Wordless Wednesday: Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, Stratford-upon-Avon, England

No, not that Anne Hathaway — this Anne Hathaway! Photos from April 2011.

For more Wordless Wednesday, visit here!

Book review: ‘O, Juliet’ by Robin Maxwell

When Juliet Capelletti meets Romeo Monticecco, their mutual love of poet Dante that draws them together — even more than the tender looks exchanged between them at a ball. In a meeting of the minds and lips, the young lovers fall swiftly in love without regard for the odious marriage Juliet’s parents have arranged for her — or the ancient feud between their warring families.

Even as plans are made for Juliet to wed the wealthy, contemptible man her father hopes to bring in as a business partner, Romeo and Juliet’s passion threatens to consume them all. No plan to keep them apart can succeed — even when a tragedy drives Romeo far from the young woman who has ensnared his heart.

Robin Maxwell’s O, Juliet is a retelling of a story that needs no introduction; I can’t believe there’s a soul left on the planet who isn’t familiar with the “tale of woe” that is Juliet and Romeo’s ill-fated love affair. While Maxwell shows a colorful imagination in putting our famous lovers in new but equally heart-wrenching scenarios, something about this novel failed to fully capture my attention

Removed from the fair city of Verona where William Shakespeare’s famous tragedy is set, Maxwell brings us to Florence, Italy, where the Capellettis are a successful merchant family and the Monticeccos, a more working-class lot, are winemakers. Signore Capelletti is busy wooing Jacopo Strozzi, a successful wool merchant, to his business — and a union with Juliet, the Capellettis’ only surviving child, is offered to sweeten the deal. Jacopo is predictably disgusting; Juliet is predictably disgusted. Jacopo is concerned only with wealth and image, though he can’t be bothered to bathe or brush his teeth. (Did they brush their teeth in the 15th century? I feel they must have.)

Romeo, of course, is Jacopo’s polar opposite: kind-hearted, handsome, intelligent. He admires in Juliet everything that Jacopo does not, especially her sense of humor, wit and understanding of the world. Educated along with her wealthy best friend, Lucrezia, Juliet isn’t some puppet manipulated by the family for their gain . . . or, well, she is. But she’s not, you know? Though her father wants to sacrifice her to Jacopo in order to secure the family business, Juliet is determined to fight the match . . . and Romeo swoops in, all good looks and romance and sweet-smelling breath that makes Juliet swoon.

What I did like about Maxwell’s O, Juliet is the fact that she has aged our lovers. Juliet isn’t a naive, virginal 14-year-old ready to kill herself in order to be with some guy. Mature, sophisticated and wise, this Juliet — at 18 — is a writer, dreamer and philosopher. She’s also a woman weighed down by the family’s grief over losing their beloved sons, Juliet’s brothers. She seems less like a petulant child and more the dutiful daughter, and I related more to her predicament than I ever did in the Bard’s play.

My first encounter with Romeo & Juliet came in high school, when we took a round-robin approach to reading Shakespeare’s play aloud my freshman year. I played Juliet (but of course!) and was thrilled when a cute boy in a neighboring seat read Romeo’s lines. That’s the heady feeling this story evokes: that memory of first love and obsessive devotion to one other person; that universal thrill of having your feelings returned. At its core, Romeo & Juliet — and O, Juliet — is about two people who fall so deeply in love that they would rather die than be without the other.

And so they do.

Spoilers in this paragraph. Highlight to read. I don’t know what I was expecting. Knowing that the story of Romeo and Juliet is considered, above all, a tragedy, I still found myself wanting them to live by the end — because, you know, Maxwell is a writer! She has an imagination! She can do whatever the heck she wants! Call me an optimist, but I found it to be a complete downer that I spent 306 pages reading about two vibrant people who kill themselves in the end. Just . . . not a feel good read.

Still, I read this book quickly and appreciated the spin Maxwell put on a classic love story. Though I wasn’t satisfied with the resolution and Jacopo was just a little too stereotypically “sinister” for my tastes, Maxwell’s mastery of language was compelling — and I would definitely give her books another shot in the future.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0451229150 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy obtained through BookMooch

British escape, part II: Stratford-upon-Avon and York

This is my second post featuring a recent trip abroad. For the first part, visit here.

