Today is Shakespeare’s birthday. If you’ve never read it, this very short story about Shakespeare by Borges comes closest to describing the man who I imagine WS to be.
I had the pleasure two days ago of participating in the 7th Annual Shakespeare’s Birthday Sonnet Slam. It was a drizzly, misty day that made all of Central Park look like a French Impressionist painting. The producers told us that if it rained hard, we would simply continue and gather up the audience to join us up on the outdoor bandshell stage in Central Park. It never happened, but it was a cozy thought to think about.
This was my fourth Sonnet Slam, so I knew what to expect. All 154 sonnets are read in about three hours. Producer Melinda Hall has a very democratic approach to the slam, and it’s fun to see the way professionals and non-professionals alike approach performing the sonnets. One reader brought her dog up with her, and another set her sonnet to music. Each year brings some surprise guests, and this year veteran actor Richard Thomas made an unannounced visit to read Sonnet 29, “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes…” It’s also always fun for me to hear others perform the sonnets to which I had been assigned in previous years. I feel a kind of special bond with those particular readers even if we’ve never met, because I can appreciate the struggle that goes into wrestling with those shared sonnets.
I’ve written about analyzing a sonnet before, but based on what I’ve learned this time, I’d humbly like to make a few suggestions about performing sonnets. These suggestions may seem sonnet-specific, but I believe they have wider acting implications as well.
The first thing is this, and it’s not as minor as it may sound at first: You have to pay allegiance to the final couplet’s rhyme. In the rest of the sonnet, the interpretation can spread over line breaks and rhymes, but if you don’t hit the rhymes in the final couplet, there is a real sense of incompleteness for the listener. It’s like a piece of music without the final resolving chord; the rest of the sonnet can be performed beautifully, but if you don’t get the final rhyme stressed, you haven’t closed the deal. Rhyme, even at the expense of sense or archaic pronunciation. (“Love” doesn’t rhyme with “prove” anymore? It doesn’t matter. Make it rhyme in your performance.) Go for the rhyme.
The second thing to remember is that the vast majority of these sonnets are love poems. They are meant, in the end, to win the heart of someone special. So while actors are wont to build little mini-dramas of the sonnets—not a bad thing—it should be remembered too that objectives such as to woo, to praise, to kiss, to seduce, to reassure, to flatter, should take precedence over objectives such as to scold, to complain, to dismiss, to chastise. Not that there aren’t elements of the latter, but in the end, the sonnets are love poems and should end up that way. So humor and self-reflection about the more negative aspects of love are in order, even though the anger may seem flashier to perform.
Finally, make every noun, metaphor, verb as visual and specific as you can for yourself. It’s Acting 101, but it’s especially true in playing Shakespeare that one should not lapse into the generic meaning of the words. The first line from Sonnet 70 should suffice to illustrate:
“That thou be blamed, shall not be thy defect.”
“Thou”: Who am I talking about? What does that person look like? What is my relationship to that person? Where are we?
“Blamed”: Blamed for what? In what manner? By whom? To what end?
“Thy defect”: What form might that defect take? How has this affected my lover? How has it affected our relationship? What do I want to do about it?
And so on. The wonderful thing about the fourteen short lines of a sonnet is that they allow you to do this kind of close work without getting overwhelmed. The important thing that I learned for myself here is that it’s not enough to make intellectual choices, but to pick vivid images that will spur feelings and imagination. Make the metaphor real.
Well, one more nice thing about Shakespeare’s birthday is that it comes around every year, and if the producers so wish, so will the next Shakespeare’s Birthday Sonnet Slam. So if you’re in the NYC area next year, consider signing up in April for one of the sonnets at www.shakespearesonnetslam.com . You will have a wonderful time.