I am nine weeks out from playing the part of Prospero in Alton Fringe Theatre‘s production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. And I want to write about the surprising fact that learning a part like this is far from being the miserable slog that most people expect it to be. And, even more surprising, that it is possible for someone like me, who was particularly bad at memorizing almost anything at school, to do it at all !
Years ago Edward de Bono, he who coined the expression lateral thinking, pointed out that surprise is a sure sign that you have spotted something which conflicts with your existing picture of how the world is. And – assuming your observation is correct, as I have no doubt in this case it is – it must mean there is something in your understanding of the world that you need to change. So here we go:
Of course these are beautiful words, and supremely worth studying and getting to know. But I keep getting the feeling that there is more to it than that. There is this positive pleasure you get when you run through, preferably out loud, something that you have got established, perfectly, in your mind. The buzz of knowing it is right, and exactly right, is just as real as the buzz that keeps you solving crossword clues (or trying to) or getting a game of patience to come out. It is as though we are hard-wired with a reward mechanism for accurate recall of surprisingly long texts. And the only reason this fact is surprising is that, in our modern, literate culture, this is an ability we hardly ever use, except when some of us are mad enough to land ourselves with a big part in a play.
But in an ancestral, pre-literate culture, such as prevailed during all but the last, infinitesimal proportion of humanity’s evolution, the accurate memorizing of lore of all kinds – stories, poems, ballads, not to mention travel routes – must have been a vital part of our intellectual equipment. So it is not really surprising that we find we are good at this sort of thing when we allow ourselves to try. Or that we get a physical reward for doing it well. Because it stands to reason that until the modern era this was a human need which was just as vital for our success as a species as others for which nature has bequeathed us the built-in payoffs we know so well.
Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
and ye that on the sands with printless foot
do chase the ebbing Neptune, and do fly him
when he comes back…
That was from memory, I promise. And I did get the wonderful payoff as I typed those words. I promise that as well. Three and a half of my 600 lines. I’ve just checked the passage, from Act 5 Scene 1 in our script, and I did get it exactly right, punctuation and all. I don’t know about you, but I still find that surprising.
PS If you like this sort of thinking about thinking there’s lots of it in my first book, The Paradox of Progress