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shakespeare sonnet slam

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It’s the last half of April which means it’s Shakespeare’s Birthday Sonnet Slam time once again. I’ve been participating in the slam for the last four years, and  I’ve written about how to analyze a sonnet for performance several times before  (see here and here as well). Each year participants are assigned a sonnet, and within the space of about three hours all 154 sonnets are performed at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park, New York City.

This year I was randomly assigned Sonnet #43. As I’ve written before, I enjoy being told which sonnet to do, because it exposes me to sonnets which I would not necessarily have been drawn to by myself. Here’s the Sonnet:

Sonnet 43

When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright are bright in dark directed;
Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would thy shadow’s form form happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so?
How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made
By looking on thee in the living day,
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay?
All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

Unlike some of the previous sonnets I have been assigned, at first glance this one seems fairly straightforward, if somewhat repetitious. As usual, the first step is to divide the sonnet into three quatrains and an ending couplet:

When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright are bright in dark directed;

Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would thy shadow’s form form happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so?

How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made
By looking on thee in the living day,
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay?

All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

The first quatrain sets the conceit that runs through the poem: I see more clearly  at night, when you are present in my dreams, than the dull day when you are absent.

The second quatrain seems to say nearly the same, but it’s always useful to see what is new in each quatrain. After a few read-throughs I realized that here there is a request underlying this sonnet, and here the poet is expressing his desire to see his beloved, physically, in the daytime.

The third quatrain seems to be marshaling the same argument for your presence. How to distinguish it from the previous quatrain and make it more interesting? Oh, there it is. In the second quatrain, I say your presence would make me happy—but in the third quatrain I say your presence would make me feel blessed. That’s something to hang my hat onto. Two distinctly different appeals.

The final couplet is usually either a summation of the first three quatrains or a distinctly contrary upending of the previous lines. Here, it seems to be the former, but the last phrase of the last line seems peculiar to me. It reads “when dreams do show thee me.” But that seems backwards to the sense of the rest of the poem. Throughout the poem, I have been doing the dreaming, so I was expecting “when dreams do show me thee.” It scans exactly the same so that can’t be the reason the pronouns were switched. I don’t know the reason for that yet, but I do know I can’t ignore it. I’ve found through past experience that the one difficult word or line is often the key to unlocking everything else.

Here’s an early Happy Shakespeare’s Birthday to all.