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

IMG_1368

***

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.

 

When Most I Wink, Then Do Mine Eyes Best See

shakespeare sonnet slam

***

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.

Watching From the Wings

carrie-fisher-debbie-reynolds-today-161229_f706f5f9d63b563f6e56c931c2800bd1_today-inline-large

***

So last night I was riding on the subway, on a line I don’t usually take, and standing next to me were two attractive women in deep conversation. I kept looking at one of the women because she seemed very familiar to me and yet I couldn’t place her. But I was sure I had seen her or met her before.

I racked my brain over and over, cursing my terrible memory, but I couldn’t figure it out. Well my stop finally came and I had to get off, but at the moment I hit the door, it came to me. I turned back around and called to her,

“Sixty-nine! You were Sonnet number Sixty-nine. ” She looked towards me, laughed, and nodded yes. I mouthed my words as I got off and pointed to myself, “Number Seventy.”

Since she had been assigned to read the sonnet before mine in the Shakespeare Sonnet Slam, she was my cue.

“Farewell! God knows when we shall meet again.”

 

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

shakespeare

***

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.

Big-Time Bard’s Birthday Bash Soon

shakespeare

***

It’s April, which means that its time again to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday with the 7th annual Sonnet Slam at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park, April 21st.

This year, I’ve been assigned Sonnet 70, which seems a little less daunting than some of the others I’ve had in past years.

That thou art blamed shall not be thy defect,
For slander’s mark was ever yet the fair;
The ornament of beauty is suspect,
A crow that flies in heaven’s sweetest air.
So thou be good, slander doth but approve
Thy worth the greater, being woo’d of time:
For canker vice the sweetest buds doth love,
And thou present’st a pure unstained prime.
Thou hast pass’d by the ambush of young days,
Either not assail’d or victor being charg’d;
Yet this thy praise cannot be so thy praise,
To tie up envy, evermore enlarg’d:
If some suspect of ill mask’d not thy show,
Then thou alone kingdoms of hearts should’st owe.

As always, the key to interpreting these sonnets is to first unpack the form into three quatrains and a couplet, and then to make sure that every word is understood with its original Elizabethan meaning. I found the first ten lines here fairly straightforward to understand: beautiful people attract envious slander, so don’t feel too badly about it.

It’s the last four lines which present me with syntactical and comprehension difficulty.

I think the sense of them is something like, thank goodness the power of this poem is not enough to ward off slander —because if it did, then you would be besieged by suitors, and by inference, the poet would not have you to himself. But it’s a little tricky, and I still have to work out its exact meaning.

Sin of Self-Love

***

I hope the title for this post does not refer too much to my posting my 2016 Shakespeare Sonnet Slam video here. My excuses: 1) the producers did an excellent job capturing all the performances on video; 2) it’s edifying to watch a video record of oneself  in order to see if the external reality lined up with what the internal experience had been;  3) theater and live performance can be a frustratingly ephemeral experience—it’s nice to have a tangible artifact of the occasion for one’s mental (and virtual) scrapbook.

My previous analysis of the sonnet is here.

You can follow along, including my flub in line five:

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.

 

 

“When In Disgrace…”

***

There have been many attempts over the years to set Shakespeare’s sonnets to music, as at least some of them were probably originally meant to be. Rufus Wainwright, the popular singer-songwriter did this a few years ago with several of the sonnets, my favorite of which is this lovely rendition of Sonnet #29.

Click on the video to play.

Thanks to YouTuber sacroom91

Slam Dunk

2016 sonnet slam

(Click to enlarge)

***

So, the 2016 Shakespeare Sonnet Slam last Friday was really enjoyable! It was a beautiful dry day, no rain at all, despite the weather forecast; and unlike last year when the temperature was really cold, it was warm and sunny. There was great variety in the performances, as always: a lovely sonnet performed in French, a high school group who came to watch and perform, a woman who performed with her young baby in her arms, a singer from the cast of the hit Broadway musical Something Rotten, old men, young women, and people I recognized from past years. The highlight for me was the wonderful actor Dana Ivey, who recited “Shall I compare thee,” just beautifully: still and strong and resonant as an oak tree.

Every year, as I get more familiar with the sonnets, I “hear” more of them, and enjoy them that much more. I also feel a kind of silly identification and solidarity with the people who are performing sonnets which I was assigned to in previous years.

