Saturday, July 26, 2008

Tiptoe Through the Sonnets in Stratford

Tom Hunter and I witnessed the latest of the attempts made in Stratford, Ontario to find some kind of flesh on the bones of the poet/playwright William Shakespeare. There just has to be a way to make some kind of “real” person out of these plays and poems! Ah, if only they could see the answer staring them in the face!

In recent years, Stratford has put on “Elizabeth Rex” about how Shakespeare met Queen Elizabeth in a barn the evening before the execution of the Earl of Essex and “Shakespeare’s Will” about Anne Hathaway’s recollections of life with William while reading his will after his death. The latest offering in these “speculative biographies” is “There Reigns Love”, a seemingly random stroll through the Sonnets devised and performed by acclaimed British actor Simon Callow (not to be confused with Simon Cowell of American Idol fame).

Mr. Callow has been presenting the work of John Padel, thereby saving it from the oblivion it may well deserve. But then again, who knows? John Padel was a psychoanalyst who in 1980 wrote a book called New Poems by Shakespeare. He (like many others before him) decided that the Sonnets, as published in 1609, could not be in the “proper order”. He was able to rearrange them into various tetrads and triads that would finally tell the “real story” that the sonnets reveal. He was promptly lambasted by virtually every Shakespearean scholar of all persuasions and his work has been all but forgotten (until resurrected by Mr. Callow)

This is the story of how William Shakespeare of Stratford was commissioned by Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke to write a series of sonnets for her son William Herbert (oh, the “W.H.” in the dedication of the sonnets!) on the occasion of his 17th birthday in order to urge him to marry and have children. Having done that, Shakespeare then proceeded to develop an intense “emotional attachment” to William Herbert, writing him a further 72 sonnets, arranged into 18 tetrads, for his 18th birthday. More sonnets were then written to him.

Then, perhaps anticipating Cyrano, Shakespeare decided to introduce “Mr. W.H.” to his mistress (with whom Shakespeare was having some kind of love/hate relationship) in order to “jump start” the young man’s seeming reticence about the opposite sex. Well, that plan worked too well, it appears, as the young man (Fair Youth that he was) began to take Shakespeare’s place in the affections of this Dark Lady. More sonnets on this topic ensued.

Finally, Shakespeare was forced to accept the situation and content himself with his inevitable failure with this young man, and “get on with his life”.

It’s a wonderful story. Maybe it’s true. Maybe it’s not. I’d say, not.

I was really dreading going to see this production, feeling that I would have to cringe throughout the whole thing. However, I actually found it very enjoyable. Mr. Callow performed the sonnets extremely well with great emotion and gestures and I couldn’t help “getting into the story”.

Although Padel managed to rearrange all 154 sonnets into the “proper order”, we were only treated to a performance of 66 of them (neatly arranged into 33 in each act of the performance) interspersed with some commentary by Simon Callow to “explain things”. I have the list and order of the sonnets which were presented available if anyone is interested in it.

To his credit, Mr. Callow did mention distinctly at the beginning of the performance that the whole thing is speculation and hypothesis. This is in distinction to the other two attempts by the Stratford Festival (which I mentioned at the beginning of this post) to find a “life” for Shakespeare, in which the speculative nature of the works was buried in the notes provided in the program book.

Of course, once the performance is on, the audience can quickly forget about this “disclaimer” and end up leaving the theater with the satisfying notion that they now understand Shakespeare the man.

The performance began with Mr. Callow reciting sonnet 129 and then explaining how this was the sonnet he wrote to secure the commission by the Countess of Pembroke. He then went on (I’m paraphrasing here), “Maybe. Who knows? Scholars have been arguing this for years. In fact, I could hear the scholars cringing even as I read that last sonnet.” At this point, Tom Hunter decided to test the theory we had heard about earlier that day during a Meet the Festival session that the actors on stage are fully aware of what happens in the audience. Tom proceeded to clap (softly) on hearing about the scholars cringing. The theory is true. Mr. Callow was momentarily distracted, but quickly recovered. Maybe he didn’t expect anyone to be listening that carefully to what he was saying.

After the performance, a small portion of the audience stayed behind for the Q and A session with Mr. Callow (including Tom and I although I did perceive that Mr. Callow avoided looking in our direction during this session [well maybe that was because there were only four audience members left on our side of the theater with most of the other people over on the other side]).

This Q and A session was very informative. We discovered that Mr. Callow does not necessarily believe in the story that John Padel has “uncovered”. Mr. Callow simply says that it seems obvious that there IS some kind of story contained in the sonnets and that John Padel’s story is the most complete elucidation of a possible story that he (Callow) has come across.

Later in the Q and A, Mr. Callow said that, when doing his presentation he is not sure if he is supposed to be “Simon Callow, William Shakespeare, or some other person who had the experiences written about in the sonnets”. Unfortunately, neither Tom not I was able to ask him to further explain this enigmatic comment.

The mystery of the sonnets lives on!


H said...
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mhyatt said...

You can hear (and watch) Simon Callow talk about his performance on a podcast interview by David Prosser here on the Stratford Festival website.

The authorship issue is mentioned about 16 minutes into the program. Callow correctly pegs the Earl of Oxford as the "main contender," but dismisses any such idea as "bananas."