Shakespeare’s Satirical Sonnet 130, As Read By Stephen Fry

“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.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Shake­speare in the Orig­i­nal Voice

Shakespeare’s Julius Cae­sar Read in Celebri­ty Voic­es

Acclaimed BBC Pro­duc­tion of Ham­let, Star­ring David Ten­nant (Doc­tor Who) and Patrick Stew­art (Star Trek)

City Poems: A New Lit­er­ary iPhone App

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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Comments (5)
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  • 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.

  • Bev says:

    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.

  • Elizabeth West says:

    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!

  • Richard Dury says:

    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.

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