Making Sense of Shakespearean Sonnets

A guest post by one of our wonderful course tutors, Dr Julie Sutherland

What does a sonnet look like?

Look like, you ask?

Yes, what does it look like?

Well. You mull it over. It looks like 14 lines of iambic pentameter, where words are chosen according to a set rhyme scheme.

Precise – but rather dull. What else does it look like?

You think harder. You look at the text. You roll the words over in your mind. The intensity sears across that space behind your eyes.

It looks like pain, fear, jealousy, love, self-loathing, self-obsession. It looks like pure unadulterated talent.

What does it look like on a stage?

Now you’ve lost me.

What does a sonnet look like in performance?

You think again. Harder. Ideas clamour but you can’t quite turn them into words. Slowly your brain forces your lips, tongue, jaw and larynx into coordination.

It is the erratic dance of a frantic, isolated figure. In under 60 seconds she has run the gamut of emotions, from euphoric to suicidal. In the final moments, she tears herself from the precipice of anguish and settles tenuously on peace of mind.

Well now – that sounds a lot better than ‘14 lines on a page’.

When sonnets are brought to life through interpretive performances, intelligent readings or liberally- deciphered ‘cover versions’, they are so much more intelligible. A workshop on sonnets may sound daunting, but it can help skeptical participants understand their enduring relevance.

Shakespeare’s sonnets, like those of his models, were lyric expressions of obsessive love. Slaves to passion, these writers’ physical selves were as tortured as their emotional selves, and they turned pen to paper to explore, with aching self-awareness, their erotic relationships – requited or otherwise.

Any of you who have ever been in love, or even had a riotous crush, can understand this angst. You might not turn pen to paper (or you might), and you might not dive into sonnets for solace. But – you listen repeatedly to the music of agonized singers (think Passenger, Let Her Go), watch romantic movies (think Brokeback Mountain) with new eyes. Energized (or deflated) by these expressions of excruciating love, you revel in the smallest gesture of reciprocated interest from the object of your passion, or you stay awake all night, tortured by your failure.

So what will a sonnet session look like? We will draw on performances of Shakespeare’s sonnets (or songs befitting Shakespearean verse) to examine Shakespeare’s kaleidoscopic method of exploring his speaker’s feelings and observations about relationships – real or imagined. Through a close

analysis of a selection of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which will include hands-on interpretive work and the appraisal of sonnets in performance, our session will consider Shakespeare’s fixation on both the poem and the beloved(s) as works of art, as well as the preoccupation with technique that was evident in his lyric verse. Above all, the session will showcase the spectrum of emotions that Shakespeare’s speaker experienced as a lover of, at least, one woman and one man.

Overall, we will see how the sonnet sequence is a perfect medium for exploring relationships. Unhampered by demands for narrative coherence, the poet is free to explore love’s many conflicting inconsistencies and emotions, as well as both the human spirit’s desire for sexual freedom and its quest for long-term fulfilment. Using love (or lust) as its foundation, the sonnet sequence considers the myriad emotions and senses of the human being. In this form of impassioned diarising, the only thing the poet can control is the rhyme scheme and metre of their own verse.


Why do I know what I’m doing? (a short autobiography)

When I was 10, I got the neighbourhood kids together to stage a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. We had to share the space with the kids playing street hockey, but no ball to the face stung as sharply as the hyperbolic betrayals in this play. After that embarrassing enterprise, my parents put me in theatre school (Abbotsford Children’s Theatre, Vancouver Youth Theatre), and from there I pursued an honours degree in English literature and drama, with an emphasis on Renaissance poetry (Trinity Western and Queen’s Canada) and completed an MA and a PhD in English Studies with a focus on English Renaissance drama (Durham University). I also taught drama to youth and Renaissance poetry to students taking their first degrees.

Following my PhD, I began teaching Renaissance drama to undergraduates (Crandall University), but I missed life in the theatre. So, I recalibrated and began working for a professional theatre company in Vancouver, Canada (Pacific Theatre). To keep my brain diversely sharp, I also taught English literature at two universities in Western Canada (University of British Columbia and Kwantlen Polytechnic). Contemporaneously, I began my own production company (Doktor Luke Productions), which staged burlesque and variety shows as fundraisers for local arts groups.

As capricious as a Shakespearean speaker (and every bit as angsty), I switched gears once again and began teaching English literature to undergraduates in Eastern Canada (Cape Breton University) while also helping to produce Shakespeare’s plays (and other plays) in public spaces, accessible to all (Bandshell Players). We rolled down streets in a hand-built sideshow wagon and leapt onto stages in churches and university halls. We narrowly missed disaster with a ravenous fox and fought for airtime with angry Canada geese.

As masochistic as any Shakespearean speaker, I felt I wasn’t doing enough, so I also took on work as the Academic Coordinator for Shakespeare at yet another Canadian university (Athabasca University), while still teaching in Eastern Canada and opened up a coffee house (Doktor Luke’s), because why not? All the while, I have been helping to produce plays en plein air. Our Shakespeare troupe is particularly interested in supporting groups that destigmatise mental illness, and our fundraising efforts are dedicated to that pursuit.

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