BB: Short Poems, Sonnets 1-5

Artwork – Stephanie E.M. Coleman

In our first ever Short Poems podcast, Daniel, Maya Pankalla and I discuss Shakespeare’s Sonnets 1 through 5.

(Bonus maple syrup fun facts from David Kandestin)

Listen to the podcast here.

Every week we cap off our recording with a sonnet. In this episode of the Bard Brawl, we gather some of them up and discuss the first five of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Join us as we take you through them and add our many voices to 400+ years of debate: just who are these things supposed to be addressed to? Are they even supposed to go together? Why should we care?

Sonnet 1 (Episode: Coriolanus, Act I, Read by: Stephanie E.M. Coleman)

Stephanie E.M. Coleman reading Sonnet 1

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’st flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content
And, tender churl, makest waste in niggarding.
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

Argument: We want beautiful creatures to reproduce so that when they age they leave behind a fresh, young replacement to carry on the legacy. But you’re so enamoured with yourself that you’ll end up denying us an offspring. If you keep this up, you’ll burn up all of your beauty by keeping it for yourself to look at.

Sonnet 2 (Episode: Coriolanus, Act II, Read by: Melissa Myers)

When fourty 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 tatter’d weed, of small worth held:
Then being ask’d 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 deserved 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.

Argument: When you’re old (apparently 40 meant something different then than now) your beauty will be a thing of the past. If anyone asks you where you’re beauty’s gone you’ll have nothing to say unless you have a child with whom to leave your beauty in trust. In this way you’ll still feel young even if you’re old.

Sonnet 3 (Episode: Coriolanus, Act III, Read by: Esther Viragh)

Esther Viragh reading Sonnet 3

Look in thy glass, and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should form another;
Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest,
Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.
For where is she so fair whose unear’d womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?
Or who is he so fond will be the tomb
Of his self-love, to stop posterity?
Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime:
So thou through windows of thine age shall see
Despite of wrinkles this thy golden time.
But if thou live, remember’d not to be,
Die single, and thine image dies with thee.

Argument: Tell your reflection that now is the time to sire another copy of yourself in the flesh. By keeping to your reflection you rob mothers of sons and daughters. After all, you are your mother’s reflection and she re-lives her youth through yours. If you don’t have any children whose looks will be the memory of yours, you’ll die alone and forgotten. (Weren’t these supposed to be about love or something?…)

Sonnet 4 (Episode: Coriolanus, Act IV, Read by: Virginie Tremblay)

Virginie Tremblay reading Sonnet 4

Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thyself thy beauty’s legacy?
Nature’s bequest gives nothing but doth lend,
And being frank she lends to those are free.
Then, beauteous niggard, why dost thou abuse
The bounteous largess given thee to give?
Profitless usurer, why dost thou use
So great a sum of sums, yet canst not live?
For having traffic with thyself alone,
Thou of thyself thy sweet self dost deceive.
Then how, when nature calls thee to be gone,
What acceptable audit canst thou leave?
Thy unused beauty must be tomb’d with thee,
Which, used, lives th’ executor to be.

Argument: Why do you store up your wealth of beauty? Nature doesn’t give out gifts but rather lends them. You should give back freely of what nature has given you. What account of your fortune can you give if you hoard your beauty? It will just be buried along with you, no one will remember you and you will have nothing to show for it. (Compare this sonnet with the character of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice who is accused of hoarding both his money and his daughter.)

Sonnet 5 (Episode: Merchant of Venice, The Speeches, Read by: Kayla Cross)

Kayla Cross reading Sonnet 5

Those hours, that with gentle work did frame
The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell,
Will play the tyrants to the very same
And that unfair which fairly doth excel:
For never-resting time leads summer on
To hideous winter and confounds him there;
Sap cheque’d with frost and lusty leaves quite gone,
Beauty o’ersnow’d and bareness every where:
Then, were not summer’s distillation left,
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,
Beauty’s effect with beauty were bereft,
Nor it nor no remembrance what it was:
But flowers distill’d though they with winter meet,
Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.

Argument: Just as the passage of time turned you from a boy into a man, it will keep passing until you reach your winter years and eventually die. Then, if you haven’t distilled your beautiful essence while it was still time, it will be snowed over and lost forever. But, if you pass your beauty on to another it will survive even though you won’t.

Next week the Brawlers begin a new play. Which one will it be? You’ll have to listen to find out!

(Podcast recorded and edited by Daniel J. Rowe, Show notes by Eric Jean)

The brawlers for this week are Daniel J. Rowe, Eric Jean and Sonneteer Maya Pankalla

BB: Coriolanus, Act II

(Podcast recorded and edited by Daniel J. Rowe, Show notes by Eric Jean)

Politics heat up and the bard brawlers read through Act II of the Tragedy of Coriolanus

Listen to the podcast here.

