Sunday Salon ~ A Different Type of Listening

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersI have spent the last forty-eight hours trying to get used to a new pair of glasses and so any form of extended reading has been very difficult.  Past experience has taught me that this will sort itself out in time, but at the moment it’s all very blurry and rather nauseating so I was more than usually interested in the discussion that I managed to plough my way through yesterday in Simon Palfrey’s Doing Shakespeare about Elizabethan audiences and the manner in which they listened.  (The ploughing, by the way, was down to the glasses and not the writing; the book is very good.)

Palfry makes the point that because of the very high levels of illiteracy (90% of women and 60+% of men) ‘[m]ost school learning was by rote, absorbed aurally.’  These people were read to, and it wasn’t just lessons that they experienced this way, but also ‘fables, stories, songs , ballads, news – and in a very real sense plays.’  They knew how to listen in a way that we have forgotten, nay in a way which we have never learnt.

For us sound is perpetual, we are surrounded by it constantly, to the point where complete silence, if we do ever experience it, is frightening.  But the corollary to this is that we have stopped listening.  I would consider myself to be far more aurally aware than many of my friends.  I watch almost no television and rarely go to the cinema.  Most of my non-reading entertainment and all of my news coverage is absorbed from the radio or via CD, but even so, I know that I do not actively listen to any more than about 20% of what I hear.  I am not an Elizabethan.  This weekend I have wished I was.  It takes practice to listen actively and I’m not good at it.

So, if it is permissible to make a new year resolution half way through September, here is mine.  In future when I put a programme on the radio that I want to hear I am going to stop doing whatever else I was multi-tasking and really listen to it.  I am also going to start downloading audio-books and listen to those.  There is a real issue here for me because my mother lost her sight and was unable to read during her latter years.  While the condition she had is not inherited, the shape of eyes that are likely to develop it is and so there may come a time when I have no option but to be an Elizabethan listener.  If that time should come then I don’t want to have to learn how to do it in my eighties.  Whether I will ever reach the listening heights that Palfry claims for Shakespeare’s contemporaries and be able as a matter of course to pick out the rhetorical figures of speech that dominate his works is another matter, but I’m going to have a really good try.

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Published in: on September 13, 2009 at 8:57 am  Comments (16)  

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  1. It is something I feel, as well. I watch almost no TV programmes but I see many films and dramas in English, with or without subtitles. And it is not a problem. Listening to something with the support of images is different. In fact, I experienced a certain difficulty at concentrating on audiobooks. Sometimes I realized I was full-immersed in a digression. Same difficulty when I attend an up-dating course for teachers. It’s not easy to concentrate on listening to the speakers. I do, because I am interested, but I have to make an effort. Is it because I’m the one listened to most of the time being a teacher?

  2. Oh, Maria, have you put your finger on the problem here? Do we as teachers love the sound of our own voice so much that we forget how to listen to that of others? Maybe it’s because I am no longer teaching that i have become aware of the problem? What a salutary thought!

  3. Oh – such a good post!

    First of all, I am VERY interested in this book. I was introduced to the concept of analyzing the intended audience for classic literature two years ago when I took a Victorian Narratives course. I would love to read a book that describes the intended audience of Shakespearean plays.

    And…I totally agree. We have become such a “visual” society that the auditory skill is nearly extinct. I have tried audiobooks and have failed. My mind wanders too much and I have to rewind several times. I am determined to do better though, which is why I started listening to the Harry Potter books in audio form. Jim Dale is a marvelous narrator and I think the fantasy genre lends itself quite well to oral storytelling.

    I hope you grow accustomed to your new glasses soon. I know how frustrating that can be.

  4. Molly, the book is called Doing Shakespeare and it is by Simon Palfry. However, it isn’t exactly about the audiences. What Palfry is concerned about is the difficulty that modern audiences have with Shakespeare’s language and with the part they have to play in the creation of character. In addressing this he inevitably has to look at how and why we differ from the Elizabethan audience, which is the section I was reading yesterday. It’s very readable book, though, and well worth looking at if you are interested in role of the audience in cretaing the meaning of the plays. It was one of the heavily recommended books on my books list for the Masters course.

    I’ve started with Harry Potter as well, although The Bears and I have the Stephen Fry version. We will have to swap successful finds.

  5. I’m the sort of listener who likes to do something at the same time as listening and I find ironing is the best thing. That is because I don’t have to concentrate on the ironing and my mind is free to take in what I’m hearing. I do watch TV, but can’t iron at the same time – can’t watch two things at once.

    I tried to listen to the radio and audio books whilst driving – absolutely impossible. I couldn’t listen and work out a route and when the traffic was busy I didn’t even hear the radio.

