26th June 2020
In this week’s blogpost, Tom Boughen, who is currently helping us add new learning material to the Poetry By Heart website, explores how Shakespeare’s plays were opened up for him by his A Level English teacher and how working on our Shakespeare’s Sonnets Showcase has now introduced him to the sonnets too.
I have a personal certainty that anyone who engages with Poetry By Heart for any length of time will walk away having learned something about poetry that they didn’t know before. This is no less true for those of us who work on the project. I’ve been spending time in the company of William Shakespeare’s 154 published sonnets, which are at the heart of Renaissance literary tradition, yet I have to admit that I knew little about them until recently.
I was surprised to find how much I did know, the snippets which have wormed their way into the public consciousness. Like many quotes from great literature which have done this, they come without much recognition of their origin.
These might ring a bell, but it feels really satisfying to actually see these in their full context, akin to finally remembering the title of a song when the tune has been at the back of your mind for a few days.
The Shakespeare sonnet showcase has been on the site for a while, since 2017. It was originally created to continue the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death. It often feels that we never really stop the ongoing celebration of Shakespeare’s life and works but we thought we could help students to discover something new. This is a challenge when contending with possibly the most famous writer in the English language and given that he was writing 400 years ago, when the English language was very different to today.
We took that challenge head-on. Alongside the modern English version we offered an alternate version published with the original spellings of 400 years ago. The development of language, and its evolution over the last 400 years, is evident when lining up two versions of the same poem – and it’s fascinating. And if you thought Shakespeare’s writing only works with a refined, upper-class accent, try watching the video below of Trevor Eaton reciting Sonnet 18 in Original Pronunciation.
The development of language from Shakespearean English to modern English is also evident with the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) links available throughout the showcase. We plan to add many more links in the coming weeks. Each link will take you to the OED definition, specific to the context of the poem, and find out the background to any words that might be obscure, difficult to understand, or just plain quirky.
From grappling with Hamlet in my own English A-Level class, I know that Shakespeare really comes alive when it’s taken off the page and is instead tumbling out of people’s mouths. As a moody, testosterone-filled teenager, the themes of parental alienation and destructive masculinity really struck a chord with me, but never more until I actually watched Kenneth Branagh, Ethan Hawke, David Tennant, Laurence Olivier – and yes, even Mel Gibson – deliver the lines which before had often seemed perplexing. In the same way that you can pick up on the meaning of a sentence in a foreign language by tone, body language and voice, you can do the same with Shakespearean English.
On this basis, each sonnet includes an audio recitation by Professor David Fuller, who has studied the link between sound and meaning in the sonnets, and many more also have links to Poetry Archive readings by poets. We also plan to include more videos of a wide variety of actors and performers giving their own unique interpretations.
Ultimately, through helping to build this project, I have a greater level of personal accessibility to the world of Shakespeare’s sonnets than I did a few weeks ago. All credit to my A Level English teacher, who employed a wide range of resources to help unlock Shakespeare’s plays. Now I’m beginning to see his sonnets in the same light, and I hope the Poetry By Heart Shakespeare showcase will help more young people in the same way.
Tom Boughen currently teaches English as a language assistant in Madrid. A full-time member of the Poetry By Heart team between 2013 and 2016, he still occasionally returns to make contributions to the project, and otherwise spends his time reading, writing, going for walks and practising his Spanish.