Thursday, March 09, 2006

Textual pleasures

This evening was the second session of my community Winter's Tale reading and discussion group at the local public library.

Basically, for four weeks, I'm teaching an extra class. What was I thinking?

Well, it's Shakespeare, and that's what I was thinking. And it's The Winter's Tale, and that's about as wonderful a play to talk about as any.

The first week, we talked a bit about romance as a genre, and then worked through a bunch of Act 1. There were about 8 people there, and all of them participated in reading, and talking about the passages we read. They were great, I must say, very interested and engaged.

I was nervous before last week's session, but it went well enough. And today I planned Shakespeare Show and Tell, which is what I call days when I take in text stuffs and talk about the material production of plays as print texts, and Acts 2 and 3.

Once upon a time, or, as Chaucer would say, whilom, my Mom was asking me what I wanted for some holiday or birthday; we were in a used bookstore, and I'd longed for a copy of the Norton facsimile of the First Folio, and had told her about that before. Once again, she asked me what I wanted, and I mentioned the Norton, and then she asked me what it would look like, and by chance, I saw one right there and said, it looks like that. And there was my present, and the one of the stars of Shakespeare Show and Tell.

Being able to show people the First Folio facsimile, and facsimiles of various quartos (which are widely available), really helps them see what texts are like, and helps them see how interesting textual problems are. I also have a copy of Michael Warren's Parallel King Lear, which shows corrected and uncorrected states of the Folio and Quarto versions of the play, and helps people get the ways that early modern print text correction worked.

The biggest star of Shakespeare Show and Tell is a 1711 print text of The Knight of the Burning Pestle. It's just torn out from a bigger printed edition, and really not worth much, but it's about the best teaching tool I have. The cotton paper's about as beautiful and well preserved as you can imagine, and I love for students (and people) to be able to touch something three hundred years old, and to feel the paper, smell it, and hold it up to the light to see the chain marks. Texts are just incredibly sensual, and I love to watch people react to the experience of really touching, smelling, and seeing that one text.

After Shakespeare Show and Tell, we talked about Acts 2 and 3, and when we got to where Paulina tells Leontes that his daughter is a very print of him, we talked about how important imagining print was in the period. Where we'd use a photographic image, print was really the one way to reliably reproduce stuff; it's cool the way the metaphor makes Perdita a kind of text, which is how we experience her when we read the play, too.

And we spent time talking about how we know what's real when we see it on stage, how we, like Leontes, have to constantly interpret what we're seeing, and try to figure it out.

I'm having a fantastic time with the group because they're really coming to each scene in the moment, and mostly haven't read ahead, so we were really able to take Antigonus's dream of Hermione's ghost seriously in a way that doesn't work sometimes when students have read the whole play. We also talked about Hermione's death, and the interpretations of what we were seeing when someone "dies" on stage.

What a play. It awes me. Times like this, I really become hyper-aware of the privilege of my life, that I get to enjoy texts in this way, publicly, and share that pleasure with others. I probably won't sleep much tonight, but it's an excuse to reread Lacan and "The Miller's Tale" for classes tomorrow.


  1. That sounds like a fantastic experience, Bardiac! Nothing like teaching stuff you love to people who are willing to lose themselves in the pleasure of the experience.

    Also, weird timing, I just team-taught a lesson on KBP Thursday!

  2. That sounds like a great class, the one at the library. Having show and tell was great too. All my graduate professors ever bring into class are their bad habits and oversized egos, which isn't true for all, but some. Good professors are so hard to find, which makes me more determined not to be like those bad professors, but more like you good ones.

  3. Heocwaeth, KBP? (I'm going to be humiliated that I have to ask, aren't I?) You're right, it's incredibly fortunate for me.

    Zelda1, I'm sorry you aren't having better experiences with your profs.

  4. KBP=The Knight of the Burning Pestle, silly.

  5. OK, full disclosure because goofy tone doesn't come across in print ... I have no idea if KBP is an accepted reference to The Knight of the Burning Pestle. I'm just a lazy typer. Anyway, if you'd like to see the very snarky PowerPoint I put together as an intro to the lesson, let me know. (It's the only PowerPoint I ever made, and I'm quite proud of learning how to click new buttons.)

  6. LOL, KBP! I'm such a doofus!

    I've never actually taught the play, though. How'd it go? I'd love to see the powerpoint if you don't mind sharing.

    I find it fascinating that it bombed when first played.