    Knitting is OK if it’s just plain knitting, a pattern is useless. I get fidgety just sitting listening and feel I should be “doing” something! Why is that I wonder?

    I hope you’ve got more used to your glasses by now!

  6. BP, I wonder if this is because we have been brought up to believe that multi-tasking is the way to go and feel slightly guilty if we aren’t doing something else at the same time? I certainly listen to the radio while I’m doing things around the house and I’ve no intention of stopping doing that. But, I know that for myself I don’t give full attention if I’m listening in this way and if it’s a programme that requires that I do (say Melvin Bragg’s In Our Time, back again on Thursday, hurrah!) then I miss half the argument. Palfry’s point is that the Elizabethans would have listened more attentively and have had the skills to do so. Every now and again I’m going to try and recapture those skills by doing nothing else but listen.

  7. I can’t remember where but recently I read something, or perhaps heard it, I think it must have been James Shapiro’s 1599 book, in which the point was made that, like you point out, Shakespearean audiences were much better listeners, not being readers by and large. And, this is the part I loved, a play has an audience (with the emphasis on the word audio), while a movie/TV has viewers (with the emphasis on viewing).

    For almost 20 years, I had a 40 minute commute to work, that’s 80 minutes in the car. After several years, I got sick of listening to the news all the time and started listening to books/lectures on CD. At first, it was a bit weird as I was first a reader not a listener, but I found that I came to love my time in the car for the listening. And apart from driving, you can’t multiplex whilst listening in the car. I now have a home office, and miss the books/lectures on CD that I rarely listen to anymore.

  8. What a fascinating linguistic observation, Jane. We do some very interesting things with language often totally subconsciously that are real giveaways as to how we truly perceive a situation. I suspect this is one of those occasions. And I’m sure you’re right that listening is an art that has to be practised. Like all things, it’s a ‘use it or lose it’ situation and most of us have lost it.

  9. Ann I think you’re right – and every moment has to be filled with “activity” – the old work-ethic thing. I used to drive to work every day too – took about 20-30 minutes and I used to enjoy that listening time very much because I didn’t have to think about the route I was taking – just look out for traffic. The idea of sitting and just listening is a bit scary, but maybe I should give it a go.

  10. BP, I bet you’re finding it really difficult at the moment when your mind is so taken up with house hunting. I know when I’ve got a major project on just sitting and allowing myself to concentrate on one thing only is the most difficult thing in the world.

  11. Oh, interesting. I’ve never been a great listener, preferring to get information through reading, but I can see that culture would make a natural inclination that much more predominant. I might have been a poor listener no matter what, but it’s surely worse because I don’t practice a lot. I’ve been considering going to the library to find an audio book, and perhaps I should and work on the skill a little bit!

  12. Dorothy, it might be an idea not to challenge yourself that far to start with. Why not check your radio schedules and set aside fifteen minutes to really listen to someone reading a short story or having a discussion. If you try too much you might set yourself up for failure and that would sort of defeat the object:)

  13. I’ve got a tip for you here: listening uses a completely different part of the brain to hearing. Hearing happens at the back, in the primal part, listening happens in the front cortex, where planning takes place. The best way to listen to something is to listen out FOR something. You’ll find you switch into a properly receptive mode far more easily and with less energy required.

    I read up about it to help the students (lectures and supervisions being such oral ways of learning!

  14. You see, Litove, you always knew changing jobs was going to be useful to us all, didn’t you? I’m sure this is true. If you read a director’s take on a production before you see it you find yourself noticing things in a very different way to what you might call an ‘innocent’ viewing. I shall try it with radio listening.

  15. Personally I think the world is a far too noisy place–people are constantly connected to something–ipods or telephones and I wonder if they can’t handle their own thoughts. That said I’m not entirely sure I am a good listener either. I was reading some notes about Henry V today and I was reading about the Globe theater and how it was so different than what theater audiences expect today. Elizabethans were much more attuned to the speeches and such and directions given my the chorus to fill in all the visuals. We’ve become so different now, haven’t we?

  16. Danielle, there is no doubt that we are very different animals these days and very frightened, it seems to me, of silence. Talking of being attached to ipods. A friend (who is still a teacher) and I were walking down the road the other day behind one of her pupils and his mother. His mother, normally takes very little notice of him and he can be quite a handful in school. However, on this occasion he was chattering away nineteen to the dozen about what he had been doing at school and my friend remarked that it was nice to see that his mother was at least listening to him. It wasn’t until we passed them that we realised that she was plugged into her ipod and hadn’t heard a word he’d said. Sometimes you just want to give up, don’t you?


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