Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Ten Best Uses of Shakespeare Sonnets in Popular Culture: "So Long Lives This, and This Gives Life to Thee."

SHAKE-SPEARE'S SONNETS: Neuer before Imprinted. London: G. Eld [for T. T.], 1609.

Four hundred and one years ago today, on 20 May 1609, an entry was made in the Stationer's Register indicating that Shakespeare's sonnets were about to be published.

The volume does not seem to have made an enormous splash immediately. Only one quarto was published during Shakespeare's lifetime, and the poems didn't receive much critical attention for the next two hundred years.

But the sonnets continue to fascinate and enthrall their readers. For the four hundred and first anniversary of the advance notice of their publication (we don't know the exact date that the volumes were available to the reading public, but it was in 1609), Bardfilm offers this retrospective (all from previous posts) on Shakespeare Sonnets in Popular Culture.

“Self-Esteem.” By Winnie Holzman. Perf. Bess Armstrong, Wilson Cruz, and Claire Danes. Dir. Michael Engler. My So-Called Life. Season 1, episode 12. ABC. 17 November 1994. DVD. Bmg Special Product, 2002.

In considering the way in which a Shakespeare sonnet is brought in to emphasize and contemplate themes in an already-Shakespearean plot in the Shakespeare Retold's Much Ado About Nothing reminded me of similar uses of sonnets in other settings.

One episode of My So-Called Life brings Sonnet 130 ("My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun") to bear on its plot structures in this way. I don't pretend to know the intricacies of the Jordan / Brian / Angela love triangle. But it it clear in the clip that the two men realize and recognize something about the woman that they have been idealizing. And the teacher realizes that class discussion has gone rather well today, thank you very much!

As a bonus, here is the sonnet in question and the dialogue that follows its reading:
Sonnet 130
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Mr. Katimski: What kind of girl is Shakespeare describing here? Is . . is she the most beautiful girl?

Brian: No.

Mr. Katimski: Is she a goddess? Mmm? Physically perfect? The kind of girl who stops traffic when she walks down the street?

Brian [with a slight chuckle]: No.

Mr. Katimski: So he's not in love with her?

Jordan [barely audible]: Yeah. [Then louder:] He is.

Mr. Katimski: Well, and why is that? Why is he in love with her? What is it? What is it? What is it about her?

Brian: She's not just a fantasy. She's got . . . like . . . flaws. She's real.

Mr. Katimski: Thank you.

Links: The Episode at IMDB.

Click below to purchase the show from
(and to support Bardfilm as you do so).


Much Ado About Nothing. Shakespeare Retold. Dir. Brian Percival. Perf. Sarah Parish, Damian Lewis, and Billie Piper. 2005. DVD. BBC, 2007.

The BBC, in their remarkable derivative version of Much Ado About Nothing, cleverly work Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 into a scene between the Beatrice analogue and the Benedick analogue. At first, I thought it was just a way to create some romantic tension between the two. Each of them has been told that the other is madly in love with them; each of them has started to fall madly in love with the other; but no one says anything about that. Instead, they read a sonnet together.

But the more I think about it, the more clever it gets. First, it stands in for the exchange of sonnets that the characters in Shakespeare's play make later in the play. Second, it gives the characters the chance to talk seriously on a serious (but non-threatening) topic, and that enables them to appear far more mature than they have to that point in the film. Even during the course of the scene itself (see below), the characters both seem to mature.

Third (and possibly the most interesting), the sonnet ("Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments") picks up on a word used several times in the play itself—Don John says, "Any bar, any cross, any impediment will be medicinable to me" as he plots his evil course," and the Ceremony of Matrimony (see the 1552 version below) is echoed in the Friar's "If either of you know any inward impediment why you should not be conjoined, charge you, on your souls, to utter it." And the word "impediment" is merely a verbalization of the issue of impediment on which the play (and the film) constantly ring changes. For marriages to take place at the end of the play or the film, impediments need to be removed. And, as the wording suggests, that includes "inward" impediments in addition to the usual outward impediments (unsupportive fathers, friends, monetary situations, et cetera) that are the stock-in-trade of this kind of comedy.

But it's Valentine's Day! Let's just take a look at the lovely and romantic scene itself:

And, as a bonus, here's the full text of the sonnet and a bit of the marriage ceremony:
Sonnet CXVI

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixéd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
The Ceremony of Matrimony from the 1552 Prayer Book:
I require and charge you (as you wil aunswere at the dreadful day of judgment, when the secretes of al hearts shalbe disclosed) that if either of you doe knowe any impediment, why ye may not be lawfully joyned together in Matrimonie, that ye confesse it. For be ye wel assured, that so many as be coupled together otherwyse then god's word doth allowe, are not joyned together by god, neither is there Matrimonye lawfull.

