Today we offer a guest post from Patrick Prentice, a writer and producer on Last Will. & Testament, a great documentary film that discusses the Shakespeare authorship Question.
Patrick reviews Joshua Gray’s #Bard154 — Shakespeare’s sonnets and a “Tudor Rose” approach distilled into poetic quatrains and published on Twitter. You can also enjoy the poet’s work at the website:
Shakespeare’s Sonnets Miraculously Transformed Into Tweets
For most readers Shakespeare’s sonnets are an indecipherable mess – and that includes boatloads of Shakespeare scholars, who tend to dismiss the sonnets as “a poetic exercise,” where we see “the young writer sharpening his craft” and so on. I admit I was one of those readers unable to make much sense of them, and after a few halfhearted forays into the sonnets many years ago, I felt defeated, telling myself it was okay just to enjoy the half-dozen poems most literate people are familiar with and forget about the rest.
But it nagged at me that I hadn’t read all the sonnets, and eventually I decided that if I could wade through Titus Andronicus I could tackle the sonnets. So, over a period of about a week I read all 154 of them, and I have to say I found them – once again – to be dense, repetitive, organized in no particular way, and fairly uninteresting… even though the poet was obviously writing about something extremely important to him. I just couldn’t figure out what it was.
The few commentaries available were hopeless. For one, they assumed that the writer was someone besides Edward De Vere (doh!) which obviously rendered them mostly useless as they speculated about the shadowy characters that seem to populate the poems – a mysterious dark lady? A young nobleman with whom the Stratford glover’s son had a homosexual relationship? Were there two young men? Was there a rival poet, and, if so, who was he?
In short, the “expert” commentaries were as confusing to me as the poems.
Now that has changed. The indecipherable mess has been de-coded. Thanks to the groundbreaking work by Hank Whittemore and others, we know more or less exactly what De Vere intended the sonnets to be – namely a carefully constructed, extremely organized literary monument to his son by Queen Elizabeth… an unacknowledged love-child named Henry Wriothsley, 3rd Earl of Southampton.
The sonnets are a record of De Vere’s attempt to persuade the queen to (1) drop the whole Virgin Queen myth; (2) acknowledge their son as the legitimate heir to the throne, thereby carrying on the Tudor line; (3) forgive Southampton for his part in the Essex Rebellion and not chop off his head. Other sonnets are directed to Southampton, and tell the story of the terrible price De Vere had to pay to save Southampton’s life. It’s an amazing story, and for those really interested in the subject, I recommend Hank’s magnum opus The Monument and Peter Rush’s Hidden In Plain Sight, both of which detail how meticulously organized the 154 sonnets are, and how each fits into the timeline of Southampton’s life.
But there’s another wonderful alternative for those who don’t have the time to wade through all the sonnets: poet Joshua Gray has reduced every one of them to tweets… 14 lines of dense, complicated verse condensed to 140 characters organized in easy-to-understand quatrains that stand on their own as poems.
In #143, De Vere chides Elizabeth about her lack of affection for their bastard son:
Like a neglectful mother eyeing another,
her child cries for attention.
You run to no one; he wants a mother.
Have some balls.
In #147 De Vere laments the bargain he has made with the queen:
Love is a fever; reason is a doctor.
(Forget my bargain; let truth be told.)
I’ve gone incurably mad.
You’ve gone black as hell.
And in Sonnet #130 the poet tells the aging queen how he really feels:
You’ve red eyes, loose boobs & wig-hair.
Your breath wilts roses.
You’re godless, a female slug.
Yet, you made a royal son.
Gray’s quatrains are excellent poems in their own right, and I confess I find many of them to be superior to the originals. In his superb translations (is that the right word?) Gray strips away the camouflage De Vere had to employ to keep his identity a secret, the poet’s complicated and always difficult relationship with his sovereign and his son is unmasked, and the astonishing story the sonnets relate finally becomes clear.
If you’re a Shakespeare lover, check out Gray’s tweets and enjoy some historically intriguing quatrains that will knock your socks off.
Writer/Producer, Last Will. & Testament