“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” begins Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare. But why read the rest when you can see and hear it, in the video above, from Stephen Fry? No matter how often I’ve wished the voice inside my head could sound like his, I just can’t master intracranially replicating his distinctive combination of accent and manner. This deficiency bothers me especially when reading works as worthy as Shakespeare’s sonnets. Sonnet 130 in particular, a satire of the increasingly and obviously hyperbolic odes to female beauty popular in Shakespeare’s day, practically demands a persona as dryly knowing as Fry’s. But neither Fry in any of his work nor the Shakespeare of Sonnet 130 seem content to simply pop balloons of grotesquely overinflated sentiment. They know that, in refusing to trot out grandly tired comparisons of lips to coral and cheeks to roses, they pay their subjects a more lasting, genuine tribute in the end.
Fry’s reading comes from a new iPad app, Shakespeare’s Sonnets. In an apparent realization of all those literary “multimedia experiences” we dreamed of but could never quite achieve in the mid-nineties, it presents the 154 sonnets as they looked in their 1609 quarto edition with scholarly notes, commentary, and interviews with experts. Other performers enlisted to read them include Patrick Stewart (presumably another sine qua non for such a project), David Tennant, and — because hey, why not — Kim Cattrall. A fine idea, but new-media visionaries should take note that I and many others are even now waiting for apps dedicated to nothing more than Stephen Fry reading things. Someone’s got to capitalize on this demand.
Shakespeare in the Original Voice
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Acclaimed BBC Production of Hamlet, Starring David Tennant (Doctor Who) and Patrick Stewart (Star Trek)
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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.
Fry’s rendition of this sonnet might be re-evaluated if we knew that the author was speaking of the higher sense of “mistress”, i.e., Queen Elizabeth (roses red and white?), her wig-hair (“black wires grow on her head”). And that in turn suggests that the writer was far higher in station than the cock and bull story that a commoner could speak so familiarly of the Queen and chide a high noble Southampton. That the author “loves” his “mistress”, there is no doubt. But the love is allegiance and fealty. She isn’t exactly a thing of beauty. He describes his love for her as “rare”, a term understood then to indicate high spirituality, even to royal fineness of spirit. In other words, his loyalty is finer than any of her vain pretenses, manufactured falsely for the world.
A little different from the mindless duderism in the youtube bit. If he didn’t have mindless bad taste, he’d have no taste at all.
He is absolutely the best person reciting Shakespeare I have ever heard. He brings such nuances and darling insights.
What a delight. Thanks. I hope he reads lots more.
That is a woman only he can love.
I completely agree with Colin Marshall’s comments in the little article above about Stephen Fry and his recitation of this sonnet: there is irony and insight and honest respect. Thank you, Stephen Fry for your beautiful performance and Open Culture for posting this!
An excellent nuanced reading——and with the correct beat on ‘she’ (= woman) in the last line, whichg trips up many readers. I personally would read ‘than HER lips RED’ (rather than ‘than her LIPS RED’) and differ over one or two minor choices——but then I wouldn’t read it as well. And a poem, like a piece of music allows personal choices and even slight deviances from the ‘score’ and can still hold together and be a great performance, as this is.