In Act II, scene 1, Menenius accuses the tribunes Sicinius and Brutus of plotting against Coriolanus for selfish reasons. The tribunes continue to maintain that Coriolanus is prideful and should not be given the consulship. Volumnia shows up with news of Coriolanus’ triumphant return to Rome. She and Menenius catalogue the history of Coriolanus’ wounds, which they anticipate will speak favourably for him when he is called upon to show proof of his military service to Rome. Brutus and Sicinius remain determined to convince the people to withhold their consent to Coriolanus’ nomination.

The patricians and the tribunes are gathered at the capitol to elect a new consul in act II, scene 2. Though we are told of two other candidates, Coriolanus is clearly a shoe-in for the job. (Cominius currently holds the office but he’s not one of the candidates. Consuls were not allowed to serve consecutive terms at this point in roman history.) Cominius offers up his panegyric to Coriolanus, which recounts his military exploits and tells everyone how much Coriolanus is epic and awesome, but Coriolanus doesn’t care to hang around and hear himself be praised (jury is still out on whether Caius Martius Coriolanus is really as humble as he keeps saying he is). All the patricians support his nomination but Coriolanus has no desire to parade his wounds before the common people. Meanwhile, more plotting by the tribunes who hope to abuse Coriolanus’ temper to discredit him.

Menenius convinces Coriolanus to honour the custom of showing his wounds in public. Act II, scene 3 takes place in the forum, with Coriolanus dressed in a sort of ritual gown of humility. The peasants know the score: this whole ‘show us your wounds’ business is basically a formality. Though the tribunes and the people can veto the decision of the patricians, if Coriolanus shows them his wounds, they’re more or less forced to give him their support (as the Third Citizen explains in the opening moments of the scene.). Coriolanus meets with the citizens in groups of 2 or 3 and generally acts like an ass with them but manages to get their grudging support. As soon as he leaves the scene, Sicinius and Brutus play the crowd and convince the citizens to withdraw their support. They cleverly cast themselves in the role of well-meaning but misguided counselors and the enraged citizens head for the capitol to deny Coriolanus his consulship.

About these citizens. In most of Shakespeare’s plays, these anonymous characters serve an expository role – like Neo in The Matrix, they ask the questions and volunteer the information the audience needs to understand the background of the story. Sometimes, they’re given some interesting lines, but in most cases they’re minor, undistinguished characters that only exist to fulfil a necessary narrative function. However, in Coriolanus, these citizens seem to have substance, individual leanings and views. Many of them differ in their assessment of Coriolanus and whether or not he should be consul. In Coriolanus, there’s disagreement, lack of consent and even changing opinions in the multitude. This is in fact precisely what Coriolanus finds reprehensible in the plebeians, their lack of constancy and their divisiveness. Ironically, the tribunes themselves seem to take advantage of this: they are easily able to sway the people to withdraw their support for Coriolanus’ appointment. I wrote about the tribunes and the citizens on my sometimes-active blog if you’re interested in reading more about them.

(Unfortunately, the differences between the seven citizens might not come out so clearly in the podcast. You’ll notice that only André, David, Daniel and myself were reading this week so we were forced to sort of jumble together the citizens’ lines. We tried on different voices… with varying degrees of success.)

The play though opens up with these same hungry citizens who seem to have very legitimate reasons for being upset at Caius Martius and their lot in the new Roman Republic. The commoners in Coriolanus aren’t simply dismissed by the plot, making quick cameos and then disappearing. They’re active (if nameless) participants in the unfolding drama. They quite literally take center stage opposite to Coriolanus throughout the play, as a group and as individuals.

As we mentioned several times on the show, Coriolanus is adapted from Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (often just called Lives, or Parallel Lives) which we highly recommend. It’s surprisingly readable. We’ll have more to say about Coriolanus and Plutarch as we read through the play but I wanted to leave you with one remark which is relevant to this scene. Coriolanus’ refusal to show his wound to the plebeians is Shakespeare’s invention. In Plutarch, Coriolanus does in fact parade his wounds for the people without complaint. The gown is made-up too. I wonder: does this make Coriolanus more of a petulant child for refusing to do what’s accepted tradition? Or is his objection to taking part in a politically expedient lie commendable?

There’s so much more that could be written about Plutarch and Shakespeare, but we’ll leave it for another episode.

Please leave us a comment to tell us what you think: is Coriolanus prideful or principled? Are the citizens just a bunch of lemmings for the tribunes to play with or do they deserve some names?

Looking forward to a totally explosive act III!

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