The Bard's Tube


Thursday, September 18, 2008

The post where I teach you how to do sonnets. Briefly.

So, I just taught class #3 with the TIGERS management company. We're working on some sonnets, as I like to do to start everybody off. Here's how this works, kids:

First: what is iambic pentameter? It's a verse form containing five lines of iambs. An iamb is two beats with the second beat stressed. (Perhaps it's got family issues. But no matter....) Five of those are a pentameter line. At it's simplest:

Da DUH da DUH da DUH da DUH da DUH.

"But SOFT what LIGHT through YONder WINdow BREAKS?"

If you don't really punch the stressed syllable, it sounds pretty much the way we normally speak. We have a very up-and-down cadence in English, so this style works really well. The reason it's good to know IP is that if you get confused about what you're saying, go back and beat it out with the stressed and unstressed and whatever words you stress are probably the most important. That should give you a clue what you're saying.

Once you know that, grab a sonnet. Let's focus on the most famous: Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And Summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And oft' is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd:
But thy eternal Summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Now, why are the last two lines indented? This is a couplet, kiddies. The first 12 lines of the sonnet are ABAB, but the last two rhyme. Usually (and always when you're performing them), these two lines should express the "opposite" of the rest of the sonnet. Shakespeare, as my co-moderator Beki is so rightly fond of repeating, love opposites. He uses them constantly - it's like poetic algebra - almost everything evens out. So when acting, whatever you choose to be your intention for the sonnet has to go 180 by the end.

Sounds weird for this one? Think about it: "Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day?" What's the answer? "No, I won't do that. You're more beautiful than that." Then the whole sonnet discusses how Summer fades, makes way for other seasons, and disappears.

It moves on to "Every fair FROM fair sometime declines." So: "Everything beautiful at some time or another stops being beautiful." Much as Summer fades and makes way for Winter, we lose our youth and move on to old age and death. Not so Summery or romantic anymore, is it? And still, he's saying he WON'T compare her. He starts to free up (which means you need a new intention and tactic) by the last four lines with "But THY eternal Summer shall not fade....... when in eternal lines to time thou growest." Or: "The real Summer fades, so I won't compare you to Summer. But YOUR brightness and warmth will never disappear because I'm going to write about them and my words will last forever, long after you are dead. You will survive and be beautiful forever since I will immortalize you in my poem." Little more romantic?

Now the couplet. "So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, so long lives this, and this gives life to thee." - "This poem will last forever as long as people are alive to read it. And as long as this poem lives, so will you, in the minds of the readers." That's a far cry from "I'm not going to compare you to something beautiful." So if you know that the end is going to be hopelessly romantic, you can't play that at the top.

The beginning could be played very much as a prototypical guy who doesn't do sissy things like say poems and romantic stuff. And then he backs up his reasoning, because it's stupid to do that poetry stuff about "you're as beautiful as a sunny day" since at it's core, that's a cop out and really means that you're only great to be around until nighttime or the Fall. Then swing your way around so that by the end you're the most romantic person in the world, since you look far beyond the crap one-liners that guys give girls about beauty and you're looking at who she really IS. And since you love who she IS and not just infatuated with her body and pretty face, you will immortalize her, immortalize her beauty, and immortalize your love for her.

Hell, do that and I'D go to bed with you. Which, as you must remember, is the whole point to poetry. ; )

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