How Shakespeare’s Four-Hundred Year-Old Sonnets Drove Me To Madness
And How They Tell Me They’re Performing As Intended
Something magical happened on the evening of the 28th of January, 2012, just shy of four centuries after the Bard’s body had been buried. I brushed dust off some old words with my fingertips, I breathed out their spells as I read, and a real-life Djinn popped out.
Standing Over A Grave
I was halfway through the first semester of the second year of my Master’s in English Literature at the Tel Aviv University (which I left incomplete with only a handful of credits to go, but that has nothing to do with this story) and my lecturer, Dr Noam Reisner, had warned us that his seminar entitled “Sonnets and Sonneteers” would either see us quitting, or losing our minds. While I cannot speak for the rest of the class, let me assure you that in my case his assertion was entirely on the nose.
After weeks covering the history of sonnets, their techniques and their makers, we studied a number of Shakespeare’s sonnets together in the classroom and I’d found myself fixated on an aspect of the first sonnet that I simply couldn’t shake: while reading and re-reading it, it continued to produce a nagging sensation that I was standing over a grave. I could not for the life of me tell you what specifically had that effect on me, but somehow I was certain that it was significant. That feeling had inspired me to make the Bard’s sonnet sequence the focus my mid-term paper, a decision that would forever alter the course of my life.
Just like most people, I’d encountered quite a few of Shakespeare’s sonnets before, back in high school where our English teachers forced them down our throats until our gag reflexes kicked in, during a number of university courses, at awkwardly inappropriate times in a few movies, but we’d always read selections of them, never all together and never in sequence. I strongly believe that a lack of context and continuity is a factor in why the sonnets are largely under-appreciated today; that, and the fact that the conventional reading that’s taught to us is so narrowly focused on sex and sexual relationships that it thoroughly distracts from everything that makes the text truly magical and terribly awe-inspiring.