Waking up early in London, I was well aware that the trip was shaping up to be as much of a death march as previous “vacations” — but that’s okay. For my family, trips are opportunities to see exotic places, learn about new cultures and always, always, always keep moving. We’re not really good at “down time,” and we don’t see the point in “vegging out.”

These are all nasty words to us.

Still, prying my jetlagged eyes open at 4 a.m. for a 5 a.m. breakfast time was its own unique brand of torture. I’m notorious for waking up a half hour before I need to be out the door, and rooming with my sister — also a lover of sleep — was a little scary. I set two alarm clocks to make sure we didn’t oversleep.

And then it was off to Stratford-upon-Avon, our first “official” stop as part of our Trafalgar tour. We met our wonderful tour guide, Steve, a retired teacher originally from Wales, and he introduced us to the rest of our 51-member group for the next week or so. Traveling in a large group has advantages and disadvantages, of course; all traveling does. But one funny thing about being a part of a tour group is that you all wander into the hotel lobby as strangers but eventually part as friends. At the conclusion of our trip, I can honestly say I got to know — and like — many people on our “coach,” and my horizons? Expanded.

But I digress.

Stratford-upon-Avon is the birthplace of William Shakespeare, famous playwright and poet — and someone I’ve studied extensively. Just outside of town is a cottage that was the childhood home of Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife. After traversing winding roads and getting my first real glimpse of the English countryside, we arrived at the cottage and had a group photo taken. I took to the gardens like a moth to a flame, capturing the buds from every angle. I also got my first taste of the tour’s unofficial theme: go, go, go.

We never stopped moving.

It was absolutely beautiful, though. Set in a lush garden with visitors flocking to photograph every window and thatched roof, I immediately fell in love with the idyllic setting and wished I could just collapse amid the flowers with a book. It was off to the city centre, though, where we had lunch and saw the exterior of the building in which Shakespeare himself was born.

And it was quite the popular place.

“If you think this is bad,” Steve said, “trust me, it’s not. Just wait a few months. July. August. Then it’s bad — the crowds are three times as large.”

That’s hard for me to believe, I thought, looking up from my tuna panini at the swarms of high school students waiting to enter the Shakespeare Centre. People seemed to be everywhere: ducking in the souvenir shops and books carrying tomes of the Bard’s work; clothing stores with wool sweaters and postcards. Waiting in line for food, coffee, icecream (99 Flake!). The center of town was alive with tourists and locals alike, all meshed together and chatting under a lovely blue sky.

I wondered if Stratford-upon-Avon is a school prerequisite in England; if they visit Shakespeare’s birthplace the way that every student in my elementary school took a short ride to the White House in second grade. Washington, D.C. is nothing different or spectacular for children where I live; everyone has been there or has a parent (or two) that work there. Has Stratford lost its appeal for British children? Is it just another spot to cross off the list — a destination worthy of a field trip and not much more?

I hope not. It was really cool.

After grabbing lunch and popping into a few shops, we left the town for York, a lovely medieval town a few hours away. Steve escorted us through busy streets teeming with shoppers to see the remnants of an incredibly old structure (sorry, Steve, but I’ve already forgotten what this is!) and spend some time walking through town. It was there that I found my beloved clotted cream fudge — a delicacy I’d never heard of nor experienced until that afternoon — and I whiled away the rest of the afternoon while stuffing my face full of candy.

It was awesome.

York was very beautiful and impressive — a modern town wedged into a historic one, a place that seems to embody what I imagined “medieval” England to be. York Minster — the largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe — seems to loom up from out of the imagination, too gigantic and amazing to be real. We poked our heads in just as a service was beginning, taking in the powerful organs and artifacts on display.

There’s something about being in a cathedral that makes you feel closer to God somehow . . . maybe that’s wrong to say aloud, but it’s true. The way I feel about religion and Christ and the powers that be is completely different inside an enormous structure with high ceilings, stained glass and choirs than in the tiny churches we have at home. It’s just easier to . . . feel something there.

Part of that is probably because I was traveling, too. I always feel like a different person — maybe a better person — when I’m on a journey.