I met my actor friend Eve there—she’s a slam recidivist as well—and we both agreed that it goes by so fast when you’re finally up there, that you have no idea what you’ve done. We both had the sensation that we had skipped multiple lines of the sonnet while we were reciting, but I think (I hope!) that was only a feeling.

When I’m up there, actually performing, I don’t try to think too hard about my analysis or preparation; that was homework, and I just have to trust that I’ve done it well. The one thing I’m focusing on in the moment of performance, the one thing that I’m holding onto for dear life, because otherwise stage fright would sweep me away, is to play my action, which I chose in this case to be, “to double my bonds of love with you.” That’s my lifeline.

We finished all 154 sonnets very quickly—started at one, over by four—so I walked over to Strawberry Fields where, of course, there was a young guy playing John Lennon songs on his guitar. Lots of tourists, and he was very accommodating, playing all of their favorite requests. He sang in a key that I could sing in, so I spent a while croaking out John Lennon songs with him, though I have to say that by the fifth rendition of “Imagine,” it was getting old.

We were spared from the rain the whole afternoon, everything looked green and luscious in Central Park, and I finished the day with a $4.00 Double Caramel ice cream pop from the ice cream vendor.

A very nice way to spend a day.

Analyzing a Shakespearean Sonnet for Performance

sonnetsdedication2

The Shakespeare Sonnet Slam is coming up soon, so here is my preliminary analysis of the sonnet that was chosen for me this time, #62.

Here it is again:

SONNET 62
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.

My approach is to memorize the sonnet, even though it’s not required for the Sonnet Slam. I think that until I actually sit down to memorize a piece, I don’t fully realize the particularity of the structure of the sonnet, the weight of each word, the peculiarity of each phrase, the rhythm and emphasis of the piece. Often when memorizing, I’ll have one phrase or more that I keep getting wrong—it seems like it should be what I’m saying, not what is on the page—but it is exactly that discrepancy that needs to be explored and uncovered for meaning and logic.

So, first things first: most of the Shakespearean sonnets have the same structure: 14 lines, made up of three rhyming quatrains, abab, and then a rhyming couplet, cc. Let’s break up Sonnet # 62:

SONNET 62

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.

Typically, each quatrain is a variation on one theme, each with its own point to make. The final couplet is usually either a clever summation of the preceding lines, or a clever opposition to them. I think the word “clever” here is apropos, because cleverness is an integral part of a Shakespearean sonnet. No matter how much sentiment is contained in each of these sonnets, they are almost always also self-conscious objects for show. Will just couldn’t help himself on that score. Many of the sonnets were commissioned and many were the objects of public and private performance. In my opinion, a major subtext of all of these sonnets is: “I love you so much, that I wrote this clever witty poem for you.” They are, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, “conceits.” Without this acknowledgement,  the sonnets can become lugubrious; as I’ll talk about next time, a more interesting choice for me for performance is to find the playfulness in each composition.

Okay, Quatrain #1: I’m struck by the word “all”:

all mine eye,
And all my soul and all my every part

The accented beats all fall on the word “all” and it’s almost always a good idea to pay attention to the iambic pentameter and not fight it. So, the sonnet writer (“I” from now on), talks of himself in no half-measures. I fully admit my faults. Whether sadly or mockingly or gleefully remains to be decided.

I note also that the structure of the sonnet indicates that “eye” and “remedy” should rhyme—at least it did in Shakespeare’s day. Sometimes it’s pretentious in today’s world to go for the rhyme, but since it’s an unaccented syllable, I’ll probably go for it.

Next, Quatrain #2: I ask myself, what is this quatrain doing that the first did not? It seems to be more specific: “face,” “shape,” “truth,”; but also it stresses that not only do I think that I am wonderful, but I am the best, better than everyone else! —“As I all other in all worths surmount.” And again, the “alls” are hit hard. It’s like Muhammed Ali, “I am the Greatest!”

On to Quatrain #3: Now the turn of the sonnet. “But when my glass shows”…these “buts” in the sonnets are always important, they signal, “I used to think x, but now I realize y.”  The acting issue here is to make that emotional turn real by having some specific internal sensory stimuli to allow that change in thought and emotion to happen. Shakespeare provides the impetus—looking in the mirror and seeing the reality of my physical shape, rather than just what I’d like to imagine or feel. Those of us of a certain age have all had those awful moments when the light is too harsh and the wrinkles too deep and the mirror refuses to lie. That’s what I need to capture.

