words

I had a nice moment in my Renaissance lit class this week.

Our professor spares his voice by asking students to read the longer passages. Sometimes it’s painful: students stumble over the unfamiliar language and the syllables accented or elided unexpectedly, or make it clear they’ve never read the assigned passage before, or simply flush at the attention.

Or maybe they don’t see that the language is the play. The words are more than information conveyed; they pack power and rich hidden meaning.

This week, the professor asked me to read a passage.

And I read it.

Silence dropped over the class, and when I finished, I looked up from the page to see eyes turned toward my corner. One girl clapped silently. Another breathed “Wow.”

I’m not pretending any dramatic gift, oh no. I think it’s simpler. I think when you hear Shakespeare read without stumbling and stammering, without embarrassed hesitation and by someone who understands the content and the context, you hear the words.

And such words:

from Antony and Cleopatra

Cleopatra: His face was as the heavens; and therein stuck
A sun and moon, which kept their course,
And lighted the little O o’ the earth.

His legs bestrid the ocean: his rear’d arm
Crested the world: his voice was propertied
As all the tunĂ©d spheres — and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty,
There was no winter in’t; an autumn ’twas
That grew the more by reaping: his delights
Were dolphin-like; they show’d his back above
The element they lived in: in his livery
Walk’d crowns and crownets; realms and islands were
As plates dropp’d from his pocket….

Think you there was, or might be, such a man
As this I dream’d of?

Dolabella: Gentle madam, no.

Cleopatra: You lie, up to the hearing of the gods.
But, if there be, or ever were one such,
It’s past the size of dreaming: Nature wants stuff
To vie strange forms with Fancy; yet, to imagine
An Antony were Nature’s piece ‘gainst Fancy,
Condemning shadows quite.

According to our class custom, my reading skipped the incidental lines interrupting the speech; in their place, I have put ellipses. I include here Dolabella’s “Gentle madam, no” only because, to my surprise, the prof uttered it, prompting me to read another section.

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