“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.