Hello and welcome to Sonnecast – William Shakespeare’s sonnets recited, revealed and relived.
My name is Sebastian Michael and this episode is the Introduction, so today I will not actually be reciting, revealing or reliving any sonnet, but I will briefly introduce myself, so you get an idea of whom you’re listening to, and I will also tell you a bit about the approach I am taking to these glorious poems, and why they mean quite as much to me as they do. And in doing so I hope to of course also put forward a bit my credentials for actually doing this podcast.
I first fell in love with the Sonnets in the summer of 2013. Of course, like everybody else, I had heard several of them before, some of the more famous ones I felt I knew almost by heart, but it was when a friend of mine on Facebook decided to post one sonnet a day in the run-up to Christmas for 154 that the spark really lit and set my heart on fire for the Sonnets, because this almost immediately became the highlight of my day.
I would get up every morning, looking forward to the new instalment, which this friend of mine had generously furnished with some notes he’d found online, and to me it became really obvious really soon that these Sonnets are Shakespeare’s most personal, most intimate, most immediately revealing work, that far from being “sugar’d” – as very famously one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries called them – or simply sweetly romantic, they cover a vast range of his private and professional ups and downs; they express his rage, his frustration, his jealousy, his loneliness, his despair at the passing of time, often a deep confusion, all of these quite as much as love and admiration and the wonder at sheer beauty, which we know them so well for. And I also felt I could detect in them an at least plausible, chartable story.
Now I have to put here in brackets that this in itself – charting a story from the sonnets – is immensely controversial. And I will come back to this, because it is a fascinating and an important question: to what extent can or should the sonnets be read as biographical; I will address this in quite a bit more detail. But here let me just tell you what I did next:
Fully aware that everything is conjecture and that everything or almost everything about these Sonnets, not least the degree to which they can be regarded as biographical, is hotly disputed, I wrote a play, called The Sonneteer, which together with the wonderful actor Tom Medcalf and the equally marvellous director Ros Philips I took up to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2014. This play incorporates about two dozen of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and imagines a possible course of the relationship between the poet and The Fair Youth whom the majority of these Sonnets are either directly or indirectly addressed to, or as some people might put it, believed to be addressed to.
Since then, I've recorded all of the Sonnets on YouTube and I’ve also created the Saturday's Sonnet video blog, which selected one Sonnet each week to look at in some detail.
What I want to do with this podcast now is celebrate all these Sonnets afresh, pursuing very much the approach I adopted previously: listen to the words and find out what they actually tell us. They tell us a lot, if we listen carefully, and the joy of working with these sonnets is such that I am going one step further than I did before. For this podcast I am learning all of the Sonnets by heart. I am not just reading them, I am really internalising them to get to their essence as much as I possibly can. Of course, for the podcast I will check them very carefully against the printed versions because I want to make sure that I give you an authoritative version of the Sonnet; so I won’t be relying entirely on my memory, but at this point, as I am recording this Introduction, I am able to recite the first 35 or 36 Sonnets and I mean to continue until I have them all down to a T.
Now though, before we start reciting, revealing and reliving Shakespeare’s Sonnets with Episode One, which is the next one and the first one in the actual series, it is probably worth setting the scene a bit by looking at what we do know and what we don’t know about this extraordinary body of work, and what assumptions we are going to have to make. Because you always have to make some assumptions when you are dealing with a piece of classic literature such as this.
The absolutely first thing to acknowledge is that we know very little. We don’t know for certain when Shakespeare wrote the Sonnets – although there is a time frame for them, they first get mentioned in 1598, when he is 34, but we don’t know how many of them he had written by then, we don’t know in which order he wrote them, we don’t know whether he ever intended them to be published or not, we don’t know whom, if anyone in particular, they are addressed or referring to, we don’t even know – and this perhaps most vexingly – why he wrote them, though it seems clear he wrote different batches of them for different reasons. In fact, almost everything you hear or read about William Shakespeare’s Sonnets turns out to be, at some point sooner or later, conjecture. Except the words.
What we do have, most fortunately, is the Sonnets themselves. We have the words, and the words are almost entirely undisputed: they are effectively complete, at least with regard to the 154 Sonnets we know of, and there is remarkably little argument about what these words are.
Of course, if you read different editions they will make slightly different emendations as to punctuation and spellings; there will be the odd word here and there that gets discussed in great detail and very interestingly; there are some obvious typesetting and printing errors that have crept in and that get resolved in slightly varying ways by different editors today; but what nobody needs to argue about is that the Sonnets exist, and that they are wonderful. (This latter statement already is one that people do argue about. To my mind unnecessarily.)
The Sonnets were first published in what is known as the Quarto Edition of 1609, which means they became available in the collection as we know it today during Shakespeare’s lifetime.
This does not mean that it was Shakespeare who caused them to be published. We don’t know if he wanted them to be published or if somebody simply thought, here are some poems by a now famous poet and playwright, this clearly is a way I can earn some money.
