and over again.” This is exactly what we do on Sunday mornings.  ;-)

Melzer quotes a preface of Nietzsche’s about the journey through a book (or a Shakespeare play):

“A book like this is in no hurry; we both, I just as much as my book, are friends of lento [slowly]. . . . In the midst of an age of “work,” that is to say, of hurry, of indecent and perspiring haste, which wants to ‘get everything done’ at once, including every old or new book—this art does not so easily get anything done; it teaches to read well, that is to say, to read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and aft, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate eyes and fingers.”

And I quote Melzer again because he says it so much better than I can: “At this lower speed, new sorts of experiences and connections start to become possible. You begin to live with the book. It becomes your companion and friend. Your interactions with it become more unhurried, and thus more wide-ranging, bold, and experimental, and at the same time more delicate, nuanced, and intimate.”

I write this as encouragement to slow down when reading Shakespeare! The treasures we find along the path as we stroll—rather than run—through the text are profound.  :-)

Memorizing and Reading Shakespeare

An article appeared in The New York Times Magazine several months ago called, “How to Memorize Shakespeare.” It’s very short and sweet and has some good tips, but does include a derogatory reference to reading: “the worst way to learn [lines] is sitting down and reading them in your head.”

Dr. Kristin Bundesen, a strong supporter of Shakespeare reading groups, had some interesting comments on this:

I agree to an extent.

Reading comprehension improves with muscle movement. In the process of writing notes manually as you read, you engage hand and arm muscles, which helps readers retain information. The more muscles engaged in the reading process, the more one ‘“gets it.”

(Highlighting, by the way, does nothing for reading comprehension—it just draws attention to spots when one needs to reread because you didn’t get it the first time around.)

Sometimes, I think that the false mandate that you can’t understand Shakespeare by reading it—the insistence that you have to act it—is simply a reaction to not understanding the reading process well enough. Reading should be muscular. For the disinterested student (thinking high school), the more muscles the better. But that doesn’t mean they have to “see” it on the stage or “act” it out to get it.

The imaging bit described in the article works well and engraves the imagery (which some consider superfluous to understanding the plot) in comprehension. As a first step in the reading process, it can make reading the rest of the play simpler. Images are painted in the mind’s eye first.

Of course, community reading groups read aloud. And when memorizing, it obviously helps to speak the words aloud. As we get older, it naturally becomes more difficult to memorize, but speaking and moving helps a lot.

I memorized several Shakespearean sonnets while living in London—I walked to the iambic pentameter beat (ba BUM, ba BUM, ba BUM, ba BUM, ba BUM) through those lovely Victorian graveyards. But because I don’t retain things very well when I just hear them, I wrote them out on paper and read them as I walked, getting the best of both visual and physical memory. Out loud.  :-)

Have you memorized any Shakespeare? What are your tips for doing it?

A Club of Two

I found notice of an intriguing variation of a Shakespeare reading group in 1891—it’s rather adorable: A letter to the editor of the journal Shakespeariana is entitled “A Club of Two.” The writer describes his Shakespeare reading club in which the only other participant he could find was one friend. At the time of writing they had been meeting for three years and had read and studied about twelve plays.

Eventually one member moved to another city, but they continued their program with lengthy weekly letters. When particularly puzzled, they wrote to a “specialist” in Shakespeare. They each kept a modern form of a commonplace book that, when filled with their own notes and criticisms, they then exchanged these books with each other. How I wish I could find those letters and commonplace books!

The writer’s inspiration for his Club of Two provides a testament to not only the power of Shakespeare reading to create community—even between a group of two—but also to the popularity and dedication of lay readers in that earlier time. The writer states: “To many persons the bare term ‘studying Shakespeare’ calls up in the mind’s eye visions of an ambitious reading club or Shakespearian Society, and being unable or perhaps unwilling to join such an association they end by doing nothing.”

The creative solution of this Club of Two not only indicates the pervasive passion for the reading activity, but also provides an important witness to the realization that “studying Shakespeare” at the time was commonly understood to take place among communities of general readers in their own parlors, not in universities. Just as many of us are doing right now.  :-)

If anyone hears of the collection of letters these two friends exchanged, please let me know!

Charles Lamb on reading King Lear

Did you miss me?    ;-)

I have been consumed with getting the Readers’ Edition of King Lear to press in time for the next close read and also an Actors’ Edition for the cast of our September performance, thus I missed sending out this mini-newsletter for several weeks.

