Today I got a text from my daughter that said simply, “Sonnet 18.”
Guess they’re learning that one in class now (along with Hamlet and East of Eden, apparently. A real mixed bag!) “Easy peasy,” I texted back. “You’ve been able to sing that since you were three.”
“I what?” she responded.
Did she not remember? Oh, it is one of my most primal memories. I went on a quest.
For context let’s start here. A long, long time ago, before we had anything like iPhones and the idea of a “custom ringtone” was something that the height of personalizing your phone, mine was, of course, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour singing Sonnet 18. I mean, I know, right? How do you know that exists and not make it your ringtone? I love Shakespeare, I love Pink Floyd. It’s like the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups of music.
Then one day I caught my children singing it. How do you capture that moment? They called it “the song Daddy’s phone sings.” You can’t explain to your kids, not at that age, that they just elevated their Daddy’s universal joy. Sure I’d spent the first years of their lives talking about Shakespeare and “decorating their lives” with Shakespeare, but here was the first moment when I heard it come back to me, and I knew I was changing their lives as much as they’d just changed mine. Music to my ears, in infinitely more ways than one.
I sent that off to my daughter to show her friends at school, along with some pictures of what she looked like when she was 3, because that’s how old she is in that clip.
When she came home from school today and we were talking about it, she said, “Does that make you sad?”
I looked at her funny. “It’s literally been my purpose in life, I’ve literally spent eighteen years shaping your brain the way I think is best for you to go out into the universe.”
“YA THINK?” she said.
“Moments like this, when I know the plan worked, you think that makes me sad?”
“No,” she said, “not sad like that. Sad like, looking back at those memories, that were so long ago.”
I knew what she was saying. That thing we sometimes call “happysad.” She was right, of course. But I can get happysad about a lot of things. I needed a different answer.
“You know,” I told her, wondering if my voice would break, “I honestly don’t remember much about teaching you guys to ride a bike. But you know that scene in all the tv shows and movies, right? Where the parent is running behind with a hand on the seat, and the kid doesn’t have the training wheels anymore, and then suddenly the parent lets go and they’re doing it by themselves? That pride, that exhilaration?
That is exactly what it feels like. Every. Single. Time.”
Here’s a challenge for the programmers out there. Once upon a time, when I was a younger man with “hacking” time on my hands, I would have already been all over this. Instead, now I’ll put it out into the universe in the hopes that someone else is in a position to take up the challenge.
A recent post on Reddit claimed to be a recitation of the sonnets over some video from one of the Halo computer games. The problem, it was just classic computer “text to speech (TTS)”. Which, you’ve probably experienced, is painful to listen to – no pacing, no inflection, no sense at all of what it’s reading. I suggested to the original poster that it was like listening to somebody read the dictionary.
But then I got an idea. Text to speech technology has actually gotten much better than it was in the old days. Machine learning has given the engine some degree of understanding of how words go together, and the whole point of punctuation. In fact, Amazon offers a cloud service known as Polly that is specifically all about “lifelike speech”.
So now I’m wondering, what would it take to tweak a TTS engine to make a reasonable recitation of the sonnets? Something that feels the iambic pentameter, and sounds like it’s actually reading poetry as it was intended to be read. Of course, it’s not going to be Alan Rickman’s quality, I get that. I’m just wondering if it can be better.
There are a couple of ways to go about this. One obvious one is to pick a sonnet, and then manually create a transcription of the text into the special codes that tell the TTS engine exactly what to do — emphasize this syllable over that one, pause longer here, make an “oo” sound here instead of an “oh”.
That by itself is maybe a couple of hours of work. A proof of concept, as they say in our biz. Tweak it, play it, go back and tweak it some more.
But then, can we learn from that? Can we bring machine learning into it? You’d probably need to do this for more than one sonnet, but I think you could train something fairly easily to look at those few, let’s say half a dozen, and extract the underlying patterns. Then turn it loose on the next couple and see what you get.
Like all machine learning, it would be an incremental exercise, constantly going back and throwing more training data at it until you start to be happy with the results. But how cool would it be if you had to train it on less (substantially less) than the entire 154, and before you were done it was reciting the remaining ones on its own?
