Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Review: The Sonnets - Warwick Collins

*** - I love Shakespeare, and the sonnets are some of my favorites - heartfelt and beautiful, caught up in emotional turmoil. We once used certain sonnets as monologues in an acting class - there's just so much to them. Unfortunately here, I never got swept up in the emotions Shakespeare was writing about - the narration seemed detached.

Warwick Collins' The Sonnets explores Shakespeare's life while he was writing his beautiful sonnets. The sonnets are often cited as the most autobiographical of Shakespeare's work, and here Collins rearranges and weaves them together to form a narrative about Shakespeare's love triangle with his patron the Earl of Southampton and the mysterious dark lady.

I loved the premise - using the sonnets as a basis for a historical novel about Shakespeare's life and loves is a brilliant idea and could really serve to infuse him with emotional life rather than the focus on the playhouse that most Shakespearean novels take. That said, I'm not sure the format wholly works here. In trying to let the sonnets speak for themselves by including so many of them, Collins doesn't give us much of his own interpretation of Shakespeare's emotions - which is problematic in a novel told in the first person. His Shakespeare seems overly detached from the world he inhabits - a characteristic often remarked upon by his patron, but which doesn't seem quite right given the deep conflicting emotions shown in his sonnets.

The method of incorporating the sonnets is also a bit awkward - even jarring. Often times they are introduced with a quick statement that Shakespeare has spent the night 'at his board'. Then the first two quartets (or so) are quoted, then the poem is taken over by one of his patrons reading aloud. This is very effective as a scene transition on film, but on the page it seemed strange and affected - particularly since it happened over and over again.

Writing about Shakespeare is difficult. Writing from Shakespeare's point of view is even more so. There are sections where I thought Collins succeeded admirably. On p. 72, a snippet of conversation:

"Thou art a flatterer."
"No better and no worse."

sounds just like the sort of rejoinder the playwright would come up with - it even scans. And further on that page there are sentences that flow in (almost) iambic pentameter:

"Inside the sullen gloom, his rooms were a scholar's den, with manuscripts piled high on chests and chairs."

Sections like this just sound RIGHT. They sound like something that could come from Shakespeare's quick mind. But all too often, I found myself as detached as Shakespeare was depicted. Partially this was due to differences in interpretation - Collins depicts Shakespeare's love for Southampton as ironic and chaste. I'm not sure I agree with either assessment. But mostly I think it was because Collins' reimagining in The Sonnets didn't offer enough emotional context to bring the poems to life in a new and different way.