{Tue 22 December 2009}   A transliterate feast with Romeo and Juliet
A transliterate feast with Romeo and Juliet

“What are you doing over the festive season?” You often hear this question at this time of the year, but “Taking part in a Shakespeare reading” is not often the answer! It might seem a rather “boffinish” thing to do, as our youngest reader, Lizzi, remarked, but we will remember the Romeo and Juliet reading that we hosted on Saturday 19th December as a highlight of our festivities (and only a tad boffinish!). The company and the food were as great as those at Capulet’s feast and the text as rich as ever, of course, but besides these essential elements, we also enjoyed seeing the Fonteyn and Nureyev ballet version to Prokofiev’s gorgeous score (Royal Opera House, 1966), as well as the Shakespeare Readers’ Group’s Facebook facility, on our new wide-screen TV.

This transliteracy experiment in bringing together voice, text, dance, music and screen was a first for this group, but in fact the clash and/or conflation of literacies is a continuous process, one that went on as much in Shakespeare’s day as in ours. One member, Irene, pointed out a few words in the text that were possibly innovations by Shakespeare, reflecting the time’s great excitement about language experiments as writers took inspiration from Europe and the Renaissance. These words dismayed or delighted the audience then, sometimes for different reasons than they do the same for us now. Then, these innovations were challenging because they were new; now, they are challenging because they are archaic, which may yet dismay some and delight others! It struck me that part of our enjoyment arose from the unique mix of literacies called up between us as we sought to share a pleasurable experience.

A requirement for participating in the group is “the ability to read English aloud fluently”, an ability all our readers possess to greater or lesser degrees. But each also brings different perspectives, experience and skills. One might say that each possesses a variety of literacies. Some have English as a second language and place emphases differently from first-language English speakers. The impulses of their primary literacy call our attention in new ways to individual words and to the iambic poetic flow of Shakespeare’s English. Some are academics who revel in explication and analysis of difficult or unusual portions of the text. Some intuitively inhabit their characters, bringing them alive through vocal variation that responds to each event in the story. Some are older and voice the concerns of older characters with an empathy that is not yet available to the younger readers. Some are dramatists who read even Stage Directions with a conviction that enables us to see and feel the context of the action. We learn from each other.

Each time we took a break from the reading, we watched the ballet. There are inevitably losses and gains in the process of transliterating the familiar story of the star-crossed lovers into the languages of music and dance. Some modifications to the storyline might disappoint, for example when scenes are left out or conflated, but other changes might delight when they richly express implicit characterization, emotional interplay or actions sometimes only hinted at or briefly mentioned in the text. The introduction of Juliet and the Nurse, the balcony scene with Romeo and Juliet, Juliet’s rejection of Paris and the final death scene are examples of wonderful choreography and dancing that carry the audience right to the passionate heart of Shakespeare’s poetry, without words.

A new literacy for the group is that of relating to one another on-screen via Facebook. Everyone who attended had responded to the invitation via Facebook, but with varying degrees of comfort depending on their familiarity with the tool. Many had struggled to find their way back to the Event page to see the Links and find the scripts. For this reason, I presented a brief Facebook overview to demonstrate the difference between the individual’s Profile (using mine as an example), the Shakespeare Readers Group and the Romeo and Juliet Event and to explain the import of leaving comments on each of the different Walls. We also looked briefly at the new Facebook Privacy options, to allay fears about publishing one’s data to the world.

This move to organising the readings via Facebook Events has become necessary for several reasons. It is quicker to monitor attendance and dramatically cuts the number of emails to and from individuals that I as organiser previously dealt with. It also facilitates an ongoing sense of community which is otherwise fragmented between meetings, as the group has grown to over twenty people, not all of whom can come to every reading. There is also interest from people outside the UK who cannot attend readings but would like to participate in discussions. For instance, Eva, a member in Italy, shared our anticipation before the event by posting a link to a blog post she wrote in 2007 about Shakespeare’s possible models for the Romeo and Juliet story in the real city of Verona.

Facebook is clearly useful in these ways, but I had not appreciated to what extent this particular new media literacy might have a direct impact on our appreciation of the plays themselves, until one of our new members, Anna, posted a link to this write-up of a student project that views Romeo and Juliet as “A Facebook Tragedy” of competing social networks which “contains an emphasis on the bonds between kinsmen and family. The play focuses on both honoring these bonds, and the consequences of breaking bonds.”

Shakespeare offers all the fascination of the archaic and unfamiliar to those who are keen on historical mysteries, but most of his enduring attraction is due to the aptness of his themes for every age and the up-to-date voice with which he has always spoken on issues close to the human heart. This powerful communication has demanded translation into almost every world language and transliteration into every conceivable medium (live theatre, music, dance, film, TV…), with each translater or producer creating new metaphors in order to stay true to the old themes in their new medium. In our networked age, it should not surprise us to find Shakespeare alive in Facebook too!

Anna Pitt says:

It was a wonderful experience to read the play aloud in a relaxed and informal atmosphere.
I also enjoyed the interesting discussion about the aspects of new and developing language and how controversial that might have been at the time. I feel we are in a new era of language evolution, one that is in part led by young people, but also by the digital evolution that is expanding our horizons. Some find this expansion of the language controversial now. I feel it is about freedom of expression.
Some of the words we were unable to explain to our satisfaction during the evening we agreed to google (one of my favourite new words). I googled Lammastide on the bus on the way home, and found various explanations which generally pointed to a meaning of harvest festival, but some explanations veered towards the start of harvest time, one mentioning August 1st and others likening to Harvest Festival as celebrated in September. When I got home I found myself not yet totally convinced from my googling and looked it up in my trusty Collins dictionary, just to be sure.

Tia says:

Hi Anna,

Thanks for looking it up. I wonder if Shakespeare intentionally set Lammastide as the date of Juliet’s birthday in order to highlight the tragedy of her death (including the cutting off of her fertility) even more intensely by contrasting it with this festival that celebrates the fruit of the harvest? When we meet her, it’s about two weeks short of Lammastide, so by the time the action has moved on to her death, she is really close to her fourteenth birthday.

it sounds like you all had a great evening! I will definitely be there on the 30th – I see you haven’t chosen a play – what about Twelfth Night? Or if that’s too obvious, Alls Well That Ends Well?

Tia says:

Hi Kate, I’m glad you can join us on the 30th. We did All’s Well That Ends Well last time… but we are open to doing a comedy next. Please post your suggestion on the Shakespeare Readers Group Wall in Facebook.

Gerry Timlin says:

I’ve already posted a response on facebook already but have just read above discussion and the reference to Lammastide in R&J (which I have overlooked in previous readings of the play – just shows how immensely readable is the Bard eh?). However, Lammas is familiar to me as a festival celebrated in Northern Ireland (I’ve been to the Ballycastle Lammas Fair a few times – it’s famous for dulse (an edible seaweed & a confection called ‘Yellowman’ – delicious). It’s locally known as ‘The Oul’ Lammas Fair’ & has been celebrated for around 300 years, tho’ I believe its origins are much earlier. It marks the middle of summer and beginning of the harvest season. Lammas is considered a time of thanksgiving and is the first of the three Pagan harvest festivals.

Tia says:

So it’s still celebrated to this day? That makes R&J feel even more immediate to me.

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