The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0326 Monday, 22 June 2009
Date: Thursday, 18 Jun 2009 11:37:32 +0100
Subject: Sonnet 130 and Film
I have just made a new film of Sonnet 130 to be entered for the online
Virgin Short Film Festival. I shall post a link when it's finished.
Please don't be too harsh -- I'm a new boy on the block.
One of the reasons for choosing 130 was its apparent simplicity. But the
more I read it the less so it becomes. As with all film making you take
a simple position and stick to it, which is what I have done. But I
don't think I have illustrated the lines with false or ignorant images;
perhaps others will be the judge of that.
The poem has always been taken as a light hearted tilt at
Petrarch/Spencer verse. But when we look at the violent rants of Sonnets
129 and 131, we must begin to consider something altogether much darker
than our Will's poking fun at past sonneteers.
In this famous poem we are all too familiar with, the list of
comparisons but two need to be illuminated. I noticed when Googling that
almost all writers get these two things totally wrong. The "black wires"
referred to are a reference to very fine gold thread used in fine
clothing. It was called gold wire. Previous poets referred to blond
beauties as having hair like gold -- or fine gold thread -- or gold
wires. Shakespeare's joke is that if his mistress' hair are also like
threads -- or wires -- then they are black wires. Interestingly, black
wires would have been impossible in Elizabethan times as not many pure
black substances could be spun into thread. So the comparison is odd.
But it cannot be measured against the modern meaning of "wire" as thick
copper electrical connectors.
Secondly, the word "reeks" is, today, offensive. In Shakespeare's day it
was merely another word for smell or odour. It was a totally neutral
word. The line could actually mean "no smell at all" -- possibly at
worst smelling of her last meal. But certainly not like perfume.
The poem has been praised by many as a declaration of honest love -- a
clear protest at over-romantic love-making -- a down-to-earth
illustration of the triumph of inner love over outer image. But if we
again scan the book ends of 130 with 129 and 131, we cannot escape the
powerful and acidic objection to his fettered slavery to this allegedly
dark hearted woman. This misreading of the poem has been, for some time,
propagated by the current cult of the inner beauty. It is a creed that
states that it's ok to be fat, spotty and greasy as long as you say that
you are beautiful inside. I would say that a beautiful inside would want
to take care of the mortal coil that keeps it alive.
It is for this rejection that I say that Shakespeare's tone in the poem
is deceiving. The clue is in the problematic last two lines. In the
first 12 lines he is desperately telling himself that his woman is
really very ordinary -- not like a Petrarch goddess -- and almost
congratulates himself that the effort rings true. It is as if between
sonnet 129 and 131 that he is trying to make reason triumph over the
fever and blindness of his obsession. But in summing up the whole
thought structure of the poem, the last couplet states that when his
woman compares, she does it falsely. Exactly what she is comparing is a
matter of conjecture. In the film, I state that it is between the poet
and young man -- but could be any two things or people.
Another important point is that had Shakespeare been having an affair
with a white skinned Scandinavian girl with gold hair, he would not have
been able to write this poem. And are we to assume he chose a dark
skinned girl so he could write the poem? The truth is that he became
obsessed with a woman and she happened to be dark in appearance.
Shakespeare merely made something of this coincidence.
Perhaps the greatest misreading in this and all the sonnets is the
character of the poet himself. His utterances for and against the dark
lady, the young man and the rival poet are all taken at face value. We
are to believe that the poet's perceptions and observations are accurate
and absolute. Perhaps Shakespeare's writing genius goes way beyond that
crude assessment. The poet is a character in this entire panorama of
human passion and failings. The poet is very often wrong in his
judgement, violent in his criticism of other people, impatient with
loved ones, deceptive with lovers and aimlessly clutches at moments of
perceived happiness. The poet in the Sonnets might well be Shakespeare's
greatest invention -- A lot like all of us.
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