Links: The Film at IMDB.

Click below to purchase the entire Shakespeare Retold set
(of which this is only one out of four films)
(and to support Bardfilm as you do so).


Selected Sonnets. Dir. Kevin Billington. Perf. Michael Bryant and John Mortimer. Videocassette. Films for the Humanities, 1988.

You're apt to find some odd things when you wander around the videocassette section of a college library. Handbell care videos, advanced bowling seminars, cat show documentaries, and presentations of Shakespeare sonnets are among these oddities.

In the last category, I found a video with John Mortimer offering some explication of Sonnet 94: "They that have power to hurt, and yet do none." First, an actor reads (quite well, I think) the sonnet; then Mortimer offers some thoughts. I'm only offering a small but representative sample of his delightful ten-minute commentary:

There you have a slice of what is really quite an interesting video—though the commentators are far too inclined to state with absolute and reductive certainty which precise people Shakespeare had in mind while writing the sonnets. As an example of the limits and benefits of what is now called "Old Historicism," it works well.

And that final, stunning couplet keeps ringing in my ears:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Click below to purchase the film from Films for the Humanities and Sciences

Ten Things I Hate About You. Dir. Gil Junger. Perf. Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger. 1999. DVD. Walt Disney Video, 1999.

Although I was enchanted by Ten Things I Hate About You when i first encountered it, I soon became disenchanted. Now, with a gap of a few years, I'm re-enchanted. Perhaps the reason was that I didn't care overly much for The Taming of the Shrew, the play on which this derivative is based (at least at its beginning). But I've grown to understand more about the play by teaching the play (which often happens), and I like the film more as a result.

The thing I appreciated most about the film this time around was the way in which its placing nearly everyone in the film into a stereotype brings out the way in which Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew plays with stereotypes. Padua, like Padua High, is filled with easily-labeled stereotypes—which are (for the most part) broken in the course of the play.

This time around, I noticed the use of sonnets—possibly because I've been writing about sonnets on Bardfilm recently. In the clip below, the teacher presents the first four lines of Sonnet 141 ("In faith, I do not love thee with mine eyes") preparatory to giving his students an assignment. Kat (played by Julia Stiles) usually gives the teacher a hard time—that's why he responds as he does. The clip then segues to the completion of the assignment—after Heath Ledger's underhandedness (which he now regrets) has come to light. The poem (which seems to list thirteen things the narrator hates about the addressee) seems to be the source for the film's title:

Bonus! The two poems in question:

Sonnet 141 (Derivative Version)

I hate the way you talk to me,
And the way you cut your hair.
I hate the way you drive my car.
I hate it when you stare.
I hate your big dumb combat boots,
And the way you read my mind.
I hate you so much it makes me sick.
(It even makes me rhyme.)
I hate the way you’re always right.
I hate it when you lie.
I hate it when you make me laugh—
Even worse when you make me cry.
I hate it when you’re not around, and the fact that you didn’t call.
But mostly I hate the way I don’t hate you—not even close, not even a little bit, not even at all.

Sonnet 141

In faith, I do not love thee with mine eyes,
For they in thee a thousand errors note;
But 'tis my heart that loves what they despise,
Who in despite of view is pleased to dote;
Nor are mine ears with thy tongue's tune delighted,
Nor tender feeling, to base touches prone,
Nor taste, nor smell, desire to be invited
To any sensual feast with thee alone:
But my five wits nor my five senses can
Dissuade one foolish heart from serving thee,
Who leaves unsway'd the likeness of a man,
Thy proud heart's slave and vassal wretch to be:
Only my plague thus far I count my gain,
That she that makes me sin awards me pain.

Links: The Film at IMDB.
Click below to purchase the film from
(and to support Bardfilm as you do so).


A Waste of Shame. By William Boyd. Perf. Rupert Graves, Tom Sturridge, Indira Varma, and Anna Chancellor. Dir. John McKay. Shakespeare Retold. 2005. DVD. Open University / BBC, 2005.

The Shakespeare Retold series' A Waste of Shame (only recently made readily-available to US markets) is something like a derivative film version of the sonnets. It follows the biographical approach to its extremest points, making decisions about the identities of the figures (giving both the Dark Lady and the Young Man a local habitation and a name) and forming a speculative biography based on those decisions.

Because today (20 May 2010) is the 401st anniversary of the Stationer's Register's entry for the sonnet, here's A Waste of Shame's imagined version of Shakespeare's deal with his publisher:

A few interesting points come up in the clip:
  • The vogue for sonnets had become passé by 1609—hence Thomas Thorpe's hesitation in accepting the work.

  • Shakespeare's long narrative poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece had done very well in Shakespeare's early career.

