Monday, November 02, 2009

What Do Sonnets Sound Like?

What do Shakespeare’s sonnets sound like?  There’s no end of discussion about performance of the plays, what iambic pentameter and punctuation mean to the motivation of the characters, and even the stage directions.  But what of the sonnets? Intended for publication (or perhaps not?), we’re not used to hearing them performed in quite the same way.

Such is the challenge that Will Sutton over at I Love Shakespeare has taken upon himself, recording his performance of all 154 sonnets.

I’ve known about his site for awhile, and it took a reminder to get me off my butt and look at it more seriously.  After all, it takes awhile to listen to that many sonnets.  Will’s got his own embedded player as well, so you can follow along with the text of the sonnet while you listen to his performance.

Truthfully, though, the geek in me couldn’t resist a shortcut.  After admiring the site’s coding (nice use of XML, Will) I wrote a quick scraper to pull down all the MP3 files and get them onto my ipod.  I lose the text that way, but it’s the only real way I’m ever going to get the time to listen to them :).

The actual audio is interesting.  These are not “dramatic readings” like you might hear out of a Ralph Fiennes or Alan Rickman on the Love Speaks cd.  No, these are more like…how to put it, like a reference version.  There are actors who say “Well, this is *my* interpretation.”  I think Will’s approach is more that there is specifically a “right” way to do it, and he’s trying to deliver them that way.  It’s pretty clear that he’s doing this out of love for the material.  The audio production quality is quite high.  This does not sound like a guy sitting behind the built-in mic in his laptop.  There are no throat clears or unexpected pauses for breath.  He’s taken the task seriously and done a very nice job of it.

I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not qualified on how good his actual delivery is.  Is he pausing in all the right places, emphasizing where he should?  I mean, it sounds good to me.   I know you can’t listen to a long stream of them with no context – they start to run together.  That’s totally my fault for trying to play them like that.  Although it does actually make me think that he could try his had at an audiobook.  Make some bumpers that talk briefly about each sonnet, and then deliver the performance.  Repeat until done.  Wrap that all up into a single MP3 file, package it with a PDF, and put it out on the net.  Could be a big hit.  I know a number of sonnet books, but very few offer audio commentary.  Those that due, certainly do not do a performance of all 154.


Angela said...

We're working on sonnets in my Acting class right now. I'm doing #115.

Monica said...

I find it interesting that there is this focus on Sonnets recently. Here in Sarasota last month, I saw a dramatization of several of Shakespeare's sonnets, which were put into dialog with one another and then performed by a man and a woman. (this was only partially a success.)

I wonder what has brought about all this recent attention.

Stephanie Cowell said...

I was surprised that he did not flow the lines together for dramatic sense though he speaks with clarity. I have only listened to a few. I adore the sonnets like almost nothing else in poetry and am glad they are online in audio.

I wrote a novel about the love triangle of the sonnets called THE PLAYERS: A NOVEL OF THE YOUNG SHAKESPEARE published in 1997 by W.W. Norton. And oddly it has been getting a resurgence in interest now. I also had the great fortune to study one of the 13 extant copies of the original 1609 edition at Yale. It was a really mystical experience.

catkins said...

I think Will Sutton's readings are superb. They are well thought out, sensitive, and true to the text and context. Anyone interested in or studying The Sonnets should listen to his reading of all 154! Forget Ralph Fiennes and Alan Rickman, listen to Will Sutton--he will bring you closer to Shakespeare.

Emsworth said...

I really like these readings. I realize now that just as the plays were meant primarily to be performed, not read silently, the sonnets must have been written to be read aloud.

W.H. said...

I think the sonnets deserve more emotion than he gives em. i listened to a few and the words just sound flat to me, as if printed on a page. collection with commentary (of the first 48 only) is the 'some guy from new york' reading on itunes or at
very approachable and down to earth (though also not high on artistry)