Memorizing and reciting Shakespeare’s sonnets is a valuable exercise in language, memory, and performance. It allows one to explore the complexities of the English language while also gaining an appreciation for the power of Shakespeare’s words. Additionally, performing Shakespeare’s sonnets can help develop public speaking and communication skills, as well as an understanding of the emotional depth and universal themes of the human experience. By committing the sonnets to memory and reciting them aloud, one can connect with the language in a deeply personal way and gain a greater appreciation for the beauty and complexity of Shakespeare’s poetry. Overall, memorizing and reciting Shakespeare’s sonnets is a rewarding endeavor that can enrich one’s understanding of language, literature, and the human condition.
Let me see if I’ve got this straight. There’s a page in the playbook of Jonson’s Sejanus: His Fall containing two poems dedicated to Jonson. One, we apparently know, is by Hugh Holland. The other, the sonnet in question, is signed with the pseudonym Cygnus.
You know what cygnus means in Latin, right? It means swan.
You know what Ben Jonson called Shakespeare in the First Folio, too, I bet. You got it. Some feel that both must have been written by Holland. But is it possible that Cygnus is Shakespeare?
The sonnet is provided in the accompanying article. Thoughts? It feels a little stilted at times, which makes me lean toward “not Shakespeare,” but I’m hardly an academic at these things.
Still, it’s always exciting to think “maybe new Shakespaere content?” I’m always open to the possibility.
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.