Rendering Shakespeare: Sonnet 126



At this year’s Shakespeare’s Birthday Sonnet Slam, where all 154 sonnets are performed, because of no-shows, producer Melinda Hall unexpectedly pressed some of us into double duty bound; in addition to performing our pre-arranged sonnets (mine was Sonnet 27) we performed other sonnets as well, with fifteen minutes notice.

And that is how I became acquainted with Sonnet 126. Here’s what I saw when the paper was handed to me:

O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy pow’r
Dost hold Time’s fickle glass, his sickle, hour,
Who hast by waning grown, and therein show’st
Thy lovers withering, as thy sweet self grow’st—
If Nature, (sovereign mistress over wrack,)
As thou goest onwards still will pluck thee back,
She keeps thee to this purpose: that her skill
May Time disgrace, and wretched minute kill.
Yet fear her, O thou minion of her pleasure;
She may detain, but not still keep, her treasure.
Her audit, though delayed, answered must be,
And her quietus is to render thee.
  (     )
  (     )


If this looks strange to you, you’re on the right track. It looks very different from all the other Shakespeare sonnets. As you probably know if you’re reading this, the Shakespearean sonnets are three quatrains of alternating rhyme, and then a final couplet to make fourteen lines. Now take a look at Sonnet 126—first of all it’s only twelve lines long—the last two lines seem to have been truncated—and what’s more the remaining lines are all couplets. It barely deserves to be called a sonnet. And, to my way of thinking, the content of it is more pessimistic than most of Shakespeare’s other sonnets.

Ever-reliable Wikipedia tells us that Sonnet 126 is the capstone to the group of sonnets known as the Fair Youth sonnets. As a group they speak of a young man of sexual power who, despite the ravages of time, will live on—either through his immortalization in the poet’s words, or through the siring of offspring. Sonnet 126 is the last of this group, but it appears to tell a somewhat different story: our Fair Youth might think, even as he gets older, that  he is cheating Nature and Time in his pursuit of worldly pleasures,  but it is all for naught. In the end, Time demands his due, despite Nature’s endowing the Youth with potency even in his later years—no, Nature must eventually render thee; that is, surrender him, as money paid in debt. Indeed, the end comes so suddenly, it can even come two lines too early. We have run out of Time.

It’s a bleaker outlook than many of the other sonnets. While Shakespeare never denies the inevitability of death in his writings, it is rare that he wags it so forcefully in the face of his sonnet subjects without some promise of remembrance. There’s a palpable jealousy there of the youth’s enduring power. There doesn’t seem to be a chance of redemption.

And yet, hidden within the last words is a double meaning that seems kinder. For the word render not only means “to surrender,” but also “to depict,” as in the rendering of a portrait. Nature may not only surrender him to Time, but will portray him. So once again, the Fair Youth has the opportunity of becoming immortal through his children or through Shakespeare’s rendering of him in his poems.

And so he has.



“Weary With Toil, I Haste Me To My Bed”



It’s always a pleasure to welcome the Annual Shakespeare’s Birthday Sonnet slam. This is the 9th slam produced by director and Shakespeare scholar Melinda Hall,  (you can listen to an interview I did with her a few years ago where she talks about, among other things, who Shakespeare was), and this year introduces a change of venue. Usually the slam is in the center of Central Park, outdoors at the Naumburg Bandshell. But if you’ve dropped by in the last few years, you may have noticed that the bandshell is in a precarious state with pieces of roof falling and stones from the stairs getting dislodged. Just as Shakespeare moved his company in the winter from the naked elements of the Globe Theatre to the more protected clime of the indoors Blackfriars Theatre, this year we now go to the cozy environs of Riverside Church’s 9th floor lounge. You can see in the picture above that it looks a lot like a Shakespearean stage. While it’s true that we will not get the traffic of curious passersby, it looks like we may actually have chairs in this space for the audience to sit in, which would be a treat.

I just got my randomly assigned sonnet number this week and the luck of the draw has given me sonnet #27. It’s probably the most straightforward sonnet I’ve been assigned to over the years:

Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head,
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired:
For then my thoughts (from far where I abide)
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see:
Save that my soul’s imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,
Makes black night beauteous and her old face new.
Lo, thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee, and for myself, no quiet find.

I’ve talked several times before about how I go about analyzing a sonnet. Last year’s sonnet had a very similar conceit concerning day and night, light and dark, but there is much less involved wordplay in this one. Often when I’m faced with an unfamiliar sonnet, I feel like I have to wrestle it to the ground to get it to reveal its secrets to me.  That fight results in a kind of tension in the performance that reflects the prior struggle with the meaning, syntax, and meter. But this time, especially since this sonnet is so accessible to a modern audience, my goal will simply be to relax and let the sonnet and the words do the work. In a way, I want to see how little I can do and yet still be effective, if that makes any sense.

The 9th Annual Sonnet Slam will take place Friday April 26th from 1-4pm at Riverside Church, 9th Floor. Use the 91 Claremont Avenue entrance. It’s free and it should be a lot of fun. Or better yet, sign up to read a randomly assigned sonnet. You can find the information here.


“Dost Thou Think Because Thou Art Virtuous There Shall Be No More Cakes And Ale?”



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 . You will have a wonderful time.

Grand Slam



The Sixth Annual Shakespeare Sonnet Slam needs you! In one month on Friday, April 22nd at 1pm, sonneteers will descend on the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park and perform all 154 Shakespeare Sonnets.

You can become one of those sonnet slingers by signing up at . While you’re at it, you might want to donate money so that producer—Shakespeare scholar, director, teacher—Melinda Hall can continue doing the fine job she does every year with this. I had the pleasure of interviewing her last year and really enjoyed learning more about Shakespeare from her.

I participated in the Fourth Annual Slam and the Fifth Annual Slam where I read sonnets #33 and #133, respectively. This year I’ve been assigned Sonnet #62.  As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve grown to like the idea that you cannot choose your own sonnet to do; it forces you to stretch and grapple with whatever the material happens to be, because you have to make some kind of sense of it if you’re to come across on the day of the Slam. When I first read #62, I breathed a sigh of relief because at first glance this sonnet seemed much easier to parse than my two previous ones:

Sin of self-love possesseth all mine eye,
And all my soul and all my every part;
And for this sin there is no remedy,
It is so grounded inward in my heart.
Methinks no face so gracious is as mine,
No shape so true, no truth of such account;
And for myself mine own worth do define,
As I all other in all worths surmount.
But when my glass shows me myself indeed,
Beated and chopp’d with tann’d antiquity,
Mine own self-love quite contrary I read;
Self so self-loving were iniquity.
‘Tis thee, myself, that for myself I praise,
Painting my age with beauty of thy days.

But as I take a closer look, I see there are issues I’ll have to resolve. I hope to post an update in a week or two on my progress.

But Thy Eternal Summer Shall Not Fade


The Fifth Annual Shakespeare’s Birthday Slam took place a while back. I got to talk to the Producer of the Slam, Melinda Hall, and we had a great chat about the sonnets, their history, Shakespeare, Bill Gates, what it takes to survive as an artist in the world, and a knockout reading of “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” by actor Richard Thomas. This was broadcast last Thursday on radio station WBAI 99.5 FM NY. Click on the grey triangle to hear.