On March 22 2020, Sir Patrick Stewart posted on Instagram a video of himself reciting Shakespeare’s Sonnet 119 “Let not marriage . . ..” The reception was so enthusiastic that on March 23 Stewart posted again:
I was delighted by the response to my posting of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. 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.
Stewart has thus far proceeded to post a sonnet a day; as I write this on March 26, Stewart has posted sonnet 4 “Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend . . . ”.
As many have noted since the lock-downs and self-isolation of COVID-19 in 2020, Shakespeare’s life was marked by various incursions of the plague. Shakespeare was christened on April 26, 1564, at the Stratford Parish church; by July of that year the town, like most of England, was ravaged by bubonic plague. Waves of plague affected England all of Shakespeare’s life, resulting in multiple closures of the London theaters, in an effort to practice what we are calling “distancing.” The theaters were closed in February 1564, the year Shakespeare was born, in 1593, in 1603–1604 the theaters closed for 11 months, again in July of 1606 (when Shakespeare was occupied with King Lear), and in 1608.[ref]Regarding the history of King Lear’s composition and iniital performances, see the excellent 1606: A Year of Lear by James Shapiro.[/ref]
The summer of 1592 is almost certainly when Shakespeare wrote his long poem Venus and Adonis, published in 1593 when theaters were still closed because of the plague. That Shakespeare was acutely aware of the plague is clear from this passage of Venus and Adonis:
“Long may they kiss each other for this cure.
O never let their crimson liveries wear,
And as they last, their verdour still endure,
To drive infection from the dangerous year,
That the star-gazers, having writ on death,
May say the plague is banished by thy breath” (Venus and Adonis ll. 505–10)
Stephen Greenblatt theorizes that the sonnets were largely written during the summer of 1592, when the theaters had been closed first because of concerns regarding social unrest, and later, in 1593, because of plague. It is thus particularly appropriate, perhaps, to turn to Shakespeare’s sonnets for consolation during 2020, the year of the Coronavirus, COVID-19.
I have for several years been working my own way through Shakespeare’s sonnets, making notes and annotating them as I read. This began as part of my preparation for my Ph.D. qualifying exams, continued as an aide to teaching, and then simply became an enjoyable meditative habit.
I thought to take Sir Patrick Stewart’s lead, and re-read and post about each of Shakespeare’s sonnets as Stewart read them. I am by no means a Shakespearean scholar, though I have studied with several, and taught Shakespeare under some of their supervision and mentoring. I’m merely presenting my own idiosyncratic readings as I attempt to stave off depression and homesickness, not presenting a definitive reading. I do point to a number of resources related to Shakespeare’s sonnets, as well as provide a somewhat truncated introduction to Shakespeare’s sonnets.
To begin: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 1.