Then, for the real fun, switch gears and throw some soliloquies at it and see how it does!
Who’s up for the challenge? The more I described it the more I wish I could tackle it myself. Maybe I’ll end up trying a manual transcription job anyway, just to kick it off and see where I get?
When I started this site way back in 2005 I really had no idea what I was doing. There was no Twitter, no Facebook, and basically you started a blog as a way to brain dump ideas you had on a topic in the hopes that other people might want to read them and engage in conversation. I don’t know that I knew more about Shakespeare than your average Joe, I just knew that I found the topic more interesting and wanted to talk about it more than my friends and family did. So I started a blog to talk about Shakespeare.
Then a funny thing happened. People who actually did know about the subject – a lot, as it turns out – joined the conversation. One of my new friends was Dr. Carl Atkins, who sent me a copy of his book Shakespeare’s Sonnets : With 300 Years of Commentary. Looking back now I admit that I had no idea what I was doing and understood very little of it :), but it’s been a reference ever since, both when I pull it down from the shelf, and when Carl pops up in the comments on sonnet threads and quotes his research to answer our questions.
Among His Private Friends
Well Carl’s working on a new book and site now called Among His Private Friends which aim to put you the reader in the role of one of Shakespeare’s “private friends”, passing the sonnets around among yourselves and learning the story they tell from the inside. In the author’s own words, the goal of this one is not to be a definitive reference but rather a fun read, the way Shakespeare may have intended.
The site is still a work in progress. Hardcore sonnet fans who are always interested in a new angle, should definitely check it out and send Carl some feedback! His book is due out in October.
I feel awkward now telling these stories, knowing that my kids’ friends might be reading them, so I’ll do my best to keep personal info out of it.
My oldest is tutoring someone right now, and the assignment they worked on was a sonnet.
“I’m sorry,” I ask, “Did you say sonnet?”
“Very cool. Continue.”
She continues, “So I’m trying to help with his iambic pentameter, so I’m reading out a line, showing him the emphasis on the right syllables, you know, da DAH da DAH da DAH and why are you looking at me weird?”
“Because I’m listening to you talk about explaining iambic pentameter to other people like it’s the most natural thing in the world to you, and that makes me very, very happy.” That weird look you see, my darling child, is something every parent dreams of, that moment when you see this creature you’ve molded and shaped and guided since the day she was born, hoping each day that you’re doing it right and one day it’ll all fall into place, and realizing that someday is right now. That’s what that weird look was.
When Shakespeare geeks heard that Sir Kenneth Branagh would be bringing us a story of Shakespeare’s final years, written by Ben Elton (who brought us Upstart Crow and Blackadder) and starring Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellen, hearts skipped more than a few beats. How could it be anything other than a dream come true? A modern Shakespeare movie to replace Shakespeare In Love in the “Shakespeare fan fiction” movie pantheon. All in all, I liked it. Parts I liked a lot. Parts I loved. My wife liked it, my kids liked it. But I don’t think it will be remembered as a great movie.
We open in 1613 after the Globe has burned down. The text tells us that Shakespeare never wrote another play. We instead return to Stratford Upon Avon, where he’s basically gone to retire and be with his family again. His reputation follows him – both as the world’s greatest writer, but also as the son of his disgraced father. Both fans and enemies alike follow him around and annoy him.
Judi Dench is excellent as Anne Hathaway when she stops Shakespeare from coming into the bedroom, telling him, “Twenty years, Will. You can’t just back and pick up like everything is normal. You’re a guest here.” Later she’ll have more speeches about what it was like to be married to the world’s greatest writer and not know how to read, or how she felt when someone else read the sonnets to her. Answers to the “second-best bed” question are given but I didn’t find them satisfactory.
The daughters also do an excellent job, but Judith is given much more to work with. Susannah is already trapped in an unhappy marriage to a Puritan, while Judith still lives at home and is an angry young lady who has no problem shouting things like, “Why don’t you just say it, father? The wrong twin died.” Yikes. Her relationship to Thomas Quiney was played brilliantly, I thought, and could easily have been the subplot of any modern drama.
