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It has led me to undertake what follows. When I was a child in the 1940s, my mother would cut up slices of fruit for me (there wasn’t much) and as she put it in front of me she would say: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” How about, “A sonnet a day keeps the doctor away”? So…here we go: Sonnet 1.
He is a “geek cultural icon”: Captain Picard and Professor X. We’ve heard him gamely voice a ridiculous animated character in American Dad. We know him as an advocate for victims of domestic violence, a tragic reality he witnessed as a child. There are many sides to Patrick Stewart, but at his core, Shakespeare nerds know, he’s a Shakespearean. Maybe you’ve seen him in 2010’s Ceaușescu-inspired Macbeth or the 2012 BBC production of Richard II, or as Claudius in 2009’s televised Royal Shakespeare Company Hamlet, with David Tennant in the title role?
Only the most enviable nerds, however, have seen him live on stage with the RSC, in any number of roles, minor and major, that he has played since joining the company in 1966. He’s as august a Shakespearean actor as Olivier or Gielgud. So, imagine Olivier or Gielgud reading a Shakespeare sonnet to you every day, right in the comfort of your own home. Maybe even better (some might say), we have the mellifluous Stewart delivering the goods, to soothe us in our days of isolation.
After receiving a very enthusiastic response when he “randomly and elegantly recited Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 to his fans on social media,” writes Laughing Squid, Stewart “decided to read one Shakespeare sonnet aloud each day in hopes of ‘keeping the doctor away.’” Think of it as preventative medicine for the itchy, cooped-up soul. On his Instagram, Sir Patrick shows up lounging comfortably in casual clothes, furthering the illusion that he’s joined us in our living rooms—or we’ve joined him in his.
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Where the intimacy of celebrity social media can sometimes feel cloying and insincere, Stewart seems to feel so genuinely at home with his setting and his text that we do too. The actor occasionally adds some brief commentary. In his reading of Sonnet 2, above, he says before beginning, “this is one of my favorites.”
When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery so gazed on now,
Will be a totter’d weed of small worth held:
Then being asked, where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days;
To say, within thine own deep sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserv’d thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.
Maybe we all feel we’re growing old in the boredom and anxiety of our new siege-like conditions. The poet urges us to make the most it. Sure, plenty of people are already engaged in making children, without any help from Shakespeare or Patrick Stewart, but those who aren’t might decide to work on other legacies that will outlive them.
Stewart tells Variety that his only regret during his time with the RSC is that he “might have perhaps been a rather bolder, pushier and more extravagant actor.” But it’s his understatement and subtlety that make him so compelling. He also says that his first year with the RSC was, “at that point, the happiest year of my working life,” though he was only cast to play small roles until he was made an Associate Artist in 1967, just one year after joining.
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He worked alongside a “new nucleus of talent” that included Helen Mirren and Ben Kingsley and remained exclusively with the company until 1982. (See a young Stewart as Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream production from 1977.) Stewart returned to the stage with the RSC often, and while his Instagram readings are hardly comparable in scope and intensity to his Shakespearean work on stage and screen, they have proven a true balm for lovers of Shakespeare’s poetry, as read by Patrick Stewart as a loveably bookish homebody, which turns out to be an unsurprisingly large number of people.
If you’re in dire need of such a thing—or just can’t miss the opportunity to see one of the greatest living Shakespearean actors read all of the Sonnets in his sweats—check in with Stewart’s Instagram to get caught up and for the latest installment, and follow along with poems here. For even more Shakespearean Stewart geekery, read his recollection of his 1965 Royal Shakespeare Company audition—in which company co-founder John Barton had him perform Henry V’s famous Agincourt speech four times in a row before inviting him to join.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
OMG! I love both Shakespeare & Star Trek, so I think these performances are going to be one of the coolest things ever! Sonnet #116 is my favorite as well.
Thank you! Classic joy. I have shared this with all my students and young actors … in my heart
Very good man Patrick Stewart
There is also a very nice project with all Shakespearean sonnets on Youtube: Acting students from theater academies all around the world made a short clip with a sonnet in their language. It is a unique variety of different approaches and fantasy. Each day a new sonett is posted. Watch it here: