Lovers of the Bard: Bristol's Shakespeare Reading Group

Listen to this episode.

Line drawing of a Elizabethan-style desk, featuring a candle, quill and ink pot, book, scroll, and a skull. At the bottom of the image is a Rhody Radio logo banner, featuring the text "Rhody Radio" and an image of the state of Rhode Island wearing headphones.

Emily Goodman: [00:00:00] You're listening to Rhody Radio, Rhode Island Library Radio Online. I am your host, Emily Goodman. I am the community outreach coordinator for North Kingstown Free Library in beautiful North Kingstown, Rhode Island. This week, our episode comes to you from a Shakespeare reading group out of Bristol, Rhode Island. To start founding group member, Ray Heidler, will give you an introduction to their group. Then along with his co-founder Jim Manchester-

Jim Manchester: Wounded, it is, but with the eyes of a lady.

Emily: - members, Joanie Pratt-

Joanie Pratt: Oh, I know where you are. Nate is truth

Emily: - Sarah Weed-

Sarah Weed: Good shepherd, tell this youth what is to love.

Emily: - will set up and read for you a scene from Act V of As You Like It. After the reading, as is customary for their group, they will discuss amongst themselves their takeaways and commentary on the piece they have read. If you love Shakespeare and reading in the round, check our show notes after today's episode to contact Ray and his reading group to join, or for tips on how you could start your own Shakespeare reading group in your local community.

Ray: Good morning, everyone. My name is Ray and I'm with the Bristol Shakespeare Readers. We started this Shakespeare reading group-- it's in its sixth full year now. It was 2016, and it's a very enjoyable once-per-week experience. When we started it, we did so in the spirit of global Shakespeare reading groups that once existed in many more numbers than they are right now, it is an oral tradition.

I think our spirit is that, very much, Shakespeare's written word is codified speech. Shakespeare is full [00:02:00] of speeches and lines. Each week we read, speak in community and discuss, on various stops, what was the meaning of the passage that we just read. Every once in a while, someone will raise their hand, they'd be called upon to ask a different question or to give an opinion on something.

We are very much an open mic on Shakespeare in what he has given to us over 400 years ago now. I would like to stress that we do not read Shakespeare on a vacuum. His material was written and Elizabethan England for that time. Many people realize that Shakespeare is also known as the perennial contemporary; that what he wrote in Elizabethan England is as relevant today in 2021 as it was five years ago in 2015, as it was throughout the 20th, 19th, 18th, 17th, 16th century.

It's just amazing what he wrote because he knew the human condition so well. I think that's what keeps us coming back. We don't want to miss anything from week to week. The very few people do miss sessions, although. Life takes us other places, and that's fine too. That's our basic introduction to who and what we are and what we've been doing.

Sarah, if you'll start us off with a brief summary of the play that we're going to read today, or at least the scene from that play, I'm sorry.

Sarah: I'll be happy to. [00:04:00] In the comedy we present today, as you like it, Shakespeare works with the themes of deception, forted love, and the destinies of women. As the play begins after Rosalind's father, the rightful duke is banished from the court, she remains behind with her cousin Celia, the daughter of the reigning duke.

Rosalind's father has escaped to the nearby forest of Arden, where he has set up his camp with a band of followers. At the court, Rosalind secretly falls in love with a visitor, Orlando. He foils a plot to kill him by winning a wrestling match with his potential killer. Orlando flees the court, and he too, winds up in the forest of Arden.

Pining for Rosalind, he charmingly leaves love notes pined to trees all through the forest. Rosalind is soon banished from the court and taking on the protection of the male role of Ganymede, she heads for the forest. Celia decides to go with her in the guise of Sherpherdess, Aliena.

In the forest, Ganymede soon finds the love notes left by Orlando and convinces him to practice his wooing tactics on him. Orlando does not realize that he is actually wooing Rosalind who is totally entranced by his technique. Meanwhile, the plot is further complicated by the fact that Phoebe, a local shepherdess, falls deeply in love with Ganymede convinced that Rosalind is a man. On the other hand, Phoebe is avidly pursued by Silvius, a shepherd whose love she cruelly rejects.