There is no record or evidence of Shakespeare having disputed or challenged the publication of the Sonnets, and he was in certain respects quite a litigious man: he did go to court over various matters, but it is also the case that any concept of ‘copyright’ at the time was extremely difficult to enforce, that piracy of what today we would call intellectual property was rife, and it is also worth pointing out that many important, pertinent documents of the era were lost in the Great Fire of London, which started on the 6th of September 1666 and raged for four days.
All that said, we don’t know whether Shakespeare wanted these Sonnets published, whether he agreed with the publication; what we do know is simply that there is no record of his challenging the publication, and, importantly, there is a structure and order to the published sequence that suggests that somebody – either William Shakespeare himself or whoever prepared the Sonnets for publication – gave some thought to how they hang together.
The most obvious but not only evidence of this lies in how Sonnets that clearly come as pairs follow each other, how those that are addressed to or stand in the context of a relationship with the Fair Youth are kept separate from those that are addressed to or stand in the context of the Dark Lady, how the first seventeen Sonnets all are thematically linked and simply tell a young man to get married and have children – what is known as the ‘procreation sequence’ – and how there is, at least within some groups of them an apparent progression in the relationship that is being talked about.
In other words: while we can’t say with any certainty that this is the order in which they were written – and in fact today’s research methods which analyse Shakespeare’s use of vocabulary seem to suggest that they probably weren’t – even scholars who strongly propose a different order of genesis accept that there is an ‘organising principle’ at work which could only have been imposed by a cogent intelligence: somebody who understood the work. So the standard sequence as originally published in 1609 is not a random collection, it is actively and consciously curated and to my mind in the absence of any other certainty, we may as well accept it as it is and take this as our text.
One question that is immensely fascinating and much discussed is the dedication at the beginning of this first Quarto Edition of 1609. And I am not going to go into it here. Because it practically merits an episode entirely of its own and I may yet decide to record this episode either at the end or at halfway point, or at some point, but for the moment let it suffice that the first ever printed edition carries a dedication not by the author but by the printer to a “W. H.” whom he calls “the only begetter of these ensuing sonnets.”
Much has been made and quite rightly continues to be made of who this W.H. is, and what is meant by “the only begetter.” Is it the writer of the Sonnets, as some people think? That would mean W.H. is a misprint and a fairly substantial clanger right there on the dedication page. Or is it the person who made them available for publication? Some people argue it could or should be the Fair Youth himself, the addressee of the majority of the Sonnets, but that immediately begs the question, what of the Dark Lady, the other principal addressee of the Sonnets? And why would the printer dedicate his edition to the person who features in the poems anonymously? So while we can’t answer these questions here and may never be able to answer them completely anywhere, the dedication is almost a symbol for the question of what can and can’t be known. And the fact is and remains, we don’t know anything other, really, than the actual words, and when it comes to the Sonnets, these are among the finest words ever written by anyone who ever lived.
And this is one thing that is perhaps worth pointing out: I am first and foremost a writer and so I am approaching these Sonnets from a writer’s perspective, rather than, say, from a purely academic perspective. And while it is true to say that we know very little about these Sonnets, an awful lot of material exists about them. There is a wealth of analysis out there and if you employ your favourite search engine, you will immediately happen upon reams of theory about the sonnet as a poetic form in general, about the interpretation of Shakespeare’s Sonnets in particular, and about everything to do with William Shakespeare’s Sonnets.
My approach to writing The Sonneteer and then subsequently to creating the video blog and now to this podcast has been and remains to almost entirely eschew external sources and third party references and do one thing and one thing almost only – I say almost here because there will in the course of this podcast be some exceptions, but principally I will listen to the words. My contention is – and I hope and to some extent trust that this podcast may help prove – that the words themselves tell us a great deal about Shakespeare, about the people he talks to and about, and also about the story, or certainly about a possible story behind the Sonnets.
Let me reiterate this principal caveat: nothing that I can say in this podcast is an incontrovertible truth. Because there is none. We don’t know anything for certain, except what is written down in the Sonnets. But – and this is why they are so exciting – these words are very, very revealing in the best possible sense:
A writer here has put his soul, his heart, his entire being into this writing. These Sonnets tell us more about William Shakespeare the man than any of his magnificent plays, nor let alone his long dramatic poems, of which there are two. The Sonnets – and this I find virtually impossible to doubt – talk about Shakespeare himself, about his love, his lust, his passion, his frustrations, his jealousy, his angst, his disgust, his anguish, his joy. There is no good reason to assume that that isn’t so.
And this leads me – almost in parentheses – to briefly touch on the ‘authorship’ question and declare quite categorically that to my mind and knowledge there simply is no authorship question. I take absolutely as given that these Sonnets are Shakespeare’s and that Shakespeare existed, and that he wrote his own works.
