Macbeth! That great Shakespeare play was playing next to my hotel in New York City. Patrick Stewart was starring. As soon as I saw the posters, I knew I must see it. In town for a gig, my weekend was completely open. I had plenty of disposable time. I could say yes to this sudden opportunity.
Moments after I got the ticket, I rushed back to my room and Googled the text of the play, skimming it in ten minutes. Just enough to get a sense of the plot and some of the key lines. I also read the synopsis on Wikipedia and one of the reviews of this particular production. This is necessary with Shakespeare. I love Shakespeare, but I don’t much understand his language. A little preparation gives me a better chance to take in the action.
Reading Shakespeare is difficult for me. It’s difficult for anyone who doesn’t study it deeply. But to watch it performed is a different experience entirely. Powerful, engaging. It’s the difference between reading about a rose and delighting in its scent.
So I headed to the theater at the appointed time, not sure of the protocol (Is it like a movie? Do I just walk in? Am I supposed to wear nice clothes?). A mass of people surrounded the doors. I couldn’t tell if there was a line or if it was just a mob. I sidled through the crowd until I had a foothold inside the lobby, next to the merchandise counter. There I saw a friendly-faced girl behind the counter, wearing a “Something wicked this way comes” tee-shirt.
“This is my first time at the theatre in New York. I’m not sure how it works. Are we waiting for the doors to open?” I asked.
“Oh yeah.” She smiled. “It will be just a couple of minutes.”
They opened the doors and we funnelled to our seats. As I sit waiting for the play to start, I realized something, everyone here loves Shakespeare! A woman behind me was chatting with her husband about the finer points of Shakespearean dialogue. I wanted to turn around and say, “Excuse me, I’m going to join your conversation, because I need to learn more about this from someone passionate and educated like you.” Instead I sat still, not wanting to interrupt her with my awkward enthusiasm. Maybe during intermission I could corner her.
The play began, and the very first speech set the pattern for the whole performance. Complicated archaic phrases came at the me in globs and tumbles. It was like one of those booths where they blow dollar bills all over you and you try to grab as many as you can.
“Doubtful it stood; as two spent swimmers, that do cling together and choke their art. The merciless Macdonwald– worthy to be a rebel, for to that the multiplying villanies of nature do swarm upon him–from the western isles of kerns and gallowglasses is supplied; and fortune, on his damned quarrel smiling, show’d like a rebel’s whore: but all’s too weak: for brave Macbeth–well he deserves that name– disdaining fortune, with his brandish’d steel, which smoked with bloody execution, like valour’s minion carved out his passage till he faced the slave…”
What was that about swimmers? Gallowglasses? I think I got the gist: Macbeth did good.
My preparation helped, because all I needed to do was fit the words to the plot I already knew. Plus there are lots of cues in the props and movements of the actors: a bloody knife, held by someone covered in blood, suggests a recent murder. Stuff like that.
So there I was, in the dark, watching Lady Macbeth urge her husband to kill the King of Scotland, when it dawned on me: being in that audience trying to puzzle through Shakespeare felt just like learning computers, philosophy, history, or most things. It’s the same kind of experience. Bracing, confusing, and fun!
Consider that. I was struggling to understand the action. This struggle was not easy. Yet instead of feeling frustrated, I felt gleeful. Rarely have I been so aware of my own ignorance and yet so comfortable with it. Maybe it was the fact that I knew most people around me were also struggling with it. Maybe it was my sense of the actors passion for their work– they wanted me to get it, they were enunciating and using their whole bodies to help me understand. The theater transformed into an ideal classroom, I felt the audience pulling and the actors pushing and all of us puzzling it out together.
I felt good, not about ignorance itself, but at the glorious opportunity ignorance was giving me. My ignorance stood like a block of marble before me and it was yielding to my chisel. By the time I emerged from the theater, back into daylight, I would have sculpted, in some small way, a new mind.
So, this is the mystery of learning, for me. I’m not excited about learning techniques, although I do talk a little about them in my book. What matters more to me is the feeling of learning. What is it like to learn something important? How do I bottle that glorious feeling and release it again on command? What feelings prevent me from learning, and how do I overcome them?
One major theme here is that complexity can be intimidating, but it can also be motivating. We need to find those conditions that make it motivating. I’m working on that. Scribbling in my notebook, in the dark theater, while the sound and fury on the stage signifies everything.