But there are two revelations going on in this quatrain: not only that I am not the physical and mental specimen that I think I am, but that my self-love has been deeply unfair.

The final couplet explains: I only look good to myself because I am basking in your glow, your beauty, and mistaking your aura for my own. This, I think is the hardest part of the sonnet from an acting point of view. It’s a complicated realization that has to be done in a very few words, and the structure of the lines seems difficult right now to me. This is where I think I have the most work ahead of me.

Okay, that’s enough for now. Next time, I’ll talk about actually trying to memorize the sonnet, and seeing how that informs me further.

 

Grand Slam

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 http://www.shakespearesonnetslam.com/ . 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:

SONNET 62
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

sonnet-18

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.

The Unexpected Guest: C.P. Shakes

IMG_0783

(Click to enlarge)

A special guest showed up for the 5th Annual Shakespeare Sonnet Slam, in which I participated, in Central Park this week.

C.P. Shakes, arrived with Perdita the Pigeon on his shoulder, and performed Sonnet #149 with the bird taking every other line.

Later, Mr. Shakes confided to me that the C.P. stood for Central Park.

My own assigned Sonnet #133 was a little more subdued:

sonnet slam jack 2

The weather was an unlikely 49 degrees with winds making it seem even colder. But we made it through with no major mishaps. It took us almost exactly three hours to perform all 154 sonnets. The highlight for me was the performance of Sonnet #18 (“Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?) by the wonderful actor Richard Thomas.  I’m hoping to be able to post audio/video of it later next month.

Shame, Where is Thy Blush?: Analyzing a Sonnet from an Actor’s Point of View

Gack!!!

The Shakespeare Sonnet Slam is only a few days away and I haven’t finished memorizing or analyzing my assigned sonnet yet.

Sonnet 133 to be exact. One of the strangest, most interesting, and perhaps most pornographic of the sonnets, best I can tell.

Beshrew that heart that makes my heart to groan
For that deep wound it gives my friend and me:
Is’t not enough to torture me alone,
But slave to slavery my sweet’st friend must be?
Me from myself thy cruel eye hath taken,
And my next self thou harder hast engrossed;
Of him, myself, and thee I am forsaken,
A torment thrice threefold thus to be crossed.
Prison my heart in thy steel bosom’s ward,
But then my friend’s heart let my poor heart bail;
Whoe’er keeps me, let my heart be his guard:
Thou canst not then use rigour in my jail.
    And yet thou wilt; for I, being pent in thee,
    Perforce am thine, and all that is in me.

Now, one is not required to memorize for the slam, and I plan to have the typed sonnet with me, but given my eyesight, nervousness, and laziness, if I’m going to make any sense of this, it’s best to memorize. I know that the only way I can memorize something like this is if I manage to uncover its sense. And that’s what its all about. You don’t have to do great acting up there, but you do have to talk sense.

All right, how to find that sense from what first looks nonsense?

First: the structure of the sonnet gives you lots of clues. Shakespeare’s sonnets are always structured as three quatrains and a final couplet. So lets look at the poem again, divided that way:

Beshrew that heart that makes my heart to groan
For that deep wound it gives my friend and me:
Is’t not enough to torture me alone,
But slave to slavery my sweet’st friend must be?

***
Me from myself thy cruel eye hath taken,
And my next self thou harder hast engrossed;
Of him, myself, and thee I am forsaken,
A torment thrice threefold thus to be crossed.

***
Prison my heart in thy steel bosom’s ward,
But then my friend’s heart let my poor heart bail;
Whoe’er keeps me, let my heart be his guard:
Thou canst not then use rigour in my jail.

***
  And yet thou wilt; for I, being pent in thee,
    Perforce am thine, and all that is in me.

That is how I approach memorizing a sonnet. Each quatrain is another thought, argument, or approach. The final couplet is generally a wry commentary on the preceding approaches; either it is a clever summary of them, or a recognition of the futility of the speaker’s thoughts.

So let’s start off with the first quatrain.

