Shakespeare’s sonnets… on stage


The Classical Actors Ensemble will perform all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets this weekend at Intermedia Arts. Photo Credit: Crist Ballas/Zach Curtis

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate…

So begins Shakespeare’s famous sonnet 18, widely considered one of his most lovely and romantic. But those two lines are just a fragment of the passion, desire and frustration that Shakespeare penned over the course of 154 such poems. And that’s not counting the ones that show up in his plays.

Now, before we continue, are you unclear on what exactly is a sonnet? Before Shakespeare’s time, the term generally referred to a “little song.” But it eventually transformed into something much more specific. Here’s wikipedia’s definition:

A Shakespearean, or English, sonnet consists of 14 lines, each line containing ten syllables and written in iambic pentameter, in which a pattern of an unemphasized syllable followed by an emphasized syllable is repeated five times. The rhyme scheme in a Shakespearean sonnet is a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g; the last two lines are a rhyming couplet.

With such a complex structure, it’s all the more impressive that Shakespeare was a prolific master of the form. Here’s Sonnet 18 in it’s entirety:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade

Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;

Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou growest:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

Now imagine someone performing that sonnet on stage… because that’s exactly what the Classical Actors Ensemble plans to do this weekend. Not just Sonnet 18, but all 154 sonnets that Shakespeare is believed to have composed.

Actor Phil Kilbourne came up with the idea as the CAE was brainstorming fundraising ideas, and was a little surprised when the company took him seriously.

“We’re all Shakespeare-a-holics of one sort or another,” Kilbourne quips.

Indeed the Classical Actors Ensemble is founded in part by Joe Papke and Sigrid Sutter, two graduates of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Academy for Classical Acting. The CAE, which until now has only produced readings of Shakespeare’s plays, hopes to blossom into a full-fledged theater company that stages works of the English Renaissance.

For this weekend’s event, the CAE asked directors and actors who shared a love of the bard to volunteer their time. More than 20 directors and 40 actors took up the charge. Each of the directors was assigned a group of sonnets based on recurring themes such as “time,” “the rival poet” and “the dark lady.”

Phil Kilbourne says the sonnets work dramatically, if you treat each one as a little moment in someone’s life:

You don’t look upon them as plays – they’re more like tapas, little hors-doevres. And some go really well with each other and together make up a meal, but others do best on their own.

If you’re not very familiar with Shakespeare’s sonnets, this is where it gets really interesting. According to most academics, it’s clear that the first 120 or so sonnets Shakespeare wrote were to a young man. Whether he was romantically in love or simply expressing a deep platonic affection is still under debate. And it’s also not clear who the man was.

The sonnets also refer to a “dark lady” who is apparently both the object of Shakespeare’s affection and in a relationship with the young man Shakespeare adores. Triangulation, anyone?

Classical Actors Ensemble’s Joe Papke says the sexual ambiguity is just one of many aspects of the sonnets that provide the directors lots to work with.

It’s amazing what you can get into fourteen lines, and you don’t get it until you read it several times, speak it out loud, and the amount of levels of emotion and often storytelling that Shakespeare was able to put into fourteen lines. His genius proves itself.

The Shakespeare’s Sonnets Festival will consist of two shows. Friday night will feature one half of the sonnets, and Saturday night the other half. If you’re interested in downing all 154 of them in a single day, you can see the performances back to back on Sunday.

Phil Kilbourne says the variety of creative talent working on the production translates to a variety show on stage:

We see beautiful representations of sonnets… some are funny, some are creepy, we have sonnets set to music, as well as dance. Some would make Shakespeare cringe, but some I think he’d really appreciate.

The “Shakespeare-a-holics” all seem to have their favorite sonnets. For Joe Papke, he’s particularly fond of sonnets 75 and 66. For Phil Kilbourne, it’s sonnet 29 that really gets to him.

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,

I all alone beweep my outcast state

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries

And look upon myself and curse my fate,

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,

Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,

Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,

With what I most enjoy contented least;

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,

Haply I think on thee, and then my state,

Like to the lark at break of day arising

From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;

For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings

That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

From the depths of despair to the heights of love, Shakespeare knows the makings of good drama, even when it’s confined to a 14 line poem.

The Complete Sonnets Festival runs this Friday through Sunday at Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis.