Text, performances, films, and commentary on Shakespeare's 154 sonnets.

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Sunday, September 30, 2012


 Sep 30, 2012

Please see the new site for videos about the sonnets:

Quick Flick's theme, Fragile, several months ago, I chose to make a film of Sonnet 65. The question Shakespeare asks, "How in this rage can beauty hold a plea?" seemed to me to suggest that Shakespeare's discussion of the fragility of beauty would make an appropriate film for this theme.

A study of the poem, however, reveals that it is not beauty that is fragile. The material things, even the most solid -- "rocks impregnable" and "gates of steel" --- are fragile. They "are not so stout. " Eventually, no matter what, "Time decays."

In fact it is beauty and love that become immortal through art and poetry.


(Note: In the context of all the sonnets, #65 would usually be taken as about an older man talking about a younger man or boy. However, nothing in the sonnet itself identifies the speaker or the subject in any way. In this film, the usual context is ignored, and "My Love" is taken to be a young woman. )

Meagan English as "My Love" from SONNET 65Posted by Picasa

I posted the film,
SONNET 65 , on Google video.


Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o'ersways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O! how shall summer's honey breath hold out,
Against the wrackful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time's best jewel from Time's chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O! none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

In this poem, Shakespeare is just a little tentative about the power of poetry to preserve love, declaring...

...if this miracle have might
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

That is, he is not sure; it would be "this miracle" if it really works.

Shakespeare reaches a similar, and stronger, conclusion on the preservative power of poetry in sonnet 18, when he says, of the "...eternal lines..." of poetry,

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.


Shakespeare is not one for simple readings, and there are two huge ironies.

First, there is the omnipresence of death shadowing the love. Specifically, in 65, the word "still" in the last line has spooky overtones of the stillness of death, harking back to

... where, alack
Shall Times best jewel from Time's chest lie hid

(where "Time's jewel" is "my love," and Time's chest is the grave).

I ended the film with a still photograph of "my love" to make this connection.

The second irony is that, of course, even though

...my love may still shine bright (65)


...this gives life to thee (18)

nowhere do we get any information about who "my love" or "this" actually refers to. So if Shakespeare had actually been promising someone eternal life though his poetry, he did not deliver on that promise!


  • It starts off with lots of "s's"
    brass, stone, boundless sea, with this, is no stronger...

  • Then in the middle the sounds are full of hard "k's" and "g's"
    alack, Time, chest, wrackful, back,

  • and the conclusion is a reconciliation of sounds,
    black ink, still shine, bright.

  • There are many negative words, including three "nor's" in the first line alone.
  • There are many words about time, including
    Time (3), mortality, summer, days

  • There are five lines that begin with the letter "O," including three that begin with "O" and two that begin with "Or".

  • Other key words are also repeated or paired:
    beauty, steel & brass, stone & rocks, hand & foot

  • Much of the poem is expressed in rhetorical questions, which convey great anguish.

  • The most unusual construction is
    "...what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?"

    On it's face, this is a strange mixed metaphor. The presumptive answer to the question is that it is the hand of the poet that can thwart the swift foot of Time marching toward decay and death.

In this poem, the speaker is anonymous. There is no clue to the character of the speaker except for the words, "my love" in the last line. The speaker and the love could be of either sex. (In the context of all the sonnets, #65 would usually be taken as about an older man talking about a younger man or boy. However, nothing in the sonnet itself identifies the speaker or the subject.)

  • Time wears all material things down.

  • Love and beauty gain immortality through art.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2012


adapting the sonnets as plays

Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets.  Well, not exactly.

There are 154 poems in the famous collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets.  But, in fact, one of the poems, number 126, has only 12 lines and is rhymed aa bb cc dd ee, so it’s not really a sonnet like the others.  Some other sonnets are slightly defective, with an extra line or a missing word. It’s also worth mentioning that sonnets numbers 153 and 154 are quite different from the others.

In addition to the sonnets in this collection, there are several sonnets that Shakespeare himself used as dialog in the plays, the lines sometimes shared between characters, notably in Romeo and Juliet.  For example, in Act I scene 5, Romeo and Juliet share a sonnet, trading lines and quatrains as dialog. (See NOTES, below.)

Some other sonnets, probably by Shakespeare, apparently have also been published, including one that appears to be the first draft of a more familiar sonnet.

The remaining 151 sonnets – counting slightly defective ones, and ignoring numbers 153 & 154 and those sonnets from the plays – are usually loosely grouped into two categories: those said to be about a young man and those said to be about a sultry “dark” woman. 

Most often, the sonnets are taken to be in Shakespeare’s voice and more-or-less autobiographical.

I want to forget that and treat the sonnets very differently.

There is no guarantee the published order is what was intended by Shakespeare.  In fact, some of the sonnets seem to be out of order – given their similarity in theme to other sonnets some distance away. Many of the sonnets do not actually identify even the gender of the speaker or of the subject; the speaker is assumed to be Shakespeare, and the subject is inferred from the sonnets published position. The meaning of many of the sonnets is ambiguous. Depending on – for example – how the grammar is interpreted, the sonnet can mean quite different things.  One famous example is in the final phrase of the last line of Sonnet 116 when “I never writ nor no man ever loved” can mean either “No man has ever loved anyone,” or “I never loved a man.”

Shakespeare was a playwright as well as a poet, and in the plays he speaks in the voice of each of the characters.  I want to take a selection of sonnets out of their usual context, re-arrange them, and see what life each has when it is combined with other sonnets to tell a story. Each sonnet will be the dialog of some character. The text of each sonnet will be honored, and there will be no a priori assertion about who is speaking or who they are speaking to, except what makes sense in the new context.

