Review : Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Retold

Translating Shakespeare’s plays into modern text is big business.  Personally I’m not a fan, it reads like one of those documents where somebody went through and hit “thesaurus” on every other word.  You get the gist of the moving the plot forward, but you lose the poetry.

So what about the sonnets? The rules are much more strict.  Keep the number of lines, keep the rhyme pattern, keep the number of syllables, keep it iambic. And keep the same meaning.  Could you do it? Could you do it 154 times?

James Anthony can, and I admit I’m pleasantly surprised and impressed. In Shakespeare’s Sonnets Retold he’s admirably taken up the challenge, and the finished product has the potential to be quite useful, and entertaining along the way.

Modern readers don’t just need help figuring out what Hamlet, Romeo, and Juliet are saying.  The sonnets aren’t exactly the most readable, either.  From fairest creatures we desire increase? What?

How about, “We strive to procreate with gorgeous folk?”

Sure, maybe some readers still have to run to the glossary for “procreate,” but the author’s got to keep it family friendly (and keep it three syllables). But the chances of the modern reader “getting it” just went up a hundredfold. Especially when you get a feel for the rest of sonnet number one:

We strive to procreate with gorgeous folk
So that our beauty won’t capitulate.
We reach a ripe old age; but then we croak.
Our memories live through offspring we create.
But you’re in love with you and you alone,
So self consumed your face is all you see
Depriving us of children of your own
And hence you are your own worst enemy.
Now you are young and walking in your prime
Well set to raise a daughter or a son
But you’re content to piss away your time
And — silly fool! — your days will soon be done.
Take pity on your world or go awry
Have children now for one day you will die.

Many times I (and I’m sure many others) have summarized the procreation sonnets (ha! I didn’t even get the connection in the first line!) as, “Hey dummy, blah blah blah you’re young and your beautiful, but you’re not going to live forever, so how about you get cracking and have some beautiful kids?” I get that message loud and clear in Anthony’s translation. The words jump out at you – children, daughter, son, offspring…ripe old age, croak, piss away your time, days are done, one day you’ll die.

I think that’s where this book has value.  Do you feel intimidated by the sonnets? I do. I have several copies of the sonnets lying around the house, it’s the kind of gift people send me. But I wouldn’t say that I’m confident in my understanding of them. There’s a handful that I have studied. For the rest it’s more like, “I think I know what that means, but I’m not sure I could teach it to someone else. Sure sounds nice, though.” Anthony’s book is the first side by side modern translation I have, so it’ll be nice to have that, “Ohhhhh, that’s what that means!” moment of revelation from time to time.

Definitely a cool addition to the collection.

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