Sunday, 19 October 2008

Shakespeare's Sonnets & Simon Callow

Simon Callow was performing Shakespeare’s sonnets at the Tonbridge Arts festival. Simon Callow, on locally, how could we pass this up. “Shakespeare’s sonnets contain some of the most famous lines in the English language and yet nothing is known of the story behind them” reads the blurb.

In presenting this one man show, Master/Mistress of my Passion, Callow tries to show the audience that in fact Shakespeare’s sonnets tell a tale – they are a narrative that charts Bill’s infatuation with the ideal of beauty.

Apparently, Shakespeare met and admired Mary Sidney, the Earl of Pembroke’s mother and whilst at her pad saw a painting of her son, William Herbert, and was mesmerised. This boy came to personify the ideal of beauty to Shakespeare although he had yet to meet him. And this is where the sonnets start.

These are poems that praise the beauty and disposition of his young idol and are passionate poems of unrequited love:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's 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 fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

Shakespeare, the poet, is not the same as Shakespeare, the playwright. In the latter he is the writer of brilliant and entertaining plays that explore character. In the former, he is a philosopher investigating the question of Time and its effect. “Time triumphs over flesh, and Love over all”

Callow was quick to point out that Shakspeare’s crush was not a homeoerotic one but solely a passion for beauty. Eventually he met the beautiful young man who was not very impressed with Bill’s ardour and admiration. Young Herbert did not reciprocate the passion Shakespeare felt and Bill was miffed.

Slowly Shakespeare’s passion waned although one is hard pushed to tell from the contents of the sonnets. At the time, he had a mistress and some of the sonnets are addressed to her. Like many poems of the day the content was often very bawdy and, if we could have followed them a little more slowly, we might have been a little more shocked. Finally, Simon says, Bill and Will became good friends. Although, to me, Bill still seemed a little struck.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Simon’s reading of the sonnets were interspersed with madrigals sung by Quintus. These obviously suited the period but also gave the audience a break from the intensity of Callow’s rendition. With two bass, two sopranos, one counter tenor, one tenor and one contra-tenor it was quite a large group who sang the fugues quite beautifully without musical accompaniment. A lute player also performed at intervals although we found this rather tedious.

To really understand and appreciate the sonnets it needs a great deal of scholarship, attention and experience. To hear Shakespeare’s sonnets rendered so theatrically – in true Shakespearian actor style – meant that they were a little difficult to absorb. To have followed the written word would have helped or, if we had known what homework to do, we could have read them beforehand and got our ear in. It meant that much of it went over our heads.

In fact, our group of ten found the entire programme a little long. I suspect that many of us were remembering Callow’s excellent show on the life of Dickens. It had been on in the West End and the costume and content was really quite splendid. This show, it was felt, was but a pale imitation.

But Simon Callow did get me thinking: here was a reason to read the sonnets again armed with a little more knowledge about their background. And to have a man of Callow’s fame and ability, here, in the sticks, spouting Shakespeare: we would have been Philistines not to go.


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