by Kenneth Harper Finton ©2014
Shakespeare’s sonnets make me feel uncomfortable. It is clear that many people who claim to have impeccable taste really profess to love these sonnets. Since I cannot bring myself to love them, I have to admit that either my taste is not impeccable or I have truly missed something of great value. In other words, I am stupid.
A film maker in Denver has made all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets into short video movies starring local Denver actors. Of course, it is a colossal bore. How could it not be so? William Shakespeare wrote some great plays, but his sonnets can put a Starbucks enthusiast to sleep in minutes.
It did not help that this Sonnet project used local actors that seemed to be unexperienced in Shakespearean theatre. I think, perchance, that nothing stands more amiss than a semi-talented actor spewing forth torrents of Shakespearean verbiage.
The first seventeen sonnets are brimming with advice to breed and propagate the species. Perhaps women liked this in Shakespeare’s day, but in a our crowded world with many women who choose to remain childless, these words cannot possibly fall on appreciable ears.
“From fairest creatures we desire increase
That thereby beauty’s Rose might never die
But as the riper should be time decease
His tender heir might bear his memory.”
Further, Shakespeare is obsessed with his own immortality. Even in one of the best of his sonnets, he holds himself and his verse up as immortal, bigger than nature itself, more enduring that stone. Yes, his work has lasted for centuries, but I doubt seriously it will outlast stone.
“Shall I compare thee to a Summers day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough windes do shake the darling buds of Maie,
And Sommers lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d,
And every faire from faire some-time declines,
By chance, or natures changing course untrim’d:
But thy eternall Sommer shall not fade,
Nor loose possession of that faire thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wandr’st in his shade,
When in eternall lines to time thou grow’st,
So long as men can breath or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”
I read this and intuitively feel the wonderful play of words, but close examination destroys my capricious mood. What, I ask myself, is more lovely and more temperate than a summer’s day? I can think of nothing at all more lovely. Maybe a cold beer with a pizza when you are very hungry. Surely, a summer’s day must be more lovely than this fantasy woman of whom he writes.
Yes, I agree, sometimes summer is too cursedly hot and these rough winds that shake these so-called darling buds of May also make me shiver in my shoes. But if I were to tell a girl that she was bound to decline as she ages, she would likely slap my ignominious face. And if I told her that her best chance at immortality lies in the fact that she was recorded in the lines of my poems, I would not be surprised if she hit me in the head with a lamp. I would deserve it, lout that I am.
We all struggle to decipher old Will’s bombastic style. The archaic English, quaint as it might be, hides a dude that spends a lot of time writing sappy verse about his relationship issues.
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
Modernized and un-sonneted, it might read:
Here I am, disgraced and poverty stricken, invisible to all.
Am I the only one to hear my cry, my outcast misery?
Even God will not listen to my loud complaints,
My shoeless feet propel me on a cursed path
And I can only dream about a richer life
With bosom friends and hopes of silver linings.
So I am left forlorn, devoid of art, bereft of talent.
I find myself despising what I am
Until I think these happy thoughts of you,
That lift me like the song of a lark that rises at sunrise
From this barren earth of mine to sing a hymn at heaven’s gate.
The sweet and gentle love that we once shared
Comes back into my memory again and brings such rebirth
That I would not trade this feeling for a crown.
I becomes apparent that Shakespeare was basically a lonely dreamer with not enough self esteem. Only his illusory fantasies about a perfect love brought him out of his depression and into a manic universe of his own making. Today they would say he had a bi-polar personality.
To me, Shakespeare was a greater play writer than he was a poet. His plays are filled with quotable quips that have peppered our speech for centuries.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be; for loan oft loses both itself and friend. -Hamlet
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Yet, even the plays speak in a language that we do not speak. The urge to make them modern has been the fall of many a lame producer. They peel away the age of the setting and substitute the near present, but they leave the stilted words alone as though the Great Almighty made these utterances.
But Shakespeare – bless his pea-pickin’ little heart – gave good advice and this is where he transcends the ages and sparkles like a jewel.
“Better three hours too soon, than a minute too late.” (Many a dead man has made that discovery.)
“Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow.” (Though I struggle to find the sweetness in this pain.)
“There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” (You tell ‘em, Will. These fools think they’re cool.)
“A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.” (Thinking makes this so as well.)
“Hell is empty and all the devils are here.” (Aye, said the Scotsman. And they are English to boot.)
“Cowards die many times before their death; the valiant never taste death but once.” (Many an old soldier loathes that statement.)
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players:” (Timothy Leary thought so.) But then he goes on: “They have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.”
(This started out great, but leaves me counting ages. Try as I may, I cannot get to seven ages. 1. Infancy, 2. Childhood, 3.Adolescence, 4. Maturity, 5. Middle-aged, and 6. Old.
That is the best I can do. Perhaps the seventh is Infirmity.