In the process of producing the King Lear edition, I again ran across a statement from Charles Lamb about reading Lear as opposed to seeing it performed. Charles is co-author of Tales from Shakespeare, published in 1807, a book that has never been out of publication since that time. The original Tales from Shakespeare was actually not co-authored, but written by Charles’ sister, Mary Lamb, under the pseudonym Thomas Hodgkins. Mary could not put her name on the book not only because she was a woman, but because she was in and out of mental institutions for stabbing her mother to death with a kitchen knife (although when you read her actual story of what led her to that, it’s difficult not to sympathize a bit; check out Mary Lamb at Wikipedia for the short version of her story).

Anyway, Charles Lamb has this to say about Shakespeare’s play of King Lear. He writes during a time of popular consensus that Shakespeare was best enjoyed on the page instead of the stage, showing how different the interaction with Shakespeare’s works was at the time.

So to see Lear acted—to see an old man tottering about the stage with a walking-stick, turned out of doors by his daughters in a rainy night, has nothing in it but what is painful and disgusting. We want to take him into shelter and relieve him. That is all the feeling which the acting of Lear ever produced in me.

But the Lear of Shakespeare cannot be acted. The contemptible machines by which they mimic the storm which he goes out in, is not more inadequate to represent the horrors of the real elements, than any actor can be to represent Lear; they might more easily propose to personate the Satan of Milton upon a stage, or one of Michael Angelo’s terrible figures.

The greatness of Lear is not in corporal dimension, but in intellectual: the explosions of passion are terrible as a volcano: they are storms turning up and disclosing to the bottom that sea, his mind, with all its vast riches. It is his mind which is laid bare. This case of flesh and blood seems too insignificant to be thought on even as he himself neglects it.

On the stage we see nothing but corporal infirmities and weakness, the impotence of rage; while we read it, we see not Lear, but we are Lear—we are in his mind, we are sustained by a grandeur which baffles the malice of daughters and storms; in the aberrations of his reason, we discover a mighty irregular power of reasoning, immethodized from the ordinary purposes of life, but exerting its powers, as the wind blows where it listeth, at will upon the corruptions and abuses of mankind.

—Charles Lamb, 1811, “On The Tragedies of Shakespeare Considered with Reference to their Fitness for Stage Representation” 

If you’ve read King Lear and also seen it on stage, what do you think about the difference? Of course both options, reading and watching, have strengths and weaknesses, but what are they, in your opinion?

Oh, stop telling me not to read Shakespeare!

Britain's newspaper, Daily Mail, interviewed Ian McKellen, who “wants us all to put down our books and stop trying to learn the plays before we’ve seen them. ‘It’s not what ordinary people should have to bother with. That’s for the actors to do. The plays weren’t written to be read, they were written to be spoken out loud and acted and for an audience to watch.’”


Us ordinary people should not read the plays. We must let the actors read Shakespeare and they will convey what it all means, all the depths and nuances and irony, in their interpretation of the play. Which is also cut.

Oh, I do apologize for being such a snot, but it is so sad to me that millions of people are encouraged away from an up-close-and-personal relationship with the plays of Shakespeare, one we can create by engaging with the text ourselves. Of course we should also watch performances, but please stop telling me that is the only possible way to experience Shakespeare!

I need to write to Sir Ian and remind him that the First Folio is dedicated “To the Great Variety of Readers.”  ;-)

Have you run across statements or been told in person that you must not read the plays? Tell us about it in the Comments below! If you have suggestions for responses, let us know that as well.  ;-)

Marginalia—notes written in the margins

I love buying used books and finding that someone has written in them—I get to see what someone else thought was important or moving or awful or stupid. I love the sometimes snotty messages that a reader just could not refrain from noting, or perhaps a personal comment that shows a glimpse into a stranger’s heart, a glimpse that might well be one of the few remembrances of that person. Even the occasional shopping list or notes for a speech or a child’s handwriting practice can turn an unexceptional book into a lost but tangible place in someone’s life.

It has only been in the past few decades that marginalia has come to be valued—in the history of the book, collectors and libraries have generally gone to great lengths to scrub all marginalia clean from books, much to the dismay of book historians today. Not long ago the British Library in London purchased a second copy of a rare treatise of Galileo’s specifically because it has marginalia in three different hands. These are not notes from Galileo himself—the library did not know who wrote the notes nor what they said when they bought the book, but those annotations were finally being valued as a “contemporary response” to the book.

Reading is also writing, in that you become a part of your book; thus both you and the book become part of the historical record of us humans on this wee planet. The Wikipedia page on marginalia has an interesting list of famous writers well known for their marginal notes. Even if you're not famous, infuse your Shakespeare reading editions with a trace of your humanity!

Perhaps you have checked out the page on about writing in your own books. I hope so—and I hope that you scribble away in your Shakespeare editions.  ;-)

“The book is to be engaged, digested, and re-read.”
—Heidi Brayman Hackel, Reading Material in Early Modern England

To see Shakespeare, “All we need is a stage and actors”

Fiona Banks at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London said: “To see Shakespeare . . . , we need nothing more than a performance space and a company of actors."