  • There's no question about the dedicatee in this clip: The W.H. of the dedication is William Herbert—and the reason he gets no title is because Shakespeare intended it that way. It's a deliberate insult.

  • Any mysteries surrounding the sonnets are entirely intentional.
I don't tend to follow biographical readings of the sonnets very carefully. Meaning may be found there—but there may be even more meaning in the poetry itself.

N.B.: The title of the film comes from Sonnet 129. It follows forthwith:
Sonnet 129

Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallow'd bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

Links: The Film at IMDB.

Click below to purchase the film from
(and to support Bardfilm as you do so).


“Plato’s Stepchildren.” By Meyer Dolinsky. Perf. William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols, James Doohan, George Takei, Michael Dunn, Barbara Babcock, Liam Sullivan, Ted Scott, Derek Partridge, and William Blackburn. Dir. David Alexander. Star Trek. Season 3, episode 10. NBC. 22 November 1968. DVD. Paramount, 2008.

Late in its run, The Original Series turned to the sonnets, giving inspiration and helpful hints to Poetry Slam Participants the world over (the trick is to crawl on your stomach, acting as if every word is being forced from your body against your will).

That's what's happening to Captain Kirk, anyway. The bad guy wants to be entertained, and he's able to force Kirk to recite Shakespeare sonnets—or, to be precise, at least Sonnet 57. Take a look at that section first (other sections will be inserted below).

Here's the sonnet in question:

Being your slave, what should I do but tend
Upon the hours and times of your desire?
I have no precious time at all to spend,
Nor services to do, till you require.
Nor dare I chide the world-without-end hour
Whilst I, my sovereign, watch the clock for you,
Nor think the bitterness of absence sour
When you have bid your servant once adieu;
Nor dare I question with my jealous thought
Where you may be, or your affairs suppose,
But, like a sad slave, stay and think of nought
Save, where you are how happy you make those.
So true a fool is love that in your will,
Though you do any thing, he thinks no ill.
Before you complain that Kirk's delivery isn't absolutely top-notch, look at the act he's following:

Yep, that's Mr. Spock, smiling! He hasn't smiled since the pilot episode! And what's that he's saying / reciting (together with Captain Kirk)?
I'm Tweedledee; he's Tweedledum:
Two spacemen marching to a drum.
We slith among the mimsey toves
And gyre among the borogoves.
My goodness. That's even worse than the "Very bad poetry" that Mr. Spock critiqued when they met the witches! Even a crawling, forced delivery of Sonnet 57 will be better than that!

But, I suppose, there is some interest in Kirk's choice of sonnet (or is it the bad guy's choice?): "Being your slave" catches up the idea of how foolish it is to think that, whatever the beloved may do, it cannot be ill. Perhaps there's something, too, in the fact that Kirk doesn't complete the quatrain, breaking off before the final word. But maybe that's just Dr. McCoy's interruption.

For those of you who would like to see the complete sequence, here are the two parts put back together:

Links: A Gateway to Star Trek Information at Wikipedia.

“The Schizoid Man.” By Tracy Torme and Gene Roddenberry. Perf. Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, and Brent Spiner. Dir. Les Landau. Star Trek: The Next Generation. Season 2, episode 6. Syndicated television. 23 January 1989. DVD. Paramount, 2002.

Shakespeare's sonnets come up with surprising frequency in Star Trek episodes. Captain Kirk was forced to recite Sonnet 57; here, Captain Picard freely relates the closing couplet of Sonnet 18. In the episode, he does so to indicate the realization he's come to—that someone else's brain has been downloaded into Data's head (So long lives Data's head, it will give life to that second brain). Yeah, I know. Weird.

But that's only the ostensible meaning of the couplet in this context. The more significant part (and the part that's developing into an overarching thesis about Star Trek's Shakespeare use) is that Shakespeare's words allow humanity the opportunity to understand themselves better. In this imaginary, science fiction context, "So long lives this" is wrapped up in the futuristic setting. Shakespeare's words have lived this long; humanity will live this long, too.

Here's the clip; the full sonnet follows it.


Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Links: A Gateway to Star Trek Information at Wikipedia.

“The Measure of a Man.” By Melinda M. Snodgrass. Perf. Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, and Brent Spiner. Dir. Robert Scheerer. Star Trek: The Next Generation. Season 2, episode 9. Syndicated television. 13 February 1989. DVD. Paramount, 2002.

Not long after the last quotation from a Shakespeare sonnet, The Next Generation returned with another. This time, the opening lines of Sonnet 29 give the characters the opportunity to contemplate the piece of work that is a man.

