Frequent theatregoers are probably familiar with Shakespeare’s works for the stage, but his poetry may remain a mystery. This holiday season, we’re highlighting Shakespeare’s sonnets in our gift shops by showcasing the newly released Shakespeare’s Sonnets Retold by James Anthony, with a forward by Stephen Fry. Frustrated with not understanding Shakespeare’s language as a child, writer and poet James Anthony presents a “retold” version of all of Shakespeare’s sonnets next to the original, keeping the rhyme scheme, structure and meaning intact. During the process, he discovered a whole other side to Shakespeare’s work.
Shakespeare Theatre Company: Do you think Shakespeare’s language, or even the name “Shakespeare”, intimidates people who may not be familiar with his language? How do you recommend theatregoers or readers work through that?
James Anthony: I still have “scar tissue” from Shakespeare lessons as a kid; I just didn’t “get” the language. I’d get hung up on the words and phrases I didn’t understand, losing the ability to go along with the bits I did. It all seemed rather pointless, learning stories in a 400-year-old language. But I never felt “intimidated” by it; I just avoided it the best I could.
My first experience seeing Shakespeare outside of the classroom was A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Open Air Theatre in London’s Regent’s Park. I found it enthralling, its stellar cast and delightful setting complementing this most jovial and lighthearted play. For people intimidated by Shakespeare, Dream is a great place to start. But for any of the more difficult plays, I’d strongly recommend a little pre-reading. Unlike movies, where learning the plot twists is sure to spoil your evening’s entertainment, I find Shakespeare’s plays far more enjoyable when I know how the story unfolds. This isn’t really spoiling anything: everyone knows Hamlet is a tragedy, and therefore sure to conclude with a smattering of bloodshed and death. Learning the story in advance heightens the enjoyment, allowing the bewitching verse to flow from the actors. If I could have watched Vincent Van Gogh paint “Sunflowers,” my enjoyment of watching this master at work would not have been diminished by knowing what he was about to paint. I feel the same about watching Shakespeare’s plays for the first time.
STC: When retelling the sonnets, you tried to keep in mind what Shakespeare was thinking when he wrote it. What was it like trying to get into his brain?
JA: I started my retellings of the sonnets without any preconceptions of what I might learn. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day…” is a seemingly innocent, rather lovely poem, opening with Shakespeare’s second most famous line of all. It was the obvious place to start. I then flipped to sonnet 1 and worked chronologically through all 154 sonnets. The first 17 are referred to as the “procreation sonnets,” where the author is urging the fair youth to have some children. This is all well and good, but in truth gets a tad repetitive. The sequence only starts getting juicy from sonnet 18, and rapidly gets feisty, carnal and promiscuous. This change caught me off guard. To me, it became self-evident that Shakespeare was head-over-heels in love with this young aristocratic male, enjoying an intimate relationship filled with longing, loathing, jealousy and self-doubt. Further into the sequence, he describes his lusty relationship with “the Dark Lady,” a woman whom he just couldn’t keep his hands off. As the obvious conflicts evolve—remember, he was also married with three children—his turmoil increases, with desperation, jealousy and self-loathing flowing from his quill. It became clear to me that Shakespeare’s Sonnets are the diary of his heart.
STC: What challenges were involved with keeping the original rhyme scheme, structure and meaning of the sonnets?
JA: The sonnets are all written in iambic pentameter, a five-beat-per-line pattern with few permitted irregularities. It takes practice and discipline but is rewarding when cracked. Rather than finding this a constraint, it was liberating, much like people enjoy a crossword or Sudoku puzzle. I had to understand Shakespeare’s intentions, then reword them in contemporary English that a layman like me would understand.
The hardest part was the rhyme. I’d often be thrilled with the opening two lines of a quatrain but end up frustrated by my inability to find suitable rhymes in the closing two lines. Oftentimes, I had to tear up the quatrain and start over. And, as any writer will tell you, tearing up your once-precious words always hurts. But perseverance was the key: I always knew there was a solution, and it just required time and focus to find it.
STC: How do you think Shakespeare’s sonnets are relevant to a contemporary audience?
JA: Shakespeare expressed sentiments that we’ve all felt throughout our lives: desire, frustration, jealousy, self-doubt, elation, sadness. In the sonnets, we have this master wordsmith laying out the most human of emotions with his trademark imagery and beguiling language. With a little focus and patience, we can understand the emotions expressed in the sonnets and glean solace that we are not alone in the challenges we face throughout life.
STC: What do you want readers to take away from the book?
JA: Ultimately, by giving readers an accessible way to understand Shakespeare’s sentiments, I hope that a whole new audience will come to appreciate the joys in the sonnets. My retellings are just my interpretation of what I think he was saying; some readers may disagree with some of my lines, and I’m cool with that.
Pick up a copy of Shakespeare’s Sonnets Retold in STC’s gift shops this holiday season.