I Was Nothing

One of the first Shakespeare projects I embarked upon early in my journey with the plays, was to start a monthly Shakespeare book club called Sunday Night Shakespeare. A small group of us got together and read all the plays, one per month, over the course of over three years. None of us was a scholar, and for all the study I’ve done in the intervening years, I still don’t think any of us are. None of us had any classical theatre training, and only one or two of us had ever done any acting. But for all our lack of experience and education, we were enthusiastic about approaching the text of the plays and figuring them out for ourselves. We were often wrong, uninformed, grasping at straws, looking at the plays through irrelevant social lenses, and getting caught up in digressions and pop culture references. But it was a fun journey.

I credit those discussions with shaping the ways I still think about the plays now. When I talk about the plays, whether with students or scholars at conferences, I still find myself talking about the characters and their language in the ways we did in SNS. I would like to believe that I make discussing Shakespeare un-pretentious, and a lot of that comes from discussing the plays with my SNS friends. I think if my earliest experiences discussing Shakespeare had been in a grad school classroom or a theatre rehearsal room, I would probably have a very different way of discussing Shakespeare, which might be more agreeable to some folks and less agreeable to others. But a book club style discussion of the plays is how I really began my examination of the plays, and it’s the way I’m most comfortable talking about them.

About a year ago I joined another book club-esque study group, called the “ShakesNerds.” We meet weekly via videochat and read the plays, line by line, and discuss as we go. It’s a slow process — we’ve only read three plays in the last year — but it enables us to really do a deep dive into the words. I’ve found it refreshing to be back in a discussion group of this nature, which reminds me a lot of SNS.

Most weeks, I gain some new insight into a line or a character, either because my brain latches onto a bit of text that I had previously glossed over, or because someone says something in the discussion that is enlightening. In the interest both of retaining these new insights and getting back into the habit of writing more frequently, I’ve decided to start writing short essays on the little gems that I’ve been graced with. A lot of what I’ll be writing is born from a discussion between six or seven people, so I won’t claim that any of it is entirely original to my brain.

In the middle of The Winter’s Tale, (Act 3, Scene 1 to be exact) is a tiny little scene that, at first glance, appears to exist solely to break up the action and move time forward. Leontes is the last person to exit before 3.1 begins and is the first person to enter in 3.2. When you want to “fast forward,” as it were, you need to change scenes. The messengers Cleomenes and Dion have been sent to the Oracle of Delphi to ask the god Apollo to determine whether Hermione has been unfaithful to her husband, Leontes. Cleomenes and Dion have been gone a little over three weeks, and when they arrive back in Sicily, they recount their experiences visiting the temple of Apollo:


I shall report,

For most it caught me, the celestial habits,

Methinks I so should term them, and the reverence

Of the grave wearers. O, the sacrifice!

How ceremonious, solemn and unearthly

It was i’ the offering!


But of all, the burst

And the ear-deafening voice o’ the oracle,

Kin to Jove’s thunder, so surprised my sense.

That I was nothing.

(emphasis mine)

A couple of things stood out about this scene. It’s the first scene that has taken place outdoors. Up until this point in the play, the scenes have taken place inside — in the palace, in Leontes’s bedchamber, in a prison. Of course, on the stage it all looks the same. When Shakespeare’s original audience saw The Winter’s Tale at uncovered Globe in the middle of the afternoon, the whole play up to that point would’ve looked “outdoors.” But Shakespeare conceives of places in vivid terms, and when reading the plays you can often “feel” where they’re taking place. A play like Othello or Measure for Measure feels decidedly indoors, even claustrophobic, while a play like Henry V feels wide open. Shakespeare uses his language to conjure up settings, as he does in the opening of Hamlet that tells us in the matter of less than a minute that we’re outdoors, in the middle of the night, in Denmark. This sudden remove to sunshine and fresh air feels like a hint at better times to come. Shakespeare, from a small country town, usually associates the outdoors with positive emotions, with transformation and redemption.

The more important thing that stood out in this moment was Cleomenes’s phrase that hearing the incredible voice of the oracle made him “nothing.” That remark prompted a range of interpretations from the group.

Whenever, during study group, we start dissecting a short phrase or a single word into a half-dozen possible meanings, I refer to the process as “Stephen-Boothing,” an homage to the late great scholar Stephen Booth, known for his meticulous, exhaustive breakdowns of Shakespeare’s language, especially in the sonnets. We once spent the better part of a half hour in study group discussing Lear’s Fool’s remark that court holy water is preferable to being stuck outside in the rain. Our lengthy, multi-faceted breakdown of all the possible parsings of that line led me to remark that our discussion was beginning to feel like reading Booth’s notes on the sonnets. Since then, any time we do a real deep dive into all the possible meanings of a line I am reminded of Booth.

So, our “Stephen-Boothing” of Cleomenes’s line yielded a few interesting results:

Cleomenes, upon hearing the voice of the cosmic, was struck by his own smallness in the grand scheme of the universe. A similar emotion is perhaps felt when looking at astronomical representations of the size of the Earth compared to the size of of Jupiter compared to the size of our sun compared to the size of other starts compared to the size of our galaxy compared to, compared to, compared to, &c &c &c

Cleomenes, upon hearing the voice of the divine, is emptied of ego in a Taoist sense. He becomes infinitely humble in the presence of God.

Cleomenes, upon hearing an impressive orator, is overcome with empathy to the point of losing his sense of self.

Cleomenes, upon hearing an impressive performer, feels a theatrical urge to give up his identity to assume the roles of others in plays. Shakespeare never misses an opportunity to insert a meta reference to theatre and acting.

It’s one of my favorite things about discussing Shakespeare this way, that you don’t skim over any lines, you pay attention to every word and pull interesting insights from even the most seemingly inconsequential speeches. I’ve been puzzling over Cleomenes’s “I was nothing” since Sunday.

I’ll be back with another ShakesNerds Insight post the next time we uncover another little gem like this one.

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