The question in this episode is whether Data, an android, is the property of Star Fleet or whether he has autonomy. The character who reads the sonnet wants to take him apart to learn more about him; not unreasonable, Data has objected and announced his resignation from Star Fleet.

But, once again, that's the surface level of the use of the sonnet here. Data, in attempting to become human, allows the other characters (and, of course, the audience) to think about what it means to be human. The rest of the sonnet (see below) is one way to answer that question.


When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Links: A Gateway to Star Trek Information at Wikipedia.

“Whom Gods Destroy.” By Lee Erwin. Perf. William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols, James Doohan, and George Takei. Dir. Herb Wallerstein. Star Trek. Season 3, episode 14. NBC. 3 January 1969. DVD. Paramount, 2008.

The sonnets are not as often the subject of Shakespeare and Film related material as we might expect. The BBC's A Waste of Shame (for which, q.v.) is the only full-length film treatment of the subject matter of the sonnets that I can think of. More often, sonnets are simply a way to call a certain flavor—usually a romantic flavor—into a film.

As is its wont, Star Trek does something weirder than that. In this case, some insane aliens have taken over the psychiatric ward. One of them recites a poem she wrote this morning (and then goes on with an old, old joke—you'll see):

Here's the sonnet in its entirety—I typed it up this morning!
Sonnet XVIII
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

Links: A Gateway to Star Trek Information at Wikipedia.

“The Perfect Mate.” By René Echevarria and Gary Perconte. Perf. Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Brent Spiner, and Famke Janssen. Dir. Cliff Bole. Star Trek: The Next Generation. Season 5, episode 21. Syndicated television. 27 April 1992. DVD. Paramount, 2002.

In a more obscure, more tangential approach to the sonnets, "The Perfect Mate" offers a few tantalizing allusions that are not (necessarily) drawn from any specific sonnet.

The plot seems a bit silly to me. The woman has the ability to detect what a man would want in a wife and to become that very thing. For Captain Picard, such a women would be strong, attractive, mysterious, knowledgeable about cosmic archeology, and (this is the part that seems less silly) something of a Shakespearean.

Alas, the Captain is unable to contemplate matrimony—particularly in this instance: the woman is pledged to marry another.

Take a look at the clip first; I'll return with some commentary after you've done so.

The conclusion—"I only hope he likes Shakespeare"—isn't a bad exit line.

We're given an allusion to "the dark woman of raven brows and mournful eyes of Shakespeare's Sonnets." The line almost alludes more to a millennia of critical work on the sonnets than to the sonnets themselves, but there are a few lines to which they may be pointing:
Sonnet 130 says that "black wires grow on her head" (4).
Sonnet 127 declares that "my mistress' brows are raven black" (9).
Sonnet 43 reads (in part) ". . . in dreams they look on thee, / And darkly bright are bright in dark directed" (3-4), but that sonnet is usually thought of as addressed to the young man instead of to the dark lady.
I suppose that the sonnet most at work in the twelve-word allusion above is 127. We have the raven-black brows, of course; we have, moreover, the eyes that "mourners seem" (10).

In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty's name;
But now is black beauty's successive heir,
And beauty slander'd with a bastard shame:
For since each hand hath put on nature's power,
Fairing the foul with art's false borrow'd face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress' brows are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Slandering creation with a false esteem:
Yet so they mourn, becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so.
And there's one last issue: was it cheating to have Mr. Data (as she calls him) help her swot up her Shakespeare to show Captain Picard just how compatible they would be together? Is this the female singer's version of "Brush up your Shakespeare / And the women you will wow?"

Links: A Gateway to Star Trek Information at Wikipedia.

N.B.: It's a retrospective—not a clip show!


Kelli Marshall said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kelli Marshall said...

Whoa, I thought that you'd surely cite SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE for "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" =)

Robert said...


Well, the line has already been said on the Star Trek examples. Although it wasn't written / acted out completely (because she wasn't really the one who wrote it).

I have been a longtime fan of Star Trek, but I haven't caught those sonnets by Shakespeare. Now I know.

Bardfilm is normally written as one word, though it can also be found under a search for "Bard Film Blog." Bardfilm is a Shakespeare blog (admittedly, one of many Shakespeare blogs), and it is dedicated to commentary on films (Shakespeare movies, The Shakespeare Movie, Shakespeare on television, Shakespeare at the cinema), plays, and other matter related to Shakespeare (allusions to Shakespeare in pop culture, quotes from Shakespeare in popular culture, quotations that come from Shakespeare, et cetera).

Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
All material original to this blog is copyrighted: Copyright 2008-2039 (and into perpetuity thereafter) by Keith Jones.

The very instant that I saw you did / My heart fly to your service; there resides, / To make me slave to it; and, for your sake, / Am I this patient [b]log-man.

—The Tempest