Maybe travel is my religion.

Maybe many things are.

On the steps of York Minster, we listened to a street performer playing hymns on an electronic keyboard while waiting for the rest of our tour group to find their way back to us. Fifty people strong, we were an impressive crowd as the sun was setting — this group of strangers who had traveled thousands of miles to arrive in one spot together.

Our first official tour day ended in Leeds, where we enjoyed dinner at the hotel before crashing early. The next day was already catching up to us quick. We would be heading to Grasmere and the Lake District, a place I’d been dying to see since Jane Austen inspired Lake District lust in me, and I needed sleep to stay awake on our journey through the countryside the following day.

I dozed off with dreams of clotted cream fudge in my head, threatening to give me sweet and delicious nightmares forever.

Book review: ‘The Lunatic, The Lover, And The Poet’ by Myrlin Hermes

Ah, sweet obsession.

The things we do — and don’t do — for love. No one knows this better than Horatio, a divinity scholar struggling to compose a play for the Baron de Maricourt, a bumbly and oblivious man who keeps his most prized possession — his wife, the Lady Adriane — locked tight away. Not in a financial position to refuse, Horatio is commissioned to “translate” a romance into a full-blown play complete with music and song. Unlike her husband, Adriane is literate — and assists Horatio in the endeavor.

As he becomes more and more entrenched in the baron’s words and spends his time pulling sonnets and words like blood from a stone, Horatio happens upon Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, and finds himself most suddenly in the young prince’s good graces. What follows is a complicated and sexually-charged love triangle that finds Horatio torn between two unlikely lovers — and at odds with the written word, once his most cherished companion.

Myrlin A. Hermes’ The Lunatic, The Lover, And The Poet is a novel twist on William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and his many sonnets, written on Shakespeare’s mysterious “Dark Lady” and an androgynous young man. With deft prose and a wildly entertaining storyline, Hermes definitely manages to take much of what I knew about the Bard and turn it “topsy-turvy,” just as the cover boasts.

I’ve read reviews stating at least a working knowledge of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is required to enjoy the novel and while I can certainly understand where those readers coming from, I actually didn’t find my lack of knowledge to be too much of a disadvantage. I knew little of Hamlet beyond the famous “to be or not to be” spiel — and still found plenty to love in the novel. At several points, it became obvious that inside jokes and references to the original work were carefully woven into many pages — though I couldn’t fully appreciate them without being more comfortable with the original story.

Still, I can say honestly that once I sunk into The Lunatic, The Lover, And The Poet, it was difficult to put down. I’ll contribute my obsession with the story to Horatio’s obsession with Prince Hamlet; my interest was really piqued right around that point, too. The way that Hamlet is described makes it difficult to not fall a little in love with him, too, even with all his preening, selfishness and narcissism. And for all the gloom and seriousness embodied in Horatio’s character, Hermes’ writing was surprisingly light, fun and artful.

In fact, the writing was what I loved most about the story. Hermes finds a way to blend Shakespearean-like prose with modern terms in a way that’s shockingly not jarring — and actually made the tale feel more “modern,” though of course it’s set in Shakespeare’s day. For all his faults and silliness, I found myself oddly endeared to Horatio, the prince and Lady Adriane, even when I wanted to clock each of them on the side of the head for their foolish decisions.

Hermes captures feelings of uncertainty, joy, selfishness, obsession and jealousy with a truly creative and artful pen. Her novel is a treat for fans of historical fiction and, most especially, lovers of classic tales retold. Fans of Hamlet will definitely appreciate the book in a different way than the rest of us . . . but for the rest of us? A rollicking good time.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 006180519X ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website

tlc_logo copy

Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours

Two Girls Read Shakespeare: Introducing ‘Twelfth Night’

After spending time with the sonnets back in February, the lovely Nicole (of Linus’ Blanket) and I have decided we’re ready to — drum roll — tackle a play. I know. Pop in on our recent conversation . . . 

Nicole: So we totally dropped the ball on our final sonnets a few weeks ago. Sonnet 116 is beautiful, romantic and gorgeous, but try as I might I couldn’t think of much else to say about it. Sonnet 11 had Bill moping along long the same lines of mortality, but then he roped potential offspring – or someone else’s potential offspring into it, and I just couldn’t really smell what he was cookin’. Meg?