A third couple is set up when Celia meets Oliver, Orlando's brother, whom he recently saved from the attack of a lioness. Love at first sight, overwhelms them and they decide to marry. On the day before that wedding, and still posing as [00:06:00] Ganymede, Rosalind assembles Phoebe, Silvius, and Orlando, and she proceeds to arrange some surprising pairings.

Ray: Joanie, if you will, can you give us some information on each of the four characters that we're going to hear from today?

Joanie: Yes. In Act V, scene two, Rosalind is independent-minded, goodhearted, and clever. She is in love with Orlando. Rosalind disguises herself as a male Ganymede so she can tutor Orlando on how to be an attentive lover. Orlando has no gentleman education as he has been raised by his neglectful brother. Orlando risks, his life to save his friend from a lion and Orlando's arm gets injured. Orlando is in love with Rosalind.

Phoebe, a shepherdess, thinks a lot of herself. She falls in love with Ganymede who is not a man but a woman in disguise, actually, Rosalind. Silvius is a shepherd who is had over heels in love with Phoebe.

Jim: By way of giving you some information about the actual scene that we're going to read, this is synopsis of that scene, Act V, scene two. Rosalind disguised as the handsome youth Ganymede meets with Orlando who is lovesick over Rosalind. Ganymede is supposedly trying to cure Orlando of his love signals, but Orlando tires of Ganymede's efforts. Ganymede tells Orlando that he can do magic by making Rosalind suddenly appear. That Orlando can marry Rosalind the wedding of his brother, Oliver, and Celia the next day.

The shepherdess Silvius and Phoebe enter. Phoebe has rejected Silvius [00:08:00] because she loves Ganymede, Rosalind. Ganymede promises, Phoebe that if he marries any woman it will be Phoebe, but if Phoebe finds that Ganymede will not marry any woman, Phoebe must marry Silvius. Phoebe agrees to this. Now, Act V, scene two, As You Like It.

Joanie: "Oh my dear, Orlando, how it’s grieves me to see thee wear thy heart in a scarf.

Jim: It is my arm.

Joanie: I thought thy heart had been wounded with the clause of a lion.

Jim: Wounded it is, but with the eyes of a lady,

Joanie: Did your brother tell you how I counterfeited this wound when he showed me your hand picture?

Jim: Hi, and greater wonders than that.

Joanie: Oh, I know where you are, nay tis true, there was never anything so sudden, but the fight of two Rams Caesar’s thrasonical brag of I came, saw, and overcame. For your brother and my sister, no sooner met, but they looked. No sooner looked, but they loved, no sooner loved but they side, no sooner side but they asked one another the reason. No sooner knew the reason, but they sought the remedy, and in these degrees have they made a pair of stairs to marriage, which they will climb incontinent or else be in incontinent before marriage. They are in the very wrath of love and they will together. Clubs cannot part them.

Jim: They shall be married tomorrow, and I will bid the duke to the nuptial. Oh, how bitter a thing it is to look into happiness through another man's eyes. By so much the more shall I tomorrow be at the height of heart heaviness. By [00:10:00] how much I shall think my brother happy in having what he wishes for.

Joanie: Well, then tomorrow I cannot serve your turn for Rosalind.

Jim: I can live no longer by thinking.

Joanie: I will weary you no longer with idle talking. No of me then, for now I speak to some purpose that I know you are a gentleman of good conceit. I speak not this that you should bear a good opinion of my knowledge in so much as I say I know you are. Neither do I labor for a greater esteem than may, in some little measure, draw belief from you to do yourself good and not to grace me.

Believe that, if you please, that I can do strange things. I have, since I was three-year-old, conversed with a magician, most profound in his art and yet not damnable. If you do love Rosalind, so near the heart, your gesture cries it out, when your brother marries Allena, shall you marry her. I know into what strait her fortune is driven, and it is not impossible to me. If it appear not inconvenient to you to set her before your eyes tomorrow human as she is, and without any danger.

Jim: Speak style in sober meaning?

Joanie: By my life I do, which I tender dearly. Though I say I am a magician, therefore put you in your best array. Bid your friends, for if you will be married tomorrow, you shall, and to Rosalind, if you will. Look here comes Phoebe, a lover of mine, and Silvius, a lover of hers.

Sarah: Youth, you have done me much ungentleness to show the letter that I writ to you.

Joanie: I care not if I have [00:12:00] it is my study to seem despiteful and ungentle to you. You are there followed by a faithful shepherd. Look upon him, love him. He worships you.

Sarah: Good Shepherd, tell this youth what is to love.

Jim: Oh, it is to be all made of size and tears, and so am I for Phoebe.

Sarah: I for Ganymede

Ray: I for Rosalind.

Joanie: I for no woman.

Jim: It is to be all made of faith and service, and so am I for Phoebe.

Sarah: I for Ganymede

Ray: I for Rosalind.

Joanie: I for no woman,

Jim: It is to be all made of fantasy, all made of passion, all made of wishes, and all adoration duty and observance, all humbleness, all patience, all impatience, all purity, all trial, all obedience, and so am I for Phoebe?

Sarah: And so am I for Ganymede.

Ray: And so am I for Rosalind.

Joanie: And so am I for no woman.

Sarah: Ganymede, if this be so, why blame you, me to love you?

Jim: Phoebe, if this be so why blame you, me to love you.

Ray: If this be so why blame you, me to love you?

Joanie: Who do you speak to? Why blame you, me to love you?

Ray: To her? That is not here nor doth, not here.

Joanie: Pray you no more of this. Just like the howling of Irish wolves against the moon. Silvius, I will help you if I can. Phoebe, I would love you if I could, [00:14:00] tomorrow meet me all together.

Phoebe, I will marry you if ever I marry woman and I'll be married tomorrow. Orlando, I will satisfy you if ever I satisfy man, and you shall be married tomorrow. Silvius, I will content you. If what pleases you contents you and you shall be married tomorrow. Orlando, as you love Rosalind, meet. Silvius, as you love Phoebe, meet, and as I love no woman, I'll meet. Fare you well, I've left you commands.

Jim: I'll not fail if I live.

Sarah: Nor I.

Ray: Nor I.

That's a typical reading uninterrupted. Every once in a while, if one of 12 people or more wish to ask a question or get a clarification, they raise their hand. They are called upon and they ask their questions and other persons can chime in with anything they know or think or feel about that portion of the Shakespeare that is being read. Then every once in a while, someone will offer some reading. I have a very brief piece that I'd like to share on this, and it appeared in the Shakespeare quarterly back in 1988.

It's a conglomeration of opinions such as you would read if you went to a play and you received the description of the play, comments of the director, comments of [00:16:00] costuming, whatever.

While the entire play is full of terrific food for thought, three characters are shining examples of Shakespeare's subversive ideas. Imagine thinking of Shakespeare as a subversive, the court fool touchstone delivers some of the most glaring social commentary in the play, with his name which references an actual touchstone, which is an object that tells us whether or not something is real or fake. What is our touchstone in life that tells us the authenticity or inauthenticity of something?

That is the role of touchstone, the clown, since the days of the court gesture, the clown has played the role of truth teller. Spreading subversive ideas gets a lot easier when you can shrug these ideas off as a silly joke. One of touchstone's most enduring lines, the play more pity that fools may not speak wisely what wise men do foolishly hearkens to this point exactly.

Just one more thing before I open it up to questions, which we always do, it is no surprise that Rosalind, whose part you just heard, is one of the most enduring female characters of all time, not just of Shakespeare, but of all time. With Rosalind, Shakespeare presents a world of possibility where women are in control of their futures, including who they marry and how they woo.

The fantasy that Shakespeare presents here [00:18:00] in As You Like It could not be more different from the reality in Elizabethan England. Yet, Shakespeare in putting forth and challenging the ideas of his time, and for all time since, needs somehow to protect himself from threats, from being shut down, from being oppressed by the powers that be, Elizabeth.

