SOS Sometimes Overlooked Shakespeare – The Berkshire Edge

At least once each year this column pays a visit to the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon; and in this year of warfare and disease, it is more important than ever to remind ourselves that in the world of poetry there is beauty and comfort that we can draw upon. Surely a prime provider is William Shakespeare.

The depth of this resource is unbelievable, and in today’s column we’ll take a little different tack by presenting writing from Shakespeare that is not as commonly encountered as we might expect. For example, here is a jaunty song from “Love’s Labors Lost,” all about wives cheating on their husbands in the springtime.

When daisies pied and violets blue
And lady-smocks all silver-white
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
Do paint the meadows with delight,
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men; for thus sings he:
Cuckoo, cuckoo!” Or, word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!

There’s some nice word-play here. Cuckoo stands for cuckold and reminds us about the old cuckoo trick of laying its eggs in another bird’s nest. And the flowering “lady smocks” in the second line can also be taken as “ladies’ mocks.”

In a later stanza an owl stars in.

When icicles hang by the wall,
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail;
When blood is nipped, and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
“You-whit, You-whoo!”

Perhaps that should be “To whom.”

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Shakespeare wrote two long narrative poems: “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece” as well as some shorter poems not attached to the plays. A most unusual one, again involving birds, is called “The Phoenix and the Turtle,” the Phoenix being the mystical bird that rises from its own ashes and Turtle referring to a Turtle Dove. They were lovers consumed in a fire together and are now being eulogized. Here are the lovely closing stanzas.

Beauty, truth, and rarity,
grace in all simplicity,
Here enclos’d, in cinders lie.

Death is now the Phoenix’ nest,
And the Turtle’s loyal breast
To eternity doth rest,

Leaving no posterity:
‘Twas not their infirmity,
It was married chastity.

Truth may seem but cannot be;
Beauty brag but ’tis not she;
Truth and beauty buried be.

To this urn let those repair
That are either true or fair;
For these dead birds pray a prayer.

John Keats worshiped Shakespeare, and it’s not too much of a reach to see the connection with the closing lines of “Ode on a Grecian Urn:”

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

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First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, published in 1623

* * *

Shakespeare was a master of the sonnet and wrote more than 150 of these highly special fourteen line verses. Many of them are instantly recognizable from their first lines alone:

Sonnet 18: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Sonnet 29: When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes

Sonnet 116: Let me not to the marriage of true minds

The first 126 sonnets are addressed to a “fair youth,” likely the Earl of Southampton, a young patron of Shakespeare and other poets. The remaining sonnets are written to a woman George Bernard Shaw called The Dark Lady of the Sonnets. And herein lies an interesting mystery. Who is this Dark Lady? Is she a creature of Shakespeare’s imagination? Or, more likely, a flesh and blood recipient of some of his extraordinary poetry.

Of the many candidates, I tend to favor a dark-haired poetess named Emilia Bassano. (Emilia is later a character name in “Othello,” Bassanio a character in “The Merchant of Venice.”) Under her married name, Emilia Lanier, she published an important volume of poetry and is sometimes referred to as England’s first professional female poet . The remarkable Sonnet 130 in which Shakespeare pokes fun at overused feminine imagery may possibly have been written for her.

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 damask roses, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes there is 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 believed with false compare.

Emilia Lanier, possibly the Dark Lady of the Sonnets
Emilia Lanier, possibly the Dark Lady of the Sonnets

And lest you think Shakespeare was “as white (pure) as driven snow” (“The Winter’s Tale”) let me offer, without comment, a bit of bawd known as Dark Lady Sonnet 151.

Love is too young to know what consciousness is;
Yet who knows not, conscience is born of love?
Then, gentle cheater, urge not my amiss,
Lest guilty of my faults thy sweet self prove.
For thou betraying me, I do betray
My noble part to my gross body’s treason;
My soul doth tell my body that he may
Triumph in love; flesh stays no farther reason,
But rising at thy name, doth point out thee
As his triumphant prize. Proud of this pride,
He is content thy poor drudge to be,
To stand in your affairs, fall by your side.
I don’t want to conscience hold it that I call
Her ‘love,’ for whose dear love I rise and fall.

Of some relevance to us today, Shakespeare’s sonnets were primarily written in 1592-93 when a plague enveloped London, and all the theaters were closed.
Sound familiar?

* * *

Shakespeare wrote some thirty-eight plays and collaborated on several others. One can say that one-third of the plays are classic and frequently performed; another third are popular and pretty regularly staged; a final third are not as well-known but deserve occasional production. We in the Berkshires are fortunate indeed to have Shakespeare & Company in our midst. Over the years they have, by my observation, performed virtually all of the plays. The Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon in England and the Old Vic in London have been equally enterprising. I well remember traveling to London to see a rare but brilliant production of “Coriolanus” at the Old Vic with a rising Shakespearian actor undertaking the title role. I wonder what Richard Burton became?

A Convention of Shakespeare's characters.  Painting by Sir John Gilbert.
A Convention of Shakespeare’s characters. Painting by Sir John Gilbert.

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Shakespeare wrote many monologues and soliloquies, the ones in “Hamlet” and “Macbeth” being particularly fine. But from the little-known history play, “King John,” here is a speech from a distraught woman, Lady Constance, who has lost her husband and son and must choose between grief and madness.

O, that my tongue were in the thunder’s mouth!
Then with a passion would I shake the world,
And rouse from sleep that fell anatomy
Which cannot hear a lady’s feeble voice,
Which scorns a modern invocation.

Lady, you utter madness, and not sorrow.

Thou art not holy to believe me so;
I am not mad: this hair I tear is mine;
My name is Constance, I was Geoffrey’s wife;

Young Arthur is my son, and he is lost.
I am not mad: I would to heaven I were!
For then ’tis like I should forget myself:
Or, if I could, what grief should I forget!
Preach some philosophy to make me mad,
And thou shalt be canonized, cardinal;
For, being not mad, but sensitive to grief,
My reasonable part produces reason
How I may be delivered of these woes,
And teaches me to kill or hang myself:
If I were mad, I should forget my son,
Or madly think a babe of clouts were he:
I am not mad; too well, too well I feel
The different plague of each calamity.

“King John” may not often be staged, but this striking speech has a life of its own in Shakespearean actress auditions. And well served.

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VIDEO. Our video today includes a sonnet, a soliloquy, and two excerpts from “Cymbeline,” a play which is rarely presented but is sometimes remembered for introducing two popular quotes: “I have not slept one wink” and “The game is up.” The members of the First Poetry Quartet are joined by Alan Howard of the Royal Shakespeare Company.


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