Shall I Compare Thee..?

This play was first performed as part of a Shakespeare-centred evening of short-plays in July 2006.

Shakespeare and his dark Lady

Shakespeare’s sonnets are a collection of 154 short poems, most of them keeping to certain formal restrictions (14 lines, three quatrains, one couplet). The sonnet tradition derives from the Italian, Petrarca’s series of poems in praise of a beautiful but unattainable woman being the most famous. When Shakespeare wrote his sonnets, however, the great vogue for this art form was already over, which may be the reason why Shakespeare’s sonnets depart from some important sonnet conventions. Most significant, the sonnets are not addressed to one beautiful lady but to two persons: a beautiful and noble young man and a disreputable but sexually alluring woman. So the “Madonna angelicata” figure of other sonnet sequences is split up in two and turned more or less upside down. Their originality might be one reason why Shakespeare’s sonnets have been the inspiration for a great variety of modern adaptations.

The sonnets have inspired many adaptations: stage-plays, novels and films. In 1910 George Bernard Shaw wrote a humorous short play about The Dark Lady of the Sonnets, based on the assumption that the dark lady was Queen Elizabeth’s lady-in-waiting Mary Fitton. It was made into a film in 1946. Passion in Pieces (2002) is a series of five short films each depicting one sonnet (in a 20th century setting) and constructing a coherent plot out of this sequence. One of the most recent adaptations in A Waste of Shame (2005), a (full length) film by William Boyd that tries to show the whole panorama of Elizabethan life in London in which the sonnets evolved.

For centuries scholars have fought over the question if Shakespeare’s sonnets are autobiographical or not. The advocates of an autobiographical interpretation claim that the sonnets are “the key with which Shakespeare unlocked his heart” (William Wordsworth). Those who prefer to regard the sonnets as purely fictional claim that to display the range of emotions and experiences presented in the sonnets, the poet needs not have experienced those things, just as ‘you can create a Macbeth without being a murderer’. For this play however, I chose an autobiographical interpretation.

In order to give scholarly discussions about the sonnets their due, a narrator has been included in the play, who introduces characters and addresses critical issues, such as the question of who the two lovers and the rivalling poet mentioned in the sonnets actually were. For the young man a good half-dozen young noblemen are considered possible candidates. For the dark lady the speculations range from a lady-in-waiting at Queen Elizabeth’s court (Mary Fitton) over a poetess (Emilia Lanier) of Italian descent to a prostitute of Mediterranean or North African origin. Similar speculations surround the figure of the rival poet. Apart from the four more or less definitely identifiable sonnet characters, one more person has crept into this adaptation: An obtrusive, eager, but rather unsuccessful would-be-poet, who tries to write what finally would become Shakespeare’s most famous sonnet – No. 18: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”, culminating in a kind of sonnet 18 which is very different from the original.