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
67 Episodes
In Sonnet 63, William Shakespeare continues his reflection on his own age and now projects this as a dreaded and near-inescapable reality that will one day be visited upon his young lover; but like several sonnets that have come in the collection before, Sonnet 63 both endeavours and promises to render the young lover immune to death, age, and decay through its own everlasting power. Shakespeare thus counterpoints his horror of age and his growing despair over the unrelenting swift-footedness of time with a renewed confidence in his own poetry, and although Sonnet 63 can stand on its own, it is thematically so strongly linked to Sonnet 62 that it also serves as reliable evidence to support the contention that Sonnet 62, even though it doesn't make this explicit, is of course addressed to a young man and that this is the same young man as is referred to in Sonnet 63 and, as we have sound reason to believe. whom the majority of the sonnets so far are either addressed to or written about.
With his most unsparing sonnet so far, Sonnet 62, William Shakespeare finds yet another register and a new level of depth to both his insight into self and the honesty with which he is prepared to sonneteer his young lover. That his lover is young and he by his own perception and standards old could scarcely be more drastically emphasised than in this depiction of himself as misguidedly narcissistic. The greater therefore the redeeming twist that comes in the concluding couplet which once more emphasises not just the close connection Shakespeare feels to his young lover but reiterates, as other sonnets have done before, that he and the young man are, as far as William Shakespeare is concerned, one.
With Sonnet 61, William Shakespeare returns to the theme treated in Sonnets 27 & 28 of an enforced separation from his lover that robs him of his sleep, but here brings into the equation the young man's hoped for but absent jealousy, to end on a sense that in fact betrays Shakespeare's own jealousy of the company the young man is keeping while away from him, something that we saw foreshadowed strongly in Sonnet 48. The sonnet thus echos several of the concerns that have preoccupied our poet from the pair 27 & 28 onwards, right through to Sonnet 51, including the triangular constellation that starts with Sonnet 33 and seems to be resolved, at least for the time-being, with Sonnet 42. This justifiably poses the question whether Sonnet 61 may not indeed have been composed around the same time and be part of the same period of separation, which would support the thesis that at this point the collection falls out of sequence, as is the contention of many scholars.
In this special episode, Professor Sir Stanley Wells and Dr Paul Edmondson who severally and jointly have written and edited many books on Shakespeare, talk to Sebastian Michael about their edition All the Sonnets of Shakespeare and how the order of composition differs from the order in which they were first published in 1609, and also about where Shakespeare's other sonnets which he wrote for his plays fit into the collection.
For his quiet mediation on time in Sonnet 60, William Shakespeare once more borrows more or less directly from Ovid's Metamorphoses, a text we know he knew well and that influenced him greatly in the translation of his contemporary Arthur Golding. Its calm philosophical acceptance of mortality notwithstanding, it nevertheless infuses its reflective tone with an underlying anxiety about the drive towards finality that is inherent in our existence, and only just about manages to end on a concluding couplet that once more expresses Shakespeare's hope – as it is in this instance, rather than, as on previous occasions, unquestionable certainty – that his verse will be able to withstand the destructive force of decay.
Sonnet 59 takes us back into the realm of the proverb and the poetic commonplace and wonders how – if the old saying holds true that there is nothing new under the sun, but everything recurs in never ending cycles – a previous generation would have viewed and in poetry depicted the young man. Similar to Sonnet 53, it for the most part appears to present a pretty straightforward ode to the lover, but then undermines the praise it heaps upon him with a concluding couplet that can be read in two completely contradictory ways, which suggests that the conflict our poet feels for the object of his affections is far from resolved.
Sonnet 58 continues from Sonnet 57 and elaborates on Shakespeare's startling sense of subservience to the young man. It simply picks up from the sentiment that "being your slave" I have to wait on and for you and affirms that in this lowly position I cannot presume to have any powers over your conduct or your whereabouts, and in fact I must not even attempt to gain any kind of control over this situation by thinking about what you are up to when you are away from me. 
Sonnets 57 & 58 once again come as a strongly linked pair, and with these sonnets , William Shakespeare positions himself at such a pointedly subservient angle to his lover that we may be forgiven for detecting in them a really rather rare and therefore all the more startling note of sarcasm. The argument that is being pursued is simple enough: I am your slave and therefore you are at liberty to do whatever you want, wherever you choose, with whomsoever you desire, and far be it from me to try to have any say or let alone control over how you spend your time. As on previous occasions, we shall look at the two poems together in the next episode, while concentrating on the first one of the two for now.
Sonnet 56 is the second sonnet in the series so far in which William Shakespeare addresses not the young man, nor us as the general reader or listener about the young man, but an abstract concept, in this case love. The first instance when Shakespeare did something similar was Sonnet 19, which addressed itself to time. Here as then, this changes our perspective and lends the poem an emotional distance, which here is complemented by a direct reference to a hiatus in the relationship.
With the supremely confident Sonnet 55, William Shakespeare returns to a theme he has handled similarly deftly before: the power of poetry itself to make the young man live forever. In a departure from previous instances, he here appears to borrow directly from Horace and Ovid, who are both Roman poets of the turn into the first millennium of the Common Era, striking a therefore more generic note, but unlike these classical precedents for verses that can outlast the supposedly durable substances of physical structures, he employs his poem once again not to celebrate himself but to praise his young lover. 
After the turmoil of Sonnets 33 to 42 and the prolonged period of separation signalled by Sonnets 43 to 51, which in turn was followed by a joyous, sensual and tender reunion with Sonnets 52 and 53, Sonnet 54 assumes a more aloof, marginally moralistic tone which nevertheless manages to connect with, and in fact reference, sonnets that appeared much earlier in the series, specifically Sonnets 5 & 6, in which William Shakespeare encouraged the young man to distil his beauty by giving his essence to a woman and producing an heir, much as roses are distilled as perfume and thus live on long after their death. 
The tender and complex Sonnet 53 – just over a third into the series – finds yet another entirely new register and conjures up not only an image of a beautiful person being admired but also a sense of great intimacy that comes delicately paired with that feeling of wonder at something almost alien that may just be too good to be true.
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.
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