Meg: I’m with you! After discussing sonnets at length the past few weeks, I felt my enthusiasm wane. Sonnet 116 is fantastic and something I’d love a handsome hipster to recite to me, possibly while standing in a city street, but I can’t contribute much beyond that.

Nicole: So we decided to move on. I mean do you understand everything that comes out of your man’s mouth? We went the tried and true, “Yes dear.” Even though we had no real clue about what he was babbling about in Sonnet 11, we decided we’re ready to read a play! What? We are! Tell ‘em what we are reading, Meg.

Meg: Twelfth Night, one of William Shakespeare’s 14 comedies! It seems like my own education in all things related to the Bard was limited to the tragedies — teens killing themselves in the name of love; backstabbing best friends; ungrateful children and a king quickly disintegrated into madness. Heavy stuff. And we always hear about Shakespeare’s excellent turns of phrase and comedic timing, so now it’s time to really test that out.

Nicole: I’m along for the ride. I have almost no experience with Twelfth Night, even though I have seen a manga version floating around. (Don’t tell Meg, but I think that might be my version of the Cliff Notes!) We’re reading the Signet classic version and the plan is to discuss Act I on or around Friday, April 2.

Want to read with us? All of Shakespeare’s plays are available for free
at Open Source Shakespeare –and Twelfth Night is at your disposal, too!

Have you already read (and maybe enjoyed?) Twelfth Night — or any of the Bard’s other plays? Do you have any favorites? . . . Any we should avoid like the plague? (Pun intended.)

Two Girls Read Shakespeare: Sonnets 30 & 109

Welcome to another Friday of Two Girls Read Shakespeare! If you’re just joining us, Nicole (of Linus’s Blanket) and I have embarked on a project to spend this spring with Mr. William Shakespeare, that most classic of playwrights and poets. Read more about our project here and check out the first installment of sonnets here.

Nicole: Now Meg you picked these two out or us to study. What made you think that Sonnets 30 and 109 would be good to examine together?

Megan: For me, Sonnet 109 has a really different “feel” than many of the others — and definitely different than Sonnets 18 and 130! The tone of the poet here is almost boastful while still being imploring as he admits to having been unfaithful and “false of heart.” On the flip side, Sonnet 30 features a speaker who is melancholy and “paying” debts — through grief — as though they haven’t already been satisfied. The two tones here, so different, really appealed to me!

Sonnet 30

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought,
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye (unused to flow)
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan th’ expense of many a vanished sight.
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee (dear friend)
All losses are restored, and sorrows end.

Megan: In Sonnet 30, we meet a narrator whose mind drifts to the past and friends he’s lost, either through death or other circumstances. Lovers, too, seem to have gone by the wayside, and the poet weeps “afresh love’s long since canceled woe.” By the end of the sonnet, of course, the speaker’s hope and faith have been restored by thinking of a new “dear friend” — and all that suffering drifts away.

What really struck me about this sonnet was one particular line: “Which I new pay as if not paid before.” In the context of the whole poem, I took it to mean feeling grief all over again — experiencing pain as if we haven’t hurt before, and as if this hasn’t already broken us. Sometimes heartbreak feels like that, doesn’t it? Like “paying” a debt again and again with no end in sight. That definitely resonated with me.

Nicole: My first thoughts, I must confess were not as deep as my partner in crimes’ thoughts were. I saw the line, “I summon up remembrance of things past”, and thought, “So that is where that phrase comes from!” I had to read this one a few times (like I didn’t have to do with all the others!), but somehow I felt like the language was a lot more flowery than what we read last week, and I had more difficulty getting at the meaning behind the words. I understood maybe the first 4-6 lines and then it got a little crazy.

As I got to the end of the sonnet I felt like I was seeing a pattern emerge, and that Shakespeare was really obsessed with immortality and keeping things alive through memory because there he is again saying that he can be happy as long as he has his memories of his dead friends. Would you agree Meg?