Beshrew that heart that makes my heart to groan
For that deep wound it gives my friend and me:
Is’t not enough to torture me alone,
But slave to slavery my sweet’st friend must be?

Beshrew … Err … let’s start off with that first word—Beshrew. What does it mean? The dictionaries tell us “curse.” Okay, so we’re starting off pretty strong, the speaker (let’s say “I,” from now on) is cursing someone (let’s say “you,” from now on). Why am I cursing you? Because you are making my heart groan. And not only me, but the same for my best friend. Wait a second, my best friend and I are both in love with you! And you know it, and yet you cruelly delight in it. The three of us are caught in an awful compelling love triangle.

Now the loyalty to a same-sex best friend is a theme that runs throughout Shakespeare’s plays. It’s extraordinarily important to Shakespeare’s characters. Betrayal of a supposed friend is the motor of Julius Caesar, Othello, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and many more of his plays. So we need to take this very seriously.

So let’s go back to that first quatrain again, words like “deep wound” begin to take on a sexual meaning. My friend is hopelessly enthralled with you; you who have gleefully sliced our friendship apart with a deep wound. You have enslaved not only me, but my best friend. That is the crime of crimes.

Onto the second quatrain.

Me from myself thy cruel eye hath taken,
And my next self thou harder hast engrossed;
Of him, myself, and thee I am forsaken,
A torment thrice threefold thus to be crossed.

A change in the main thought now. The first quatrain was about cruel you; this second quatrain is about how I and you and my best friend have now irrevocably changed our relationships. The first line says that at first it was me whose soul (and body!) you had corrupted. The next line talks about “my next self” i.e. the one closest to me, my best friend, as being corrupted as well. You engrossed him harder. And if you want to go for the sexual meaning there, why not?

The next two lines say that my relationship is torn with you, my friend, and myself. But worse, each of us has three torn relationships now because of this madness, and to repair it would require each of us to repair the three relationships.

The third quatrain seeks a way to resolve the dilemma.

Prison my heart in thy steel bosom’s ward,
But then my friend’s heart let my poor heart bail;
Whoe’er keeps me, let my heart be his guard:
Thou canst not then use rigour in my jail.

I beg you to let me be your only lover; be cruel to me, so that my friend can be spared your cruelty. And perhaps, when you understand how important it is for me to shield my friend, to not betray him, then you will be a little kinder to me, in admiration of my loyalty.

But in the final couplet I have to admit that my dream of being free of you and your cruelty—and my own need for you—is a fantasy. And these last two lines are incredibly evocative and can be read so many ways.

And yet thou wilt; for I, being pent in thee,
    Perforce am thine, and all that is in me.

Right now, I think the most daring is to hit the final rhyme. Usually, I’m not a fan of stressing the rhyme in verse, but I think ending couplets in Shakespeare are an exception. So being pent in thee, “and all that is in me.”  But stressing me in the last line  almost forces the rhythm to add an additional stress on that. So,

And yet thou wilt; for I, being pent in thee,
    Perforce am thine, and all that is in me.

Was that Shakespeare’s intention? I can’t say. But I think it is a viable subtext for an actor. An actor always looks for a strong compelling subtext, even if it looks like other interpretations might be more likely. More, after the slam takes place later this week.

Shakespeare Sonnet Slam

Last April, I participated in the 4th Annual Shakespeare Sonnet Slam in Central Park. It’s a lot of fun—participants perform all 154 sonnets in order, one per person, all in one afternoon. It’s open to anyone who wants to do it. Email them about a month before Shakespeare’s birthday, April 26th, 2015, and they will assign you a sonnet to perform for this year’s event on April 24th.

I was assigned Sonnet 33 last year. I have to admit I wasn’t familiar with it beforehand. You can read it below. (BTW, it’s easier to deconstruct the meaning of a sonnet by breaking it up into three quatrains and a final couplet.)

Sonnet 33

Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:
Even so my sun one early morn did shine,
With all triumphant splendour on my brow;
But out, alack, he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath mask’d him from me now.
Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
Suns of the world may stain when heaven’s sun staineth.

Just for fun back then, since I was playing around with learning how to edit sound digitally, using computer software, I made this recording of the sonnet.

Pro audio editing tip: You can make anything, even reading the phone book, sound a hundred times better if you layer it over a bed of Pachibel’s Canon in D.  🙂

(Click on the triangle to play)