The Shakespeare Rocks group recently had an enlightening and entertaining presentation from Dr. John Bigelow on aspects of Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night, as well as his sonnets and poems. John’s background is philosophy but he has a passion for Shakespeare, particularly the sonnets.
In Twelfth Night, John provided insights into the circumstances of Mavolio’s imprisonment and torment after he is tricked into making a buffoon of himself. The ‘Fool’, disguised as Sir Topas, questions Malvolio on aspects of Pythagorean philosophy – he answers correctly – a conversation that could have seen him charged with heresy. In Elizabethan times, this could have been tantamount to a death sentence. It sounds like heavy stuff but the play, despite some typically dark Elizabethan undertones, is very funny.
The first sonnets were written in the 14th century by Italian poet Francesco Petrarch. Over the years, the structure was modified by French and English poets but Shakespeare returned to the original format. Shakespeare wrote his sonnets over a number of years but they were first published in 1609. They were then almost completely ignored for over a century as lesser art forms until championed by the romantic poets John Keats and William Wordsworth in the 18th century. Classically, the format follows 14 lines of iambic pentameter; three, four-line alternately rhyming quatrains; ending with a two-line rhyming couplet. Whilst Shakespeare predominately maintains the classical Italian structure, he is able to add non-discordant departures almost at will to suit his message.
The sonnets cover broad aspects of love from romance to more base desires. In all there are 154; the first 126 are dedicated to an unidentified and, much speculated upon, beautiful young man or boy, whilst sonnets 127-152 concern tormented dealings with a mysterious ‘dark lady’. Sonnets 153 and 154 appear irrelevant to the previous 152, although on a similar subject of love.
Shakespeare offers something for everyone’s interest, theatre, literature, history, philosophy, psychology. But, of course, there is pure enjoyment in just the beauty of the words.