How to read Shakespeare for pleasure

Martin’s Droeshout portrait of William Shakespeare (1623)
Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Emma Smith, University of Oxford

In recent years the orthodoxy that Shakespeare can only be truly appreciated on stage has become widespread. But, as with many of our habits and assumptions, lockdown gives us a chance to think differently. Now could be the time to dust off the old collected works, and read some Shakespeare, just as people have been doing for more than 400 years.

Many people have said they find reading Shakespeare a bit daunting, so here are five tips for how to make it simpler and more pleasurable.

1. Ignore the footnotes

If your edition has footnotes, pay no attention to them. They distract you from your reading and de-skill you, so that you begin to check everything even when you actually know what it means.

It’s useful to remember that nobody ever understood all this stuff – have a look at Macbeth’s knotty “If it were done when ‘tis done” speech in Act 1 Scene 7 for an example (and nobody ever spoke in these long, fancy speeches either – Macbeth’s speech is again a case in point). Footnotes are just the editor’s attempt to deny this.

Shakespeare plays hand bound by Virginia Woolf in her bedroom at Monk’s House, Rodmell, Sussex, UK.
Ian Alexanber/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-NC-SA

Try to keep going and get the gist – and remember, when Shakespeare uses very long or esoteric words, or highly involved sentences, it’s often a deliberate sign that the character is trying to deceive himself or others (the psychotic jealousy of Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, for instance, expresses itself in unusual vocabulary and contorted syntax).

2. Pay attention to the shape of the lines

The layout of speeches on the page is like a kind of musical notation or choreography. Long speeches slow things down – and, if all the speeches end at the end of a complete line, that gives proceedings a stately, hierarchical feel – as if the characters are all giving speeches rather than interacting.

Short speeches quicken the pace and enmesh characters in relationships, particularly when they start to share lines (you can see this when one line is indented so it completes the half line above), a sign of real intimacy in Shakespeare’s soundscape.

Blank verse, the unrhymed ten-beat iambic pentamenter structure of the Shakespearean line, varies across his career. Early plays – the histories and comedies – tend to end each line with a piece of punctuation, so that the shape of the verse is audible. John of Gaunt’s famous speech from Richard II is a good example.

This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,

This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars.

Later plays – the tragedies and the romances – tend towards a more flexible form of blank verse, with the sense of the phrase often running over the line break. What tends to be significant is contrast, between and within the speech rhythms of scenes or characters (have a look at Henry IV Part 1 and you’ll see what I mean).

3. Read small sections

Shakespeare’s plays aren’t novels and – let’s face it – we’re not usually in much doubt about how things will work out. Reading for the plot, or reading from start to finish, isn’t necessarily the way to get the most out of the experience. Theatre performances are linear and in real time, but reading allows you the freedom to pace yourself, to flick back and forwards, to give some passages more attention and some less.

Shakespeare’s first readers probably did exactly this, zeroing in on the bits they liked best, or reading selectively for the passages that caught their eye or that they remembered from performance, and we should do the same. Look up where a famous quotation comes: “All the world’s a stage”, “To be or not to be”, “I was adored once too” – and read either side of that. Read the ending, look at one long speech or at a piece of dialogue – cherry pick.

One great liberation of reading Shakespeare for fun is just that: skip the bits that don’t work, or move on to another play. Nobody is going to set you an exam.

4. Think like a director

On the other hand, thinking about how these plays might work on stage can be engaging and creative for some readers. Shakespeare’s plays tended to have minimal stage directions, so most indications of action in modern editions of the plays have been added in by editors.

Most directors begin work on the play by throwing all these instructions away and working them out afresh by asking questions about what’s happening and why. Stage directions – whether original or editorial – are rarely descriptive, so adding in your chosen adverbs or adjectives to flesh out what’s happening on your paper stage can help clarify your interpretations of character and action.

One good tip is to try to remember characters who are not speaking. What’s happening on the faces of the other characters while Katherine delivers her long, controversial speech of apparent wifely subjugation at the end of The Taming of the Shrew?

5. Don’t worry

The biggest obstacle to enjoying Shakespeare is that niggling sense that understanding the works is a kind of literary IQ test. But understanding Shakespeare means accepting his open-endedness and ambiguity. It’s not that there’s a right meaning hidden away as a reward for intelligence or tenacity – these plays prompt questions rather than supplying answers.

Would Macbeth have killed the king without the witches’ prophecy? Exactly – that’s the question the play wants us to debate, and it gives us evidence to argue on both sides. Was it right for the conspirators to assassinate Julius Caesar? Good question, the play says: I’ve been wondering that myself.

Returning to Shakespeare outside the dutiful contexts of the classroom and the theatre can liberate something you might not immediately associate with his works: pleasure.The Conversation

Emma Smith, Professor of Shakespeare Studies, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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A Judeo-Persian epic, the Fath Nama (Book of Conquest) – British Library Blog

By Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies

While art historical research has focused on the beauty and splendour of Persian miniature paintings, the study of Judeo-Persian manuscript art has lagged behind, receiving only more recently the attention and recognition it deserves. These paintings form part and parcel of manuscripts that have been copied in Judeo-Persian, that is a language that is a combination of Persian, Hebrew and Aramaic written in Hebrew script. The major obstacles to studying these significant hand-written books have been a lack of knowledge of the language, unfamiliarity with the Persian and Judeo-Persian literary traditions, and also with the history of Persian manuscript art in general.

