DiscoverSONNETCAST – William Shakespeare's Sonnets Recited, Revealed, Relived
SONNETCAST – William Shakespeare's Sonnets Recited, Revealed, Relived

SONNETCAST – William Shakespeare's Sonnets Recited, Revealed, Relived

Author: Sebastian Michael

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Sebastian Michael, author of The Sonneteer and several other plays and books, looks at each of William Shakespeare's 154 Sonnets in the originally published sequence, giving detailed explanations and looking out for what the words themselves tell us about the great poet and playwright, about the Fair Youth and the Dark Lady, and about their complex and fascinating relationships.

Podcast transcripts, the sonnets, contact details and full info at
55 Episodes
The astonishingly suggestive Sonnet 52 is the closest William Shakespeare has come so far to answering in his own words the question that has agitated readers of these sonnets for centuries: is this a physical, even sexual, relationship he is having with the young man, or could it not simply be one that is very close, maybe romantic, but nevertheless purely platonic. With its choice and precisely placed vocabulary, it relates an either already experienced or imminent reunion and thus also marks the end of the prolonged period of separation that appears to have been imposed on Shakespeare and his young lover since Sonnet 43.
Sonnet 51 picks up from the dull-paced journey of Sonnet 50 and contrasts this with the poet's boundless desire for speed once he is on the way back home to his lover. It also marks the end of the extended period of separation that began with Sonnet 43 and so concludes this sequence of nine sonnets that appear to have been written while Shakespeare is away from London.
Sonnets 50 & 51 once again come as a pair, whereby Sonnet 50 evokes in a measured tone of melancholy the sorrow and sadness Shakespeare senses on a strenuous journey at slowly having to move further and further away from his lover, while Sonnet 51 then contrasts this with a notion of just how eager he will be on his way back to him and how fast he wishes that return leg of the journey could happen.As on previous occasions, we will look at both these sonnets back-to-back in the next episode, but concentrate on the first one of the pair, Sonnet 50, for now.
The soberly solemn Sonnet 49 opens an unnervingly real register that does away with hyperbolic praise, clever contrivance, or poetic acrobatics, and instead drives through a short structured sequence of dreaded but perfectly plausible scenarios towards a devastating denouement. Seldom until now and rarely hereafter do we hear Shakespeare quite so roundly, so comprehensively, and above all so authentically self-aware and self-effacing.
Sonnet 48 ends the emotional hiatus brought into the sequence by the previous five sonnets and plunges our poet back into a deep anxiety about how much he can trust that his lover will still be there when he returns from his trip.
Sonnet 47 again follows on directly from Sonnet 46, developing the argument further and arriving at a conclusion which is also maybe not altogether surprising, but which validates the premise set out with Sonnet 46 much more than that on its own led us to expect, thus tying Sonnet 46 tightly into this couple as a unit.
Sonnet 46 is the first in a second couple of sonnets that take a more abstract approach to dealing with separation, while employing a fairly established classical trope, in this case a conflict between the eye and the heart over which of these two should 'own' the young lover. Similar to Sonnet 44 in the previous pair, Sonnet 46 can ostensibly stand on its own, but it nevertheless serves as the foundation for its counterpart, Sonnet 47, which follows on from it directly and really needs to be read as an extension of it. We will therefore again look at both sonnets together in the next episode, whilst concentrating here on Sonnet 46.
Sonnet 45 follows on directly from Sonnet 44 as a seamless continuation and therefore needs to be read in tandem with it for it to make sense. With Sonnet 44 having introduced the two classical elements earth and water and explained how it is their heavy materiality that prevents William Shakespeare from being with his young lover, Sonnet 45 now speaks to the nature of the remaining two elements, air and fire, and finds a way to express how it is that even though they be physically insubstantial and infused with liveliness, they still contribute to his prevailing sadness about this period of separation.
Sonnet 44 is the first in two pairs of poems that together sit in a larger group of sonnets which see William Shakespeare spending time away from his young lover and expressing his anguish over this absence. It comes in an unequal coupling with Sonnet 45, whereby 44 can easily stand on its own, but 45 directly follows on from 44 and only makes sense when read in its context. And of course, we will look at them both together in the next episode. This instalment though focuses on 44.
Sonnet 43 leaves behind, for the time-being, the upheaval and upset caused by the young man's betrayal of Shakespeare with his own mistress and picks up the theme – and to a lesser extent mood – of Sonnets 27 & 28 when Shakespeare – away from his young lover and tired with travel – is kept awake by the beautiful young man's vision appearing to him in his dreams.
In this special episode, Stephen Regan, Professor Emeritus at Durham University, who is currently a research associate in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne and the author of The Sonnet (Oxford University Press, 2019), talks to Sebastian Michael about the sonnet as a poetic form: its origins, how it reaches the English language, what Shakespeare does with it that is so extraordinary, and what its outlook is for the 21st century and beyond.
In the second of two sonnets that try to deal with the fallout from the young man's infidelity, William Shakespeare contorts himself into an argument that, really, both his young lover and his mistress did what they did only for the love they both bear him. That this is something of a delusion is a conclusion he himself comes to as easily as we do. Sonnet 42 nevertheless yields a valuable new insight into the suddenly so complex situation by drawing a clear distinction between the levels of priority and the types of connection William Shakespeare feels he has with the other two protagonists of what, without his own intention or let alone approval, has turned into a remarkably post-modern love triangle. 
Sonnet 41 is the first of two sonnets in which William Shakespeare tries to make sense of the young man's transgression and to absolve him of any guilt. Like its companion Sonnet 42, it can be read independently and does not form an actual pair, and like Sonnet 42 it doesn't really succeed at what it sets out to do, because by the end of it, it is as clear to us as it is to William Shakespeare that both the young man and Shakespeare's mistress, with whom the young man has had a sexual encounter, have in effect betrayed our poet. What both Sonnet 41 and Sonnet 42 make abundantly clear and leave no doubt about is that this is exactly what has happened and that for William Shakespeare the most important thing now is to reassure himself as well as his young man that, as Sonnet 40 concludes: "we must not be foes," because clearly he cares too much for him than to let this peccadillo spell the end of their relationship.
With his forcefully forgiving Sonnet 40, William Shakespeare finally connects us right back to Sonnet 35 and sets out on a short sequence which explains with startling frankness what has happened and what should now, and, more to the point, should not now be the consequence of this. That Shakespeare feels desolate about his lover's 'ill deeds' is beyond doubt, as is the fact that this sonnet goes straight to the heart of the matter: love. This poet, who has the greatest vocabulary of any writer in the English language if not ever then certainly up until then uses the word 'love' ten times here – more often than in any other sonnet – to mean either the emotion itself or whoever may be this other person or indeed these other people whom he directs this emotion towards in a relationship that has suddenly become at the very least triangular in the most spectacular fashion.
Sonnet 39 is the last of four sonnets that seem to disrupt the sequence of events until Sonnet 35, and picks up more or less directly with Sonnet 36 by suggesting that it would be best if William Shakespeare were separate from the young man, though for wholly different reasons. The sonnet appears to post-rationalise an imposed absence of, or from, the young man, while also echoing the question posed by Sonnet 38 of how to sing the young man's praises, but then again developing this into a totally different direction. As with Sonnets 36, 37, and 38, it is not entirely clear whether this sonnet has been grouped together with these other poems here simply because it appears to make reference to at least two of them, or whether it really does belong into this smaller group, irrespective of whether that smaller group is in the right place or not.
With his remarkably deadpan Sonnet 38, William Shakespeare changes tone completely and positions his own poetry as the product of the man who has so long now been his Muse. Like Sonnet 37, it does not obviously fit into the sequence, but like Sonnet 37, it still clearly speaks to the same young man and also like Sonnet 37, it references topics that have been expressed earlier in the series: in this case the particular relationship that exists between a poet and the person he is inspired by to write poetry for, something that has been addressed as early as Sonnet 21, where Shakespeare compared himself favourably to the kind of poet who sings his love's praises in unsubstantiated hyperbole.
In the first of three sonnets that appear to disrupt the sequence that concerns itself with the young man's evident infidelity, Sonnet 37 revisits the themes previously encountered of the poet's keenly felt lack of luck, absence of esteem, and sorely missing success, and contrasts this with the young man's abundant riches, both material and metaphorical, describing them as a source of sustenance and survival even while Fortune bestows her gifts elsewhere.
With the curious Sonnet 36 William Shakespeare appears to be either inverting the guilt and shame that the previous three sonnets have laid upon the young man for his evident transgression and projecting it directly on himself, or to be uncovering a new source of scandal that gives him reason to suggest – borderline disingenuously, it might seem – that they dissociate themselves from each other, even though in the same breath it also emphatically confirms the love they hold for each other.
With his tormented, paradoxical, and sensationally revealing Sonnet 35, William Shakespeare absolves the young man of his misdeed and puts what has happened down to nothing in the world being perfect, not even he. It is the third in this set of three sonnets that might be considered a triptych, and with it, Shakespeare appears to resign himself into the triangular complexity his relationship with the young man has acquired, while dropping a nugget of information that to us comes as something of a poetic bombshell.
The devastated and devastatingly powerful Sonnet 34 picks up from where Sonnet 33 wanted to not only leave off but let go, and like a second wave of pain and mourning asks the young man directly why he has allowed the gorgeous sunshine of this relationship to be cast over with appalling weather. And unlike Sonnet 33, it not only tries, but apparently succeeds at forgiving the young man's conduct, paving the way for an even more conciliatory Sonnet 35, principally – and most tellingly – prompted by the young man's apparent response to being so called out.
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