Megan: Absolutely! Shakespeare is very preoccupied with living through and beyond words — and, through the sonnets, keeping alive those whom he loves. We saw this obsession in Sonnet 18 last week — how we all age and eventually die, but as long as Shakespeare’s poetry is available, his loves live on. Sounds like our man William was living in a constant existential crisis! And, you know, I can relate to that.

Nicole: Yes! He sounds very angsty and brooding. I think he might have been a hipster and would have lived out in Williamsburg in Brooklyn had he been alive today.

Megan: Oh, I can totally see that now — with the skinny jeans and a notebook, lounging under a tree and looking at all of the young families with their strollers, curling up a lip at the other hipsters with their Starbucks cups and iPhones. I think Shakespeare would be living off the grid, lost in deep thoughts and distancing himself from society.

Nicole: Or maybe living underneath the city in the subway tunnels! But we digress. On to 109!

Sonnet 109

O never say that I was false of heart,
Though absence seemed my flame to qualify,
As easy might I from my self depart,
As from my soul which in thy breast doth lie:
That is my home of love, if I have ranged,
Like him that travels I return again,
Just to the time, not with the time exchanged,
So that my self bring water for my stain,
Never believe though in my nature reigned,
All frailties that besiege all kinds of blood,
That it could so preposterously be stained,
To leave for nothing all thy sum of good:
For nothing this wide universe I call,
Save thou my rose, in it thou art my all.

Megan: Sonnet 109 really made me think. According to my handy-dandy Folger Shakespeare Library edition, the poet is imploring his love to recognize that though he has strayed and been unfaithful, he should be forgiven — because he’s returned. There’s no promise to do better, of course, nor any apology for having presumably hurt his love. “O never say that I was false of heart” — never claim that I didn’t love you! Except, you know, you were gone and cheating on me. This sonnet feels really different to me. Am I just projecting here? Was that a vibe you got, Nicole?

Nicole: I definitely got that vibe and it got my dander up as I was reading it. It’s a lot like things I have experienced with dating and with my own friends where men kind of run around and then when they get ready just show up again on their terms and when they are ready to deal with a relationship. No questions asked. Not that we would have these problems with our boy Billy because once again he is talking about another dude.

Another very modern poet thinks along similar lines.

Still I left you for months on end*
It’s been months since I checked back in
Was somewhere in a small town, somewhere lockin a mall down
Woodgrain, four and change, armor all down
I can understand why you want a divorce now
Though I can’t let you know it, pride won’t let me show it
Pretend to be heroic, that’s just one to grow with
But deep inside a n***a so sick

I think he was just expecting to show up again after he got finished on tour and with whomever he was keeping time and pick up where things left off but his girl had made other plans! Good for her.

Megan: Excellent tie-in with modern language, Nicole — color me impressed! From Will to Jay-Z, the boys keep trying to run games with us. Some things never change.

Nicole: I have to say that Jay gives more reasons than Will though for his shenanigans. Misguided and delusional reasons that ultimately don’t matter, but he does give you a little more to work with.

Further Discussion

Q: In Sonnet 109, the poet claims that despite his infidelities, he has returned to his lover — and should be forgiven. Would a carefully-worded sonnet be enough to gain back your trust?

Nicole: Uh, no. I think for me there is a certain period where I can be actively engaged and invested in working on a relationship but when you disappear, then I have to make my peace with that and move on. At that point it will take a lot more than some pretty words for me to consider rearranging my life for someone who has proved unfaithful and untrustworthy. Nice try Will!

Megan: I’m a sucker for pretty words, but I don’t think someone showing up and saying, “Hey, I know I haven’t exactly been around — but you are ‘my home of love,’ so, let’s just pick up where we left off. Sound good?” would be enough for me. The sentiment in Sonnet 109 is almost challenging.

Nicole: Challenging is such a nice word for it.

Megan: Oh, you know, I try to be diplomatic. “Condescending” could have also worked there, I think.

Nicole: Along with arrogant, selfish, ego-maniacal… I could go on. But I’ll stop here.

Q: Does the “dear friend” of Sonnet 30 seem to be a friend or lover? Would mere friendship be enough to heal old wounds, especially heartbreak?