Oh. Is that all?

That's a pretty hilarious statement, me thinks, since it is meant to imply that Shakespeare is easily accessible to everyone—all you need is a stage and an acting company.  ;-)  

Anyone who has tried to put on a performance, especially in a small town, knows very well just how difficult it can be to find a venue in which to perform and to gather enough people ready and willing and able to memorize vast swathes of text and rehearse for weeks and then convince people to actually show up to watch it. It's quite an undertaking.

While you're waiting around for that company of actors to appear on a stage near you, grab a friend and a play and start reading in front of the fire with a cup of tea!

And don't forget—if you had a Halloween Shakespeare reading, let us know how it went!

Shakespeare Readers become fierce Performance critics!

It's a funny thing—I see this happen over and over again.  ;-)  Once a person becomes a Shakespeare Reader, especially a close reader, never again can they accept a performance, whether live or on film, at face value. We become fierce critics and spend hours after a performance discussing what the actors didn't understand or how could they possibly misinterpret that particular bit or how could they cut such an important piece from the play! It's hilarious. 

This charming propensity for criticism (“criticism" in the sense of appraisal, analysis, and commentary) shows me several things. One: it embodies the wonderful and personal relationship we can develop with the Shakespearean works if we actually know and understand the plays, which is something we gain from reading. Two: it creates animated discussion points for a community of people who might otherwise have absolutely nothing in common. Three: it stimulates our whole brain because we not only internalize the production on an emotional level, but put into words what we loved or hated or would have done differently if we were to direct the play. And four: the outpouring of passion never fails to illuminate even more ideas. And friendships.

Have you seen a production lately that exceeded your expectations? Or one that wasn't quite up to snuff, in your opinion? Would you have done something differently? Let us know in the comments below!

Halloween Shakespeare!

Halloween is coming right up and what better and more thrilling way to celebrate than by reading Macbeth—out loud and with friends!

Dress up, of course, in the various characters according to the part you are reading: Wyrd Sisters, Hecate the triple goddess, murderers, Banquo a-live, Banquo a-ghost, apparitions (an armed/helmeted head, a bloody child, a crowned child with a tree in his hand), Birnam Wood, a nurse, doctors, soldiers, Lady Macbeth, King Duncan, Macbeth himself, and others.

Get creative with the food and drink and decorations! There are plenty of gory suggestions online. And give yourself the freedom to really ramp up the emoting in your reading—your costume creates an attitude, y'know?

Make sure you grab enough copies of the Readers' Edition of Macbeth, too.  :-)  Remember, there are charts in the book to make it easy to allocate parts beforehand; if you don't use the book, the charts are also right here.

If you have ideas for a party, please tell us about them! After your party, send photos!

You’re not waiting for “Intellectuals” to start a Shakespeare reading group with, are you?

Did you start your Shakespeare reading group yet? Let us know how it's going!

If you haven't started one yet, what's stopping you?

Sometimes people say to me, “Oh, I don't have any friends who are intellectual enough to want to read Shakespeare!” That's the sad thing that has happened to Shakespeare in the past 75 years—what used to be a regular part of the family reading circle in the evenings or an important social gathering outside of work or the home is now perceived as something that only supposed “intellectuals” would indulge in.

But think of the latest movement in Shakespeare outreach—to prisons, including maximum security prisons. Not many of those prisoners would call themselves intellectuals, yet they dive in with a purpose and determination that profoundly impacts not only their own lives but the lives around them. Check out the page on Useful Books to discover two books about Shakespeare in prisons—one in a supermax facility in Indiana, and a subversive group that read Shakespeare on Robben Island, South Africa.

If that's not stopping you, what is? Let me know in the Comments below!


How to read Shakespeare

Just do it. Really. Grab a play and open it up and start reading—out loud with friends!

I have every book ever written on “how to read Shakespeare.” Personally, if I had to read a whole book before I felt confident enough to read a play, I'd never start. The very fact that there are so many of these books is part of what intimidates people to plunge in and read!

If you're pretty new to reading Shakespeare, you might stumble along the way and you might feel you don't understand some stuff, but that's perfectly fine. Take the time to talk about difficult passages. Ask questions of each other. Ask why a character is behaving this way or how someone might be saying this line. Let go of things you've heard all your life, such as, “Hamlet's to be or not to be speech is about suicide" or “Petruchio is an abusive husband.” Read the play carefully and make up your own mind!

The remarkable thing about reading Shakespeare's plays is that you will never fully comprehend every bit of a play the first time you read it, nor even the second or third or fourth time—in fact, you’ll never totally understand every line and nuance and layer. Honestly, every time you enter a play you will discover something new, so do not limit yourself by feeling you have to get the whole thing the first time around. This is a lifetime achievement!

