Wednesday, November 30, 2005

A Waste of Shame

I finally caught William Boyd's tele-play for the BBC Shakespeare season, A Waste of Shame, dramatising what may have been behind the sonnets. I caught it at 3rd time of asking, BBC4 being kind enough to repeat its gems, but if you haven't seen it, try to, since it was, given the limitations of the budget, and the "educational" purpose of the piece (its a joint Open University production) a revelation. My own shame: I hadn't a copy of the sonnets. Realised long ago that those "complete works of Shakespeare" are unreadable, no more than furniture, and so pick up various volumes as and when required. Luckily my local 2nd hand bookshop provided a good quality Arden edition of the Sonnets, and reading the introduction I can see that Boyd's setting of the scene owes a lot to recent scholarship: the Earl of Pembroke as favoured recipient; the importance of the historical context (death of Elizabeth, the plague year closing the theatres etc.) And, whatever the reason behind its writing, its a phenomenally sustained piece of work. With Shakespeare as a poet in drama's clothing, its easy to think of the Sonnets as a postscript. If the introduction to my Arden edition sees them slow to catch on, I'd probably agree, but wonder whether Donne's lyric poems would have been possible without such an outrageous precursor? Yes, there's perhaps no direct lifts in Donne, but the "permission" that Shakespeare gives seems obviously related. If the renowned Bard could express desire, then surely anyone could? In some ways the homoerotic nature of many of the sonnets seems both important, and irrelevant. We know the Jacobite court was not the most macho of places; the theatre of the day had all the female roles played by men or young boys; marriage and heterosexual sex led to childbirth - or syphilis. It seems that young beauty is what is being celebrated - youth and sexual attraction being clear er, bedfellows, in an age where life expectancy was short, the plague was a constant threat, and medicine was rudimentary. There's a great scene in the drama where Shakespeare takes "the mercury cure"for his syphilis. Although speculation on Shakespeare's life is pretty futile, it seems that Boyd's reading has a ring of truth about it, for which he should be applauded.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

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