Megan: Though friendship has the power to help and save us, I’m not sure it is enough to erase the past. The “dear friend” here seems to be a lover or potential lover — and that makes sense to me in the context. Friends are definitely the people you need to wrap an arm around you during times of heartache, but the Bard’s “remembrances of things past” seem very melancholy. He’d probably need more than friendship to help him process those memories!

Nicole: I would think that it was romantic too because I think that we tend to attach intensely melancholy feelings to failed relationships for far longer than we do with friends. When he says “And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe”, that sounds pretty intense to me. I think feelings can be more intense where the potential for a lover was lost just because we usually have fewer of them running around our lives. People can’t compensate for other people, but we do grow up used to the idea that we might lose friends as we progress through different stages in our lives- like moving, changing schools, changing jobs, and just changing in general. With love we are trained to keep it, and usually won’t let it go “without a fight”. People will pay some pretty high costs to keep love.

Megan: So well-said! And I completely agree. The intensity surrounding a potential love — or floundering relationship — is much greater than feelings of friendship, as it should be.

Q: What about friendship? Do you look back on people with whom you aren’t friends with anymore and take comfort in your memories? Is there a difference if the friend has died as opposed to if they are just no longer in your life?

Nicole: None of my friends have died, thankfully, but just through natural growth and change I have lost friends over the course of my life. Initially when a friendship is over even the happy memories are colored with a sense of sadness, anger or betrayal, especially now that you know the “ending”. But Shakespeare seems to be looking back over a great amount of time and for me after a few years, and with the wounds no longer fresh, I can really delight in all the fun and crazy times I had with a friend and honor who we both were even though we have moved on.

Megan: I’ve been fortunate never to bear the loss of a friend through death, but I do take comfort in old memories of friends with whom I haven’t kept in touch or, in some cases, “broken up” with. Friendships are relationships, too — not romantic, of course, but still relationships that require time, compassion, understanding and dedication. In cases where I chose not to be friends with someone anymore, or vice versa, it can be a little painful to look back on those times… knowing, as I do, how things have changed. I guess that’s partially what Shakespeare is saying in Sonnet 30, too — that the pain he feels like looking back colors the happy times. But the arrival of someone new, a “dear friend” he can think of and feel better? That makes a difference. But I’m not sure if that’s the case for me.

Join us next Friday, Feb. 26 as we discuss Sonnets 11 and 116.
All of the Bard’s sonnets may be found here.

*lyrics from “Song Cry” by Jay-Z

What do these sonnets do for you?

Love them, hate them?

Share your thoughts with us!

Two Girls Read Shakespeare: Sonnets 18 & 130

Nearly 400 years after they were first bound and published as his “Quarto,” William Shakespeare’s collection of 154 sonnets remain a go-to curriculum for romantics, literature lovers and college professors. Full of nuance, texture, emotion and the occasional ridiculously confusing line, Shakespeare’s Sonnets are an immortal examination of death, love, lust and despair. And what hurt back in the late 1500s? Oddly, still applicable — and understandable — today.

Two weeks ago Nicole (of Linus’s Blanket) and I introduced a brand-new project — or adventure! — for ourselves: re-reading the works of the Bard now, as adults and great fans of the written word. Both avid readers, we believed we would get far more out of spending time with the sonnets and plays of one of the world’s most famous English-language writers than we had as, say, high school and college students.

And I think we were right.

For our inaugural post, we took a look at two of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets: Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) and Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun . . .”).

Sonnet 18
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 dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Meg says: Writers have long been obsessed with the idea of immortality — and achieving it through their work. At first read, Sonnet 18 seems to be a romantic note to a lover explaining that though time may alter her, Death can never fully claim her; she will forever live on in the lines of the poem. This sonnet seems to be an attempt to bring immortality to the beloved, whose beauty he knows will never fade. Of course, doing more research, we learn that scholars believe the “she,” who is never given a gender, is actually a “he” — the “fair youth” of which Shakespeare writes. That adds a totally new dimension — and ambiguity — to the poems.