That’s basically your plot – man ignores his family for twenty years, during which time his only son dies, and in his final years, he tries to set things right. One daughter is trapped in an unhappy marriage, one is rebelling at every opportunity, and his wife, their mother, is just trying to keep it all together in the name of reputation and honor. There’s some really heavy-handed symbolism right out of the gate where he says, “I think I’ll plant a garden.” Later, “I’m not a very good gardener…” and you can just imagine how it goes from there. Oh look, people came to help him… and so on.
There’s enough Shakespeare bio here to appease the fans. All the important areas are touched on – what did Anne think about the sonnets? What was Shakespeare’s relationship to Henry Wriotheseley? The coat of arms, the glove making, even Thomas Lucey’s poached ponies are referenced. Stuff is quoted, from sonnets to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Titus Andronicus makes an appearance. To the extent where you want to see this movie just to count the references, it’s enjoyable. Whenever there was a pause in the dialogue I’d do my own filling in the blanks for the kids. “Ok, that must be Thomas Quiney, look for him to do something that dishonors the family name and for Shakespeare to change his will…”
The problem, ultimately, is that everybody making this film knows that they are riding a line between “Here’s what we know” and “Here’s what we don’t, so we’re going to fill in the blanks.” Most of that “blank” surrounds Hamnet’s death and Shakespeare’s dealing with it (with second place going to “how could all the women in Shakespeare’s life be illiterate?” and third “what exactly was Shakespeare’s relationship to the Earl of Southampton?”) The more time they spent on Hamnet, the more I thought, “See, now, this is the stuff they’re just making up.” Hamnet wrote poems! Shakespeare and Hamnet had a favorite pond they used to walk to! How lovely … for an audience like my wife, who doesn’t know which parts of the story are true and which are not, so for her it’s basically all true and she can let herself enjoy it. But for those of us that are keeping a running fact checker in their heads because we can’t turn it off, the more time they spent in made up land, the weaker the movie becomes.
See the problem? They built the entire movie around Shakespeare’s relationship to his lost son. In that context, we learn about his relationship with his own father, and with his daughters, and with their children. But there’s that legal term “fruit of the poisonous tree”, and if all of your evidence traces its way back to a source that isn’t really legitimate, well, you have to throw it all out. I can’t totally fault them for it – the movie has to have a plot, after all – but it ends up being the weakest part, to me, because I couldn’t help thinking all is not true. Could it have been true? Sure. They do a better job there than Shakespeare In Love which I don’t think was at all suggesting that’s what really happened. But I’ll give Branagh that – he tells a perfectly reasonable story. But the title of that story is not Could Be True.
One thing that did surprise me – this film is *gorgeous*. I don’t know who is responsible for making the colors on the screen do what they do, but damn they did a fine job. Some shots are near breathtaking. For a play about a man of words, somebody decided, “We’re going to make sure we show just how beautiful the world around him is.” At times it reminded me of the Robin Williams movie What Dreams May Come (also a Shakespeare line!) with its literally out-of-this-world colors. Given that much of the story takes place inside – lit by candles, thus making the scenes pretty dark – the cuts to outside shots are always a breath of fresh air in more ways than one.
In the end, and maybe this was deliberate, I don’t know, but in the end, this is an average story about an average man. You could tell the “man tries to reconcile with the family he ignored for twenty years” about anybody. In this case, it just so happens to be the world’s greatest author. It might even have been a better movie if they pulled back on the Shakespeare and let that story shine through. There are parts where it was good, but plenty where it was contrived. There’s a scene where Judith screams, “Nothing is true!” just so we get our juxtaposition with the title of the movie for Heaven’s sake, but come on, who talks like that? What does that even mean? There’s the aforementioned garden. Lots of heavy-handedness like that. But I guess there’s an audience that likes that?
Go see it. Go see it with someone you love, who doesn’t know as much about Shakespeare as you do :). Spot the references, enjoy the colors.