I learn in this letter (#moocspeare)

Fabulous Lettering

The first Shakespeare in Community (aka #moocspeare, I think) assignment:

…choose first words from one of the plays we will be discussing, and write about them some of your own first words.

Being an avid snail mail correspondent, even today, and enthusiast of the vitality of letter-writing and epistolary forms, how can I resist the first words of Much Ado About Nothing (though not one of my favorite plays): “I learn in this letter…”? It allows me to think about the scores of times letters appear in Shakespeare, often playing a crucial role in the development of characters and themes.

Letters play a role in multiple deaths in Hamlet. Ophelia’s return of Hamlet’s letters lays sparks to the tinder of Hamlet’s madness—feigned or otherwise—leading to her death and Hamlet’s interception of Claudius’s letter turns his treachery upon the heads of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. And we can’t forget the short letter Hamlet writes to the “high and mighty” Claudius, who is clearly confused by it, or his letter to Horatio in which he questions the fragility of the physical letter itself.

Lady MacBeth arrives on-stage reading a letter whose contents are shortly revealed to be out of date. Curiously, she later writes a letter in her sleep whose contents are never revealed, as far as I can remember, to anyone.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is, of course, rife with love letters, and a significant question in the play revolves around the effect (or lack of effect) of those letters. Shakespeare doesn’t give a lot of stage directions, but does direct a character to tear up a letter in front of another and than snatch the pieces back as soon as the second character is gone.

Henry IV, Part 1 actually has a whole, short scene featuring letter carriers, though I must admit I don’t understand its importance.

And as I’ve recently been re-reading King Lear, I’m struck by how often letters are mentioned, directly and as implied in the comings and going of messengers, not to mention Edmund’s treacherous forged letter to Gloucester!

I’m sure there are many more examples that aren’t coming directly to mind. As, seemingly, with every aspect of Shakespeare, I assume that this has been written about many times, probably at book length. One of the maddening aspects of being a Shakespeare enthusiast is constantly discovering that even one’s most “brilliant” thoughts have already been exhausted in the literature…leading to my twin strategy of resisting digging into that literature until I feel I’ve done the idea a sound turn by myself and proceeding with the assumption that as a reader, not a researcher, “new to me” is new enough.

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