That final couplet is a killer — definitely one of my favorite of all of Shakespeare’s parting lines. The weight of it: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” Four hundred years later, we’re still reading about the poet’s love for the object of his devotion — though that identity is largely unknown (and disputed). As readers, do we need to know who our “thee” is? No, I’d say. That’s another thing I love about the sonnets: like all great literature, they can be adapted and appreciated based on who we are as individual readers. I don’t need to know who “he” is in order to appreciate this poem — another grasp at immortality. The sentiment? It’s there.

Nicole says: I don’t think I ever got to the point in this sonnet when the idea of immortality and the quest for it actually crystallized in my mind. I got that he was comparing his lover favorably to something beautiful in a pretty straightforward way, which in my mind was quite a difference from Sonnet 130, which I had read first. His lover has all of these qualities which will outweigh the most glorious aspects of the seasons since her good nature is more lasting than the fickleness of nature.The part that threw me for a loop at first was when the concept of death was introduced.

When death made it’s entrance in the sonnet I was intrigued and confused. My first thought was that his lover has died, “Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade/ When in eternal lines to time thou growest:” But, the more I read it, the more I understood the subject of the poem would always outlive death and elude death’s clutches as long as they live in the memories of others. There also seems to be an implied reference to being immortalized through art, otherwise I’m not sure how the subject can go on being seen after death. I had no idea the lover in this poem is actually a man and it really doesn’t mean anything to me here. These are really beautiful sentiments about how the essence of a loved one survives even death.

Sonnet 130
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,
Coral is far more red, than her lips red,
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun:
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head:
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks,
And in some perfumes is there more delight,
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know,
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet by heaven I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.

Nicole says: I wasn’t quite sure what to make of sonnet 130 in the beginning. His mistress compared unfavorably to just about everything under the sun, including the sun! When I came upon, “If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun”, I was fairly grossed out. Comparing breasts to dun, though I have no idea exactly what that means, just doesn’t sound good. He also compares her hair to bristly wires and says that her breath reeks. Does he love this woman or not?

I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop and to find out the reason that he was going to reveal the reason that he didn’t like this woman, or to find out that she is an ex-lover of whom he is no longer fond, but that never happens. I think the point is that she is not perfect and he loves her anyway. Now I don’t know that I would like to be described so brutally as he describes his love, but the idea that someone knows your physical flaws and is okay with them- it’s pretty sexy. A very sincere Valentine. 🙂

Meg says: Wow! If our man Shakespeare was trying to win the heart — and hand — of a lady through his sonneteering, this doesn’t quite seem to be the way to initially go about it. Does it? We’re basically told that in comparison to all of these naturally beautiful things, his mistress — the woman with whom the poet is so infatuated — absolutely pales. And maybe looks terrible.

Sonnet 130 is very different from Sonnet 18 — and almost seems to be insulting! The poet’s beloved, now clearly identified as a woman, doesn’t have much going on for her in the looks department . . . but he loves her anyway. The eighth line stopped me dead in my tracks: “Than in the breath that from mistress reeks.” Just that word: reeks. I’m not a fan in general, but to characterize anything about her as “reeking” is not pretty or flattering.

But, like all of Shakespeare’s sonnets, that final couplet turns it all around; we know that the poet cares for her with a true and “rare” love. The tenth line, which tells us that his mistress “treads on the ground,” is actually very endearing to me. Being placed on a pedestal in theory sounds wonderful, but in reality? No one is perfect. That’s what I really like about this sonnet: though the poet obviously cares deeply for his beloved, he’s fully aware that she’s not without faults. That’s a rarer — and truer — love than being adored blindly. That’s what matters.

Discussion with Nicole & Meg

Did you like the sonnets we read this time around?

Nicole: I like them if only for the reason that they sound pretty. I love music and I write music so it would be hard for them to not hold some appeal because they ring in my mind and in my ear when I read them out loud- in an attempt to better understand them. I feel like something important and profound if not beautiful has taken place. But foreign languages, which I would argue that Shakespearean language is, can do that. The most mundane things sound beautiful when said in an unfamiliar language.