There is a whole separate debate that can and should be had about Shakespeare’s collaborations and the extent to which some of his plays are his, partly his, or compromised versions of what he actually wrote, but there is virtually no evidence that Shakespeare was not who we think he was or that he did not write his own works under his own name. And so there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Shakespeare was real: a real person, a real writer who wrote his own real plays, and his own real poetry. I am yet to be presented with a single compelling piece of evidence or even good-enough argument to suggest otherwise.
And that is absolutely one of the premises that I am taking with this podcast, the ‘authorship’ question to my mind does not credibly exist. William Shakespeare lived and wrote, and William Shakespeare, and William Shakespeare, as far as anyone can tell as far as the evidence that we have goes, is the author of these Sonnets.
And if we accept – as we can and therefore should – that these Sonnets were written by William Shakespeare, then I think it is fair and certainly reasonable to read them for what they are, which is a clearly structured poetic way of expressing yourself.
And what is so amazing about this canon is the sheer depth they go into and the breadth of emotional states that they cover. From what starts out as a simple, fairly neutral, and detached attempt at telling a young man to get on and produce children, they move to infatuation, to a passionate reciprocated love, to separation, to jealousy; through forgiveness to despair to reconciliation, and then it starts getting really complex when we reach the Dark Lady Sonnets, which tell almost a whole separate story, although there are clearly some indications that suggest that they in parts overlap or interweave with the Fair Youth Sonnets.
So yes: I think these Sonnets are absolutely personal and real. There are some people who argue cogently that these Sonnets may perhaps purely be an exercise in writing, that maybe Shakespeare is just practising his art here, and this is possible. It is certainly possible but it is extremely unlikely. There are as we said earlier people who caution against reading the Sonnets ‘biographically’, while acknowledging at the same time that they are personal and genuinely felt. But once you start listening to these Sonnets and assume nothing, you begin to recognise gradually not just how deeply they start to be felt after a while, but also how clearly they hang together and chart a trajectory.
And again, a caveat here: when I say they chart a trajectory: we have to be extremely careful what we read into these Sonnets, what we project onto them: is it one trajectory or is it several trajectories – all of these things are open to be discovered and that is of course partly the point of this podcast, to not only celebrate these Sonnets but also find out what we can know and what we simply can’t.
What I do think we can know is that the Sonnets are a reflection of what goes on in this man who wrote them at a critical stage in his life, and so separating the man from his poetry and his poetry from his life becomes difficult to the point of being absurd.
But this then is the premise. The premise of this podcast, if you like, is that we know nothing. Let’s assume we know nothing, but we have these words, and let’s find out what, if anything, the words tell us. It really is as simple and straightforward as that.
And also, I am in this podcast not going to assume that you already know anything about the Sonnets. I’m going to assume that you may simply be interested, but have no idea about any of them at all, which does mean that if you are an expert and you know a lot about the Sonnets already I might really annoy you, and you might even on occasion think I’m talking nonsense, and if that’s the case then do feel free to comment or to send me an email, I am here as much to learn as to communicate what I think can be known and understood about Shakespeare’s Sonnets.
What thrills me, what excites me so much about these Sonnets today and why I think they are so fresh and why they do speak to us is because they effectively portray a postmodern relationship: you could put them into a constellation of three people today, and on Facebook you’d have to select your relationship status as “it’s complicated”. These three – the poet, the Fair Youth and the Dark Lady – go through everything we can imagine a contemporary polyamorous group of people going through. They fall in love with each other and fall out of love again, they stay attached to each other while also seeing other people, they love, betray and forgive each other. It’s messy, it’s wonderful, and it’s utterly human, of course.
And in all this, the language is glorious. It is sometimes maybe a bit taxing because you don’t always understand everything immediately, but the Sonnets can all be understood, and if there is one desire, one wish I have with this whole project, then it is to make the Sonnets maybe even just a tad more understandable, a bit more directly accessible to somebody. So if only one or two amongst you out there think, ah this has helped me to understand and enjoy a Sonnet more than I would have done otherwise, this has encouraged me to spend a bit more time with this Sonnet, or this has given me an entry point to the Sonnet, then my job here, such as it is, is done. That’s all I want to do, and I want to share the Sonnets because I love them so much, so if you like what you’re hearing, if this piques your interest, then subscribe and stay tuned and join me with the next episode where we will be looking at Sonnet No 1.
You will also find the Sonnets themselves with notes and translations and links to individual episodes at sonnetcast.com as they become available. And if you want to know more about me, you can find out everything that's worth reading or watching at sebastianmichael.com. And please, if you find any error or have any questions or suggestions, or if you want to appear on the podcast or know somebody who should, do get in touch via the website: I very much look forward to hearing from you.
So whether you are already hooked on the Sonnets, or whether you have never given them a second thought, whether you’ve ‘done Shakespeare’ before or are completely new to him, I hope you will join me on this journey of discovery as we delve into and recite, reveal and relive William Shakespeare’s Sonnets.