The sonnets seem to contain several threads of stories, and several characters; for example:

An older man.
A young man
A young man who is as beautiful as a woman
Two poets
A woman with a dark complexion
A woman with dark eyes
A woman with dark hair
A man (or men) and a woman (or women) who love each other
A woman (or women) and a man (or men) who are unfaithful to their lover
A person who travels away from his love.
A person who is sick
A person who possibly dies
A person (or persons) who are lonely and forlorn
A man (or persons) who do not want children
And a person urging them to have children.

The usual interpretation conflates these possibly different characters as follows:

  • The Younger Man -  the young man, the beautiful young man, an unfaithful lover, and the person who does not want children
  • The Rival Poet -  a rival for the Young Man’s affection
  • The Dark Lady of the Sonnets – a woman with dark eyes, dark hair and dark complexion, who is a passionate lover and unfaithful
  • Shakespeare – Will, the older man, the first poet, and the person urging the Young Man to have children, the lover of the Young Man and the Dark Lady and possibly others, the lover threatened by the Rival Poet, and an unfaithful lover.


It is very interesting to look at each sonnet for only what is contained intrinsically within it, and possibly separate some of these different personae into separate characters, letting the different characters tell their stories of love and betrayal in their own words through the sonnets.

This approach frees the sonnets from the prison of “lyric verse,” and liberates the fierce meanings and emotions they contain, which are sometimes obscured by the notion of these sonnets as “poetry”.

It should be noticed that the ability to do this depends in part on the fact that the sonnets describe elemental human emotions and behavior, and do not depend, like the plays do, on the customs of Elizabethan times, or on the circumstances of the real or mythical environment in which each play is set.

For this reason, plays built from sonnets can be completely modern, or, more accurately, timeless.  All that is necessary is for each character to be the kind of person who would naturally talk that way.

So the goal in performing the play – having mastered the verse and the language and the meaning – is to for each character to speak the lines to the character they are talking to as natural dialog, with a purpose, an intention, an objective, a state of being, an emotional state, and a life that exists in the circumstances that have been given in the play up to the moment. In other words the sonnets are acted with all the technique of modern, natural theater.

I should re-emphasize that part about “having mastered the verse and the language and the meaning”. In order to act the sonnets, one must first master the poetry. Acting is the second step. A brilliant teacher, William Packard, proposed a method of attacking the performance of poetry that I believe actually works: More or less in this sequence, in brief it is…

1.      First learn the poem;
2.      Then understand the poetic structure;
3.      Train the ear to hear the poem (by speaking it out loud over and over and over and over and…);
4.      Then find the elements in the poem on which you can mentally and physically focus as you perform the poem;
5.      Then understand the meaning of the poem;
6.      And only then can you work on acting...

I have constructed several plays from the sonnets: (Each is quite different from the others, sometimes with the same sonnet having quite a different role and meaning in one play than it has in others. In fact, I have found it especially interesting that the same sonnet spoken by  different characters at different times and places in the same play, can become very different in its meaning and emotional content.)  I should note that – in the spirit of sonnets having multiple possible interpretations – the three principal characters in these plays are Will (an older man), Dawn (Will’s true love – a woman), and Eve (the Dark Lady of the sonnets).

A one-sonnet, one song, 2 minute play (or video).

A two character, 10 minute play about an explosive love.

A two (or three) character half-hour short play, about two characters who are in love. The older man has a brief affair with the Dark Lady, and then returns to his first love to deal with his betrayal.

A full length play with three characters, and Elizabethan music and dance integrated into the story, which describes a three sided love triangle and all its complications; with some additional themes, notably the older man’s illness.



LOVE IS MY SIN had a lightly staged performance before an audience Off-Off-Broadway a few years ago.

An abridged LOVE’S FINE WIT had a staged reading with Elizabethan songs and music before an audience at the Cornelia Street Café in New York on Shakespeare’s birthday this year.

The future…

I would love to do a commercial production of the full length play – I have ideas for who would direct that and play the characters.

I would also like to bring a staged version of the sonnet play to colleges, together with a workshop: train the students in Packard’s method of performing poetry; work with the students to help them understand the sonnets, and then have the students perform. 

What would Shakespeare think?

I suspect that Shakespeare actually created several of the sonnets in conjunction with writing plays and other works: that he thought of at least some of them as dramatic, and not necessarily as lyric, autobiographical poetry. There are, for example, similar ideas and echoes:

  • Between parts of Othello and the Dark Lady sonnets
  • Between parts of the Rape of Lucrece and sonnet 129 “The expense of spirit…”
  • And between several sonnets and Love’s Labours Lost
  • And in Romeo and Juliet, as mentioned above, Shakespeare explicitly uses a sonnet, himself, as dramatic speech, sharing lines between the two lovers.

However, I somehow doubt there was an Off-Off-London theater in Shakespeare’s time that ever produced a play from the sonnets.

And if the sonnets really are autobiographical…

Even returning to the classic notion of the sonnets as autobiographical, having looked at the sonnets from this new, intense approach, fresh insights into the richness, subtleties and force of the sonnets – and what that might mean about their author -- have been gained!

References & Links

Two important books analyzing the sonnets are:

Booth, Stephen – Shakespeare’s Sonnets
Vendler, Helen – The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

An important book about the music from Shakespeare’s plays is:

Duffin, Ross W – Shakespeare’s Songbook.

Some articles about sonnet plays from QPORIT:


            (includes the script of a ½ hour 2 char play constructed from the sonnets)

(with a rumination on the art of making plays from Shakespeare’s sonnets)

Other links to QPORIT:







The Sonnet in Romeo and Juliet Act I scene 5

If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand(100)
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.(105)
Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do!
They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake. (110)

Then move not while my prayer's effect I take.

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