The Readers’ Editions I developed are designed specifically to make reading a play so much easier, but without dumbing it down one tiny bit or losing one word. I'm not very good at selling myself, so it takes a lot for me to say that I truly believe the Readers' Editions are the best way to start a Shakespeare reading group!  There. I said it. whew.

If you've used one of the Readers’ Editions in your group, please let me know how it worked for you, what didn't work, and what you might like to see in future editions! 


When Reading Shakespeare, Everyone is Right and No One is Right

There are no right or wrong answers in Shakespeare—the ambiguity is part of what makes it endlessly fascinating.

This has occasionally created a tricky situation in a reading group, where one person tries to insist that his/her thought is the correct reading and wants everyone else in the room to agree with that conclusion. If this person stays in the group long enough, s/he eventually comes to accept that there is always more than one way to understand just about anything in Shakespeare.  ;-)

Only once have I had to gently put my foot down and say, “I understand that you truly believe this is the only way to see this situation, but I encourage you to listen to the other possibilities. Sometimes we have to hold several ideas in our minds at the same time, which is a remarkable testament to this author, a good exercise for our brains, and all of us in the room gain insights from the process. You have a great idea, and let's hold that along with the other great ideas."

If this person cannot accept that, then they leave the group and lose the entire experience. It's sad, but fortunately it's also rare. Most everyone rises to the occasion and eventually learns to revel in that darned ambiguity!

Have you had any difficult situations in a reading group? How was it handled? What did you learn?

Every Shakespeare performance is an interpretation

One very important thing that Shakespeare Readers come to appreciate is that every performance is only one interpretation of the many possibilities. As we discuss the text and talk about the potential ways of acting it, Readers constantly come up with various meanings and actions and attitudes that could present very different performances.

These rich experiences with the possibilities has led to a pet peeve! How many times have I been told that I should not read Shakespeare, that it is meant to be performed and that is the only way I should experience the plays?! Aarrghh!  This annoys me because when I see it performed, I get is one director's interpretation. And if, for instance, a production of A Winter's Tale only comes to my village once in my lifetime (if at all), that one interpretation is all I will ever know of that rich and complex play. And of course it has also been cut, so that's another way I lose part of the experience.

When I read the play—especially out loud and in community—I get to hold all the potential in my own heart. Then when I watch a performance—because reading it makes me want to see it performed—it can round out or inform my personal connection instead of that interpretation being my only experience.

We always learn something from performance, of course. Have you seen a fabulous performance that enriched your reading of a play, one in which an interpretation gave you new insights into the text? Tell us about it in the comments below!

Anti-Dementia Shakespeare

It’s actually true—reading Shakespeare can help prevent some forms of dementia. British neurologist Oliver Sacks has a wealth of experience, experiments, and anecdotes that show how you can challenge your brain to improve cognitive fitness:

“To what extent are we shaped by, and to what degree do we shape, our own brains? And can the brain’s ability to change be harnessed to give us greater cognitive powers? The experiences of many people suggest that it can. . . . While it is often true that learning is easier in childhood, neuroscientists now know that the brain does not stop growing, even in our later years. Every time we practice an old skill or learn a new one, existing neural connections are strengthened and, over time, neurons create more connections to other neurons. Even new nerve cells can be generated.” 
—Oliver Sacks, “This Year, Change Your Mind,” in The New York Times, December 31, 2010

How does this relate to Shakespeare? Reading Shakespeare's language makes our brains work in different ways than they're accustomed to, which forces our brains to create new pathways for understanding. EEGs show that when reading Shakespeare, having to process the unusual use of language, plus the odd construction of the lines written to fit into the iambic pentameter rhythm, excites positive brain activity. For instance, your brain has to work a wee bit harder to re-order the words in this line into a more typical order so we can understand it:

Words, to the heat of deeds, too cold breath gives.  —Macbeth

Working at it regenerates your brain! See the [fake] charts on for a fun chart to share that shows how reading Shakespeare can improve your brain! Have you felt any difference in your brain since you started reading Shakespeare—out loud and in community? Tell us about it.

Welcome to iReadShakespeare!

I hope you sign up for the mailing list so you receive the blog post in your email box before it appears here. Don’t worry—you will only receive an email every other Tuesday morning, and it’s always short! Plus the email has a couple of extra fun tidbits that don't appear here.

If you haven’t yet done so, check out the article about why the thousands of Shakespeare reading groups in America disappeared. It’s a sad but fascinating story that just might encourage you to start your own reading group, if you haven’t already. And is here to support you.  :-)

If you have a Shakespeare reading group, please send me your info so I can post it on the list.

with a smile,