The Practice of Vulnerable Reading: A Workshop in Health Humanities
This workshop will consider how Shakespeare’s King Lear depicts different forms of human suffering, making it a resource for those who feel vulnerable. We will begin with a short synopsis of the play, and then structure our discussion by progressing through five layers of questioning: (1) reading for the characters, (2) reading for the plot, (3) reading for dialogical relationships, (4) reading for vulnerabilities and suffering, and (5) reading for a sense of rightness in how characters act, how the author tells the tale, and how we as readers respond. As time allows, we will do reflective writing in response to prompts exploring each layer and how they interrelate.
Vulnerable reading understands literature as a resource for both ill persons and healthcare workers. Their vulnerabilities range from physical distress to task overload and alienated relationships. To vulnerable persons, literature offers characters whose troubles mirror their own, and stories that can instigate new understandings of their own story.
The workshop is intended for scholars and professionals interested in health humanities. The objective is to prepare participants for teaching health humanities, facilitating groups that practice vulnerable reading, and incorporating vulnerable reading in personal and professional writing. The workshop will be experiential, but its emphasis is professional.
Participants’ experience of the workshop would be enhanced by seeing a DVD of King Lear or reading the play, if possible. Reading different versions is useful: Lear has been retold as a graphic novel and as novels set in the present, exemplified by Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. But no specific preparation is expected.
Arthur W. Frank has been studying illness experience and clinical responses to suffering for three decades, beginning with his memoir of critical illness, At the Will of the Body (1991). His present work turns to fiction as a way of rethinking the question asked in The Wounded Storyteller (1995): what is the relationship between embodied suffering and narrative representations of suffering? How can narration help? Vulnerable reading also develops the idea of companion stories, introduced in Letting Stories Breathe: A Socio-narratology (2010). Vulnerable reading seeks to discover what is companionable in works of literature generally, and in this workshop, what is companionable in Shakespeare.
Arthur W. Frank, Ph.D., FRSC
Professor Emeritus, University of Calgary