While art historical research has focused on the beauty and splendour of Persian miniature paintings, the study of Judeo-Persian manuscript art has lagged behind, receiving only more recently the attention and recognition it deserves. These paintings form part and parcel of manuscripts that have been copied in Judeo-Persian, that is a language that is a combination of Persian, Hebrew and Aramaic written in Hebrew script. The major obstacles to studying these significant hand-written books have been a lack of knowledge of the language, unfamiliarity with the Persian and Judeo-Persian literary traditions, and also with the history of Persian manuscript art in general.

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More: http://blogs.bl.uk/asian-and-african/2017/09/a-judeo-persian-epic-the-fath-nama-book-of-conquest.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+asian-and-african+%28Asia+and+Africa%29#

Further reading
Moreen, Vera Basch, Miniature Paintings in Judaeo-Persian Manuscripts (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1985), pp. 40, 49-50.
Moreen, Vera Basch and Orit Carmeli, The Bible as a Judeo-Persian epic: an illustrated manuscript of Imrani’s Fath-Nama (Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi Press, 2016). On Ms 4602 of the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem.
David Yeroushalmi, Emrānī”, in Encyclopædia Iranica (1995).

 

The Romance of Laur-Chanda by Medhavi Gandhi from The Heritage Lab

Love stories never go out of fashion, especially when they are narrated using songs and drama. The story of Laur and Chanda, is one such story. The folklore is performed till date in Uttar Pradesh, Chattisgarh and some parts of North India. Many moons ago, somewhere around 1377-78 AD (the Sultanate Period), a Sufi poet, Maulana Daud composed this narrative in Avadhi, giving birth to the first surviving Indian Sufi romance.

A reason why I am drawn to museums is because they are a storehouse of  stories. I chanced upon the story of Laur and Chanda at the Government Museum & Art Gallery, Chandigarh. A delicate set of folios, the Museum has a great book on the collection.

THE STORY & ITS CHARACTERS

laur-chanda
Laur enters Chanda’s bed chamber.

The narrative begins with the birth of a beautiful Chanda to King Sahadeva of Govar. While still very young, she is bound in wedlock to a blind and impotent Prince. The great beauty that brought her this lamentable fate also releases her from it, for the unhappy maiden catches the eye of a wandering ascetic, Bajir. Bajir sings her praises wherever he goes and sets the story in motion. His songs arouse the lust of King Rupchand so much so that he forcefully tries to forge an alliance with King Sahadev. This is when our hero, Laur is brought in by the King, to overcome and kill Rupchand; but he falls in love with Chanda, though not before achieving his goal.  Chanda engages her confidante, Brihaspati in arranging secret meetings with Laur. But the story isn’t as simple because Laur is married to Maina – who comes to know about her husband’s illicit love and devises ways of winning him back when he elopes with Chanda. Chanda and Laur’s elopement itself is ridden with challenges – snakebites, thieves and the King Mahipat – who invites Laur to a game of dice and wins everything including Chanda. He is, however, outwitted by Chanda and they journey on. Maina on the other hand, entrusts Sirjan, a caravan leader with the task of locating her husband. Eventually, Laur and Chanda return but the lovers’ plight does not end with confrontation and Chanda ends up as Laur’s second wife.

THE CHANDIGARH MUSEUM FOLIOS

The folios of Laur-Chanda are rare and significant in artistic terms. A set of 24 folios has survived, of which 14 lie with the Lahore Museum in Pakistan, and 10 in India’s Chandigarh Museum. The poem by Maulana Daud testifies to his genius as a great storyteller. The artist pays tribute to this very genius by placing him in every folio – almost reminding the viewer of the origins of the story. You will notice him in white with a holy book in every frame.

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More: http://www.theheritagelab.in/laur-chanda/#comment-7

Fables taught universal values but were adapted to local cultures

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Panchatantra Panchatantra

A long tradition of preparing princes to rule was the genre of literature known as ‘mirror for princes,’ fables with tales in which animals are the leading characters of the stories. These tales, thought to have been introduced to the Muslim world through India, were derived from the Indian Panchatantra (‘The Five Principles’) and Mahabharata written in Sanskrit around the year 200.

 Khalila wa Dimna (Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France) Khalila wa Dimna (Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France)

The tales were adapted and translated into numerous languages including Persian and Arabic, and were illustrated in Kalila wa Dimna manuscripts – from the thirteenth century onward in Arab lands, and from the fourteenth century in Iran.

The tales address the moral education of princes through two jackals, Kalila and Dimna, and a host of other animals as lead characters. These tales also illustrate “universal human strengths and weaknesses, as well as aspirations for justice and truth.”*

Sassanian silver plate, dated 7th century.(Image: British Museum) Sassanian silver plate…

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