He does so. If you notice at the end of the play, the original duke who represents a monarchy is restored, and the restoration of that monarchy puts him in good political stead in Elizabethan England. Shakespeare challenge the status quo, and yet was very smart about protecting himself and theater at that time. I'll open this up to questions. Any thoughts regarding those notions?

Sarah: Well, we often talk about how Shakespeare talks about the variety of human experience. I think in this situation, we've got women who are in different marrying arrangements because Phoebe doesn't really want to get married to Silvius. It's almost like an arranged a thing. Rosalind is leading Orlando on, in that she structures everything so that they will get married in the end, and yet she deceives him for a long time.

Then Celia marries on the basis of love at first sight. It really does give us an idea of all the different ways that things can happen. I'm not really sure about arranged marriages in those days, but that was really the social norm, but he always does seem to include what's supposed to happen, but then also includes what could happen.

Jim: I think in many of the comedies, Shakespeare deals with something that's quite relevant today and that's gender politics, if you will; considerations of gender. In many of his comedies, he uses a typical device of his which is the confusion of gender identity, where most often it's the woman who fains being a man. That creates the confusion that provides us with a good deal of the humor through the course of the play. I think that's one of the things that draws me to a Shakespearean comedy, at least.

Sarah: Yes. Rosalind disguised as a man is doing things that had she just been Rosalind would never be able to do. She wouldn't be able to tell them to do this, to do that, or anything. Women didn't have a say in those days.

Jim: That's right. [crosstalk] She becomes more powerful,

Sarah: She disguises herself, and is totally different.

Jim: There's the political power struggle between the Duke senior and his brother, Duke Frederick. Also initially in the play, the power struggle between Orlando and Oliver, but also the power struggle between men and women since time immemorial. It's interesting to see how he plays that.

Joanie: In the Merchant of Venice, they probably would never have listened to Portia if she presented herself as a woman. She wouldn't probably even have [00:22:00] the role of lawyer. She wouldn't even be in that arena. That's really interesting that it does show up in other plays too.

The other thing that I really like about this scene is the language structure that he uses; that whole interchange about an I for Ganymede, an I for Phoebe, an I for Rosalind. That they're all chiming in, and you get that buy-in from them as well as-- It's a little funny that it 's so structured and they're just saying the same thing over and over and over again.

Ray: I'd like to speak to the part that Joanie read Rosalind. How did she get to where she was in order to make her own decisions,? Because that was not going to happen at the court. At the court when Duke Senior was served by his brother, Frederick, Frederick began to tell Rosalind how to live her love life, her married life, and what she was going to do. Rosalind decides, "I don't like that. I want it to be as I like it." The name of the play, As You Like It.

What does Rosalind do? She packs up and she leaves, she becomes a refugee. If you read the whole play, which is beautiful, is all about refugees in the forest of Arden, who rather than stay under an authoritarian Usurper Frederick, one by one, two by two and three by three, they desert the court. I'm not going to give the end. I don't want to be a spoiler, but Duke Frederick do realizes that, "Hmm, maybe I've done something wrong here."

Jim: Shakespeare wrote long, long before the founding fathers of the United States, and wrote their [00:24:00] treaties, their political tracks. It's interesting that he chooses to send his characters to Arden, where as opposed to the court, the rules suddenly change because there's a sense of freedom. Everybody suddenly feels free. That, to me, is the equivalent of what's going to happen in 1776 when Americans break away from the British.

To speak to your point, Ray, that Shakespeare speaks to period after period, epic after epic. He's got something to say from the time that he first presented his plays right up to the present.

Emily: We hope you enjoyed this week's spotlight on local voices in Rhode Island from Rhody Radio. If you have an idea for an episode, email us at rhodyradioonline@gmail.com or via the Contact Us page on our website, rhodyradio.com. Rhody Radio is a project of the Office Library and Information Services, and is made possible via a grant from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities. Thanks for listening.

[00:25:27] [END OF AUDIO]