Every time this season of the year rolls around I think of love songs. The impulse keeps repeating like the need to know if winter will end anytime soon, which by the way is why we still celebrate the pagan holiday of Imbolc in a somewhat debased form as Groundhog’s Day. It’s not just that the Groundhog tells us if spring is near (not to mention St. Valentines), there is a deeper seasonal connection.
Imbolc is the earliest of old spring festivals marking the time when the sap begins to rise and the new lambs are weaned. The great pagan hearth goddess that rules this festival is Bridget, the Celtic Minerva. She is also the patron spirit of bards and smiths, a powerful muse for creativity.
In the darkness of winter it’s natural that people would especially like to gather around the hearth for stories and songs to brighten the lingering gloom. The Christian festival of Candlemas associated with St. Bridgit celebrates that spark of fire that lights our way through the coldest days: especially with creativity. This spark of fire is above all the spark of inspiration.
The inspiring love songs that haunt me now are quite old and like Master Slender in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor I yearn for my book of songs and sonnets. You see, during the 1980’s I worked extensively to fashion a play based on Shakespeare’s Sonnets. My collaborators and I called our play Siren Tears and it had several successful incarnations. Since then, I have often though that I might fashion a new solo performance piece based on that familiar material. But with a different focus.
Siren Tears was based on the notion (which by they was always only provisional, I was never zealous about it) that the Sonnets told a discernible story of what was happening in Shakespeare’s personal life. The main objection viewers of the play came away with was that we proved nothing, that the story we told was only circumstantial and therefore nothing but a fiction. Well, yes, that was our intent. We were attempting to tell a story that could have been true, not trying to prove a circumstantial case of what absolutely was true, but rather celebrating a possibility.
Now in looking at the material again as a source for solo performance, I want to try something much more fundamental. I want to explore the songs and sonnets as entertainments. I believe that whatever else the sonnets suggest, that it is demonstrably true that they were exercises in amusement. Most critics who object to an autobiographical interpretation of the Sonnets argue they could have been merely isolated exercises. I partly agree with this point but I also believe (along with the distinguished scholar Jonathan Bate) that the impulse for their writing had to be based in the reality of what was happening in the author’s personal life, even though we cannot truly extrapolate many facts from the story they suggest. Still, as exercises, the sonnets (literally little songs) do what all songs are meant to do. They are meant to entertain, to amuse. This I hope to demonstrate.
Since they hold such promise they are irresistible challenges for a performer. But it is not just their poetic quality that is of interest but also their novelty. Most of my material as a performer is fundamentally comedic or lightly sentimental. I believe that the sonnets (and songs) were written primarily in this vein. Also, it is a commonplace truth, of which moderns often lose sight, Shakespeare’s Sonnets were performance pieces written for an intimate audience not unlike a Victorian parlor piece or modern cabaret song. Hence they may be ripe for interpretation in the context of my Songs for the Season project.
What were the circumstances that gave rise to the Sonnets? Already famous (if not infamous) at the time the first Sonnets were commissioned, I believe Shakespeare had the good fortune to spend nearly four years during the course of the closure of the theatres during the early 1590’s in the family circle of Southhampton House. He wrote his narrative poems dedicated to the Earl of Southhampton during this time, as well as most of the sonnets and two experimental comedies (Two Gents and Love’s Labors Lost) all of which were a departure from anything he had previously written and which, as exercises, proved to immeasurably enrich his subsequent writing.
Written sometime before 1592, Robert Greene’s posthumous warning in “A Groatworth of Wit” that Shakespeare, merely a presumptuous player, was plagiarizing his betters, became notorious enough that it required an answer in print. The answer which defended Shakespeare’s skill was his first good review. And from it we also learn that he had powerful defenders and that his work was thought to be amusing (facetious).
It happens that I agree with Greene that up until this time Shakespeare was engaged primarily in writing pastiche (Comedy of Errors, Taming of the Shrew, Titus Andronicus, Henry IV, etc.) He probably also had the grand endeavor Richard III on the drawing board at this time with its extensive exploration of rhetoric, where he seems to be trying to out Marlow Marlow and top Thomas Kyd. But that huge play wasn’t produced until later. Copying the classics and other successful contemporary writers is how a young poet learns to become a dramatist. I conceive these early plays as apprentice pieces which were probably revised or polished at dates later than when they were originally composed.
When the theatres were closed down by the plague, Shakespeare was able to closely study what non-dramatic poetry could do. This practice proved to be invaluable and the relatively safe refuge he must have enjoyed in the Southhampton household may also have saved his life. Many of his contemporaries lost their lives during this difficult and dangerous time.
The poems of this period explore deeply the extents of what lyric (and narrative) poetry is capable of doing. Immediately following this Shakespeare accomplished greatness in the plays we now know as his lyrical period: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet and Richard II. It’s not for nothing that after the popular success of “Venus and Adonis” and Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare endeared himself to the ages as a love poet. How he got there is a unique and amusing story which will be the context for my program, “Lyrics by Shakespeare”.