Sonnet slam

At a recital of all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets, some performers brandished sickles, typed on laptops, and sliced onions. One senior just tried to remember her 14 lines.

Zara Kessler ’12 is an English major and former coeditor of the <i>Yale Daily News Magazine</i>.
Gregory Nemec

Gregory Nemec

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So oft have I invoked thee for my muse
And found such fair assistance in my verse
As every alien pen hath got my use,
And under thee their poesy disperse.

Evan Yionoulis ’82, ’85MFA, a professor at the School of Drama and a resident director at the Yale Repertory Theatre, was telling us how to recite Shakespeare’s poetry. Get the language into your body, she said. Identify where thoughts shift, emphasize words that contain images. We read Sonnet 29 out loud in unison, all two dozen of us walking “with intention” through the room, changing directions at each shift in punctuation. Yionoulis had us perform a movement at every image, with “a lot of plié, a lot of breath in the body.”

We were there, in the theater studies building on a Sunday in January, to get some pointers for the Sonnet Dessert, a marathon recital of all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets by a motley group of volunteers from around the campus. The Dessert was to take place on February 12—part of a celebration called “Shakespeare at Yale” that featured a Bard-themed event every day of the spring semester. I had signed up and been assigned Sonnet 78.

My problem was more fundamental than getting the language into my body: I had to get it into my head. We were all supposed to memorize our sonnets, and I didn’t have a good track record in that area. (The Canterbury Tales and I hadn’t gotten along so well sophomore year, when I recited the obligatory first 18 lines. I had to beg my professor to let me start over from “Whan that Aprill,” having lost my way pretty quickly after the “droghte of Marche.”) At one point, Yionoulis asked us to remember just one line each of Sonnet 29 by getting it into our limbs, explaining, “If you’re doing all this work, there’s no way you’ll forget the words.” Forget the words was exactly what I did, moments later, with a blush and a glance down at my paper. Over the next two weeks, I was going to need some “fair assistance” with my verse.


Thine eyes, that taught the dumb on high to sing
And heavy ignorance aloft to fly,
Have added feathers to the learned’s wing,
And given grace a double majesty.


The Sonnet Dessert was the brainchild of Eric Sirakian ’15. “I had heard of similar types of sonnet marathons happening at other universities and public libraries and the like, so it seemed like a perfect thing to do for “Shakespeare at Yale’,” he says. Sirakian enlisted the help of Justin Dobies ’12 and Timmia Hearn Feldman ’12, who run a student Shakespeare company on campus, and sent an e-mail invitation in the fall to numerous students, faculty, and staff.

Mary Miller ’81PhD, dean of Yale College, signed up immediately. She and her husband, Japanese studies professor Edward Kamens ’74, ’82PhD, decided to perform together and requested Sonnet 123, “a wonderful sonnet about the passage of time,” says Miller. “I have to say, only incidentally did we really notice that it had things like pyramids in it”—ideal for her specialty of Mesoamerican art. It was Kamens who came up with the idea of using props. Unfortunately Miller didn’t have any Mesoamerican pyramid models on hand, so they used a cutout that they found on the Web.

Miller and Kamens weren’t the only ones planning an especially creative performance. Zachary Bell ’14, member of an experimental campus theater ensemble called Control Group, was fascinated by the idea of the sonnet as text. Given a piece of poetry that was never meant to be read aloud on stage in the first place, he thought, a traditional reading would be “very stagnant and completely irrelevant to where theater is and where Shakespeare is today.” He wanted to do something Internet-based. Patrick Cage ’14, a fellow Control Group member, had Sonnet 43, an emotional expression of longing for an absent beloved. The ordinary reader might feign sorrow, but Cage hoped to turn his performance into a comment on acting and verisimilitude.

Meanwhile, I was thinking mostly about my fear of reciting by heart. To avoid actually trying to memorize my lines, I went to talk with one of my professors: David Scott Kastan, who happens to be both a renowned Shakespeare scholar and the person who originated “Shakespeare at Yale” itself, by impetuously proposing it to Yale’s president in a 3:00 a.m. e-mail. Sonnet 78, Kastan said, is addressed to a young man to whom Shakespeare looked for inspiration. In the opening quatrain, Shakespeare suggests that because he drew on this youth for inspiration, other poets (possibly Christopher Marlowe and George Chapman) followed suit. The bird imagery in the second quatrain is particularly playful, as he would have been writing with a quill pen, and the word “pen” derives from the Latin penna, feather. In fact, falconers at the time liked to add feathers to their birds’ wings, thinking they would fly higher.

As the days leading up to the Dessert reached the single digits, I opted for total immersion. I contrived mnemonic devices, picturing a childhood friend named “Grace” at each mention of that word, and repeating aloud “for my Muse, not as my Muse, for my Muse, not as my Muse.” I kept Sonnet 78 open on my iPhone browser for quick studies while walking to class. The shower turned into a rehearsal studio.

Miller and Kamens also had their sonnet bookmarked on their cell phones, and they kept copies between their two sinks in the bathroom and at the kitchen table. The night before the Dessert, they were at a basketball game. But “during half-time, we were doing sonnet,” says Miller. That same day, I spent so long cleaning my apartment while loudly repeating my lines that I wondered if my neighbors would think I’d gone mad. One hour before the event, I finally recited the lines to a friend. I thought I performed with some degree of majesty.