By Meg O’Neil
It took William Shakespeare, the world’s most venerable playwright, 884,647 words to say everything he had to say. Having written 37 plays and 154 sonnets in his lifetime, Shakespeare would have turned 448 years old today, as scholars believe he was born around April 23, 1564.
Tackling his complete works is a small group of dedicated enthusiasts who meet every Thursday at 5 p.m. at the Middletown Public Library on West Main Road. Started in May 2011 by Middletown resident Ernest Gibbons and Newporter Betsy Rice, the group spends one hour a week immersing themselves into Shakespeare's plays, taking turns reading them aloud in the round.
Here, everyone plays a part.
Coming from every town on Aquidneck Island, Jamestown, and parts of southeastern Massachusetts, the group has finished reading several of Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies and is currently reading the bloodiest of the bard’s plays, Titus Andronicus.
By no means experts, the group welcomes anyone who is interested in the plays to join them.
Janice Martin attends the group regularly with her husband, David. From Jamestown, the couple started reading Shakespeare several years ago, after both admit they avoided studying the plays in high school. “I feel like you start to appreciate things when you get older,” Martin explains. “David and I got in to reading Shakespeare because we wanted to enrich ourselves … and it makes it much more fun to read it with a group.”
The laid-back atmosphere of the Middletown Library group allows for its members to discuss the texts, analyze, and clarify what is occurring within the play’s lines.
“It’s loose here, not structured,” says Gibbons. “We can speak about Shakespeare and find out what brings us here and what keeps us coming back. We’re just a group of friends who gather together to read and enjoy his works.”
Rice concurred, saying, “People are sometimes afraid of Shakespeare and they don’t ask about it. In this group, we’re all interested and excited and the more we meet, the more comfortable we become in reading – that’s the joy.”
Adding roughly 1,700 words to the English lexicon, Shakespeare is considered by experts to be an unparalleled linguist. Members of the group in Middletown explain that one of their favorite topics is discussing today’s commonly used phrases that the bard created in the lines of his plays.
“As you’re reading, there will be some quote that you’ve forgotten was even said by Shakespeare and this gives you the chance to talk about it,” says Rice.
In today’s digital age where conversations are often limited to 140 characters on the internet and are tapped through text messages on cell phones, Rice says there is a comfort in knowing that Shakespeare’s English is permanent. “There is so much English slang today; our whole sentence structure is short and blurred. There’s a real security in reading Shakespeare. It’s a little flowery and so what?”
While the bard’s language and wordplay can appear confusing to readers, to quote Shakespeare, “fear not” – the members of the group say that anyone is welcome to join, even if the person doesn’t feel comfortable reading aloud. According to Rice, “I think some people are afraid to read aloud and are afraid to make a mistake, but that’s not what we’re about and that’s not what Shakespeare was about.”
Rice says that people have attended who didn’t feel comfortable reading aloud and simply wanted to listen to the group read.
“Think of who Shakespeare’s audience was,” Rice says, referring to the crowds of people that packed in to London’s Globe Theatre, the outdoor, rounded stage used during the heyday of Shakespeare’s career. “It was for everyone. And so is this group,” she said.
Sometimes straying from the lines of prose and iambic pentameter, the members will bring in a movie version of a play, allowing an additional visual accompaniment. But, during most meetings, text and words prevail.
Scholars say that even nearly 400 years after the death of Shakespeare, his themes, characters, and language have stood the test of time and continue to resonate in the minds of his readers around the world.
Gibbons sums the connection up best, saying, “If you look at Shakespeare from a history standpoint and examine the way of life from that period, all of these parts of human nature that you can see expressed today, are already there in his plays from hundreds of years ago.”
If you can't make it to Middletown, the Redwood Library has also an established Shakespeare reading group which also meets on Thursdays at 5 p.m. in the Carpenter Board Room. The group, which we've also featured in the past, costs $2 for non-members to join in.