Megan: Sonnet 18 is arguably one of the most famous Shakespeare composed — and for good reason, I think. I like both it and Sonnet 130 for very different reasons. Like Nicole, the “musical” quality of the lines is really appealing — and accentuated by reading them aloud. That’s the only way I ever learned to read Shakespeare growing up: by learning the cadence of his words and them speaking them in pentameter. They’re gorgeous to hear, even if the words are difficult to understand in a modern context at first. Maybe especially then!

At first glance what did you think they were about?

Nicole: On the first few readings I had no idea what was going on, and just wasn’t sure of anything until I had read each several times. I think 13o revealed itself to me a little sooner than 18 did. In a few reads I understood that he might not have had a beautiful woman, but one that he loved nevertheless. I had to read and think about 18 a lot. For a little bit I thought someone had died in the sonnet, and I guess theoretically someone eventually will, but it wasn’t about death in the way that I originally thought. I’m not reading any of the annotated versions or reference materials in my first go around just because I want to see how much meaning I manage to eke out on my own and how relevant the poems are to my life and modern times. I might go back now and looks at more fuller analysis.

Megan: At first read, Sonnet 18 seems to be a romantic note to a lover explaining that though time may alter him or her, Death can never fully claim this person; she/he will forever live on in the lines of the poem, giving them immortality. That’s still what it’s about, I think, but there’s much more going on there! Sonnet 130 almost seems rude and unkind, and I cringed a little through the opening lines. But by the end, we realize the poet is speaking about his beloved in more realistic terms — and that he can love and appreciate her for who she truly is. That definitely works for me.

How many times did you read each one? Did further readings reveal deeper meaning?

Megan: I read each at least five times, most of those aloud. I wasn’t really “getting” what I wanted out of the readings until I could actually form my lips around the words. Then they started to come alive for me, and I began to see the deeper meanings unfolding like a fan. And a little Internet research and reading of annotations didn’t hurt, either!

Nicole: I read each about 5 times too! The first few readings left me with a blank mind. I didn’t think anything about anything, I was just reading them. My understanding of the sonnets unfolded and gave themselves up slowly. The meaning of a line would click into mind and with each reading another word or line would reveal itself and everything slowly became clearer.

What resources did you use to help make sense of the language?

Nicole: So far I haven’t been using anything. I only read the sonnets themselves because I really wanted to see how much meaning I could gather from them on my own and how relevant they were my modern situations and sensibilities. I think both are very relevant and easily relatable, and I am starting to see why Shakespeare is so timeless. I loved reading Megan’s comments because I learned some new things, but at the same time got a little validation that I wasn’t getting everything completely wrong.

Megan: Call me a cheater, but I read the sonnets in my Folger Shakespeare Library edition, which was awesome — it included notes to the left of each poem with synonyms for the traditional language Shakespeare used. Many of the particular words selected don’t have the same meaning in 2010 that they did in 1609, and the editors provided lots of helpful notations.

Did you find the “old thyme” word usage to be more difficult or interesting, like deciphering a puzzle?

Megan: Definitely! But I’m a wordsmith. Looking at the multiple meanings of lines and individual terms is all part of the fun. You have to work at Shakespeare; for most of us, understanding just doesn’t come naturally. Coaxing logic from the lines is part of the adventure.

Nicole: I found it to be very interesting and fun. I think that maybe the sonnets can be a little more difficult to work with because you don’t have the context and the action that the plays offer, but they are short that they can be a perfect introduction because the brevity gives the language less time to be overwhelming.

How would you feel if presented with either of these poems for Valentine’s Day?

Nicole: After I got over the language I think I would be okay with the. Sonnet 130 had better be highly figurative though. Otherwise it could give me a complex!

Megan: I totally agree with Nicole — Sonnet 130 would make me super-sensitive! And I’m not exactly the most romantic type, so Sonnet 18 might not agree with my system, either — when directed at me, anyway. But I guess I’d feel fortunate that someone would sit and craft a poem about my immortal beauty and their dedication to me!

On Friday, Feb. 19, we’ll be discussing Sonnets 30 and 109. Read along with us and visit the Bard’s sonnets here, all available for free.

Do Sonnets 18 or 130 make you swoon?

Love the Bard or despise him?

Share your thoughts with us —
interpretations, stories, memories —
in the comments.

Happy Valentine’s Day!