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
40 Episodes
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.
With Sonnet 33 a new phase begins in the relationship between William Shakespeare and the young man. The storm clouds that gather in this poem are a direct and intentional metaphor for the turbulence the two face, as the young man has clearly gone and done something to upset his loving poet. What exactly this is, the sonnet doesn't tell us, but it is obvious that Shakespeare is hurt and disappointed, whilst trying to rationalise the young man's behaviour in a way that makes some sort of sense to him.
The wryly ironic Sonnet 32 marks a caesura in the canon, as it sits right between a development arc in the relationship that spans the sequence uninterrupted from Sonnet 18 to Sonnet 31, while giving nothing away of the entirely new phase the relationship enters with the storm clouds that gather in Sonnet 33. In tone, in attitude, in self-evaluation, it gains access to a register different to any that has gone before and quite unlike any that is soon to come, and so it stands out, rather, for being really quite unique.
With the astonishingly bold, borderline brazen, Sonnet 31, William Shakespeare strikes a completely new tone and tells both his young lover and us things he has not revealed before. It comes as close as we have seen thus far to declaring a physical component to their relationship, and in doing so opens an entirely new chapter with a whole different dynamic.
Sonnet 30 picks up on the theme of Sonnet 29 and develops the 'sweet love' remembered there into a reminiscence about lost love, missed opportunity and failed aspirations, among which again it is the thought of the young man that has the power, here not so much to simply lift the spirit and therefore the state of mind and heart, but to restore the losses suffered and to end the sorrows they have brought – to, in essence, heal.
One of the most celebrated poems in the canon, Sonnet 29 casts William Shakespeare in a state of deep and lonely unhappiness, from which the memory of his young lover is able to lift him in spectacular fashion. By continuing the theme of weariness and dejection established by the previous two sonnets, it confirms our notion of Shakespeare being on the road, away from the young man, but rather than focusing on a longing desire to be with him, it rejoices in the love experienced before.
Sonnet 28 continues on from Sonnet 27 and develops the thought further, elaborating on the ways day and night appear to conspire to make William Shakespeare's struggling life a misery as he travels, away from his young lover. While it thus does not tell us anything that is in that sense new, it produces a layered internal dialogue that gives us a great sense of the poet's state of mind and disposition of heart.
Sonnet 27 is the first of several sonnets in which Shakespeare laments the fact that he is away from his young lover, thus answering the question posed indirectly by Sonnet 26 as to who is on the move. And while this sonnet can stand on its own, with a fully formed and perfectly concluded argument, it does come as a pair with Sonnet 28, which follows on directly from it and which, by contrast, relies on this sonnet to be properly introduced. The two should therefore be looked at together, and we will do so when we get to Sonnet 28.
The obsequious, so as not to say startlingly submissive, Sonnet 26 radically changes the tone and therefore our perception of the constellation between William Shakespeare and the young man: gone is the confidence of Sonnet 25, gone, even, is the complexity of Sonnet 24 and the uncertainty of Sonnet 23, long gone seems the joy and exuberance of Sonnet 18. With Sonnet 26, William Shakespeare effectively withdraws, resets, and almost apologises for having been presumptuous in his declarations of love.
The at once defiant and celebratory Sonnet 25 is the first in the series to tell us something about William Shakespeare's own situation in life, and it also makes an astonishingly bold claim on the young man, newly asserting not only that the two of them belong together, but that they are inseparable.
With the complex and in its conclusion quietly insightful Sonnet 24, William Shakespeare looks more closely at what is happening between him and the young man whom he has declared his passion for, and he does so in a tone that manages to be both hopeful and realistic – so as not to say resigned – at the same time. It spreads the short shadow of doubt that Sonnet 23 had already tentatively cast over the relationship, but it still does so in the subtlest of ways, leaving plenty of room for the renewed optimism that will follow briefly with Sonnet 25. SONNETCAST.COM
The simultaneously self-conscious and also cautiously confident Sonnet 23 counsels the young man in the art of love, and in doing so it becomes the first one in the series to signal an uncertainty on William Shakespeare's part about the level to which the young man's love for him matches his own, in both degree and sophistication. And it is also the first sonnet to tell us that while Shakespeare still fully believes in the power of his written words, he has a tendency to become tongue-tied when in the presence of his young lover.
The superficially traditional and almost a little wistful sounding Sonnet 22 is the first one to address the age difference between William Shakespeare and his young lover and it is also the first one to expressly show us that – certainly as far as the poet is concerned and believes to understand – this love is mutual and reciprocated. Which makes this the third sonnet in quick succession to give us invaluable insights into Shakespeare's emotional world.
The distinctive and sincere Sonnet 21 stands out as the first in the series in which William Shakespeare addresses an unspecified general 'audience' to talk about his love – as opposed to the young man directly, or a personified concept, such as Time – and it is also the first one to reference the poetry of somebody else or of other people. It therefore marks an especially significant stage in the development of the relationship and a notable new stance with which Shakespeare positions himself towards his love and the outside world.
The fabulously frank and somewhat saucy Sonnet 20 takes the proverbial bull by the horn and leads it straight to the elephant in the room, addressing head on the fact that the person I, the poet, am here in love with is a young man; and it confirms one of the principal clues we were given earlier as to the young man's identity, which two facts together make this one of the most important sonnets for our understanding of The Fair Youth and Shakespeare's relationship with him so far.
​The heartfelt, somewhat self-conscious, but defiant and confident Sonnet 19 underlines the bold assertion I, the poet, William Shakespeare, made in Sonnet 18: that it is my poetry itself that gives life to the young man who receives these sonnets, and thus preserves his youth forever.
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