Our Shakespeare

By: Mark Z. Muggli, Professor of English,
December 1, 2011

Two announcements and a meditation:

1. “Random Acts of Shakespeare”

I’m adding a new wrinkle to the “Our Shakespeare” project: an opportunity for any and all of you to release your kooky side in some kind of Shakespeare experience. All you need to do is to do it and to let me know you did it. Some possibilities:

• Recite your favorite three lines of Macbeth’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy as you’re strolling along the Seine on a dark night in January.

• Say “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name…,” even if you’re just sitting in a Turkish restaurant enjoying a food whose name you can’t pronounce.

• See “Taming of the Shrew” in London and say out loud to a friend, “This is a lot more feminist than I had ever imagined it would be.”

• Read Sonnet 116 — “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments” — to your new closest love in the dorm, Scoes, or in a flashy, urban-chic Eau Claire, Wis., restaurant.

As you can tell, I’m thinking that January internships and study abroad might offer some special opportunities. I’ll post your acts on my website (If they’re really random, and you want to remain anonymous, that’s fine too). And in spring I’ll be giving away some free books — Shakespeare, of course — to the most randomest of the random acts.

2. “Sounding the Sonnets” FINALE

Friday, Dec. 9, 11:45 a.m. - 12:45 p.m. at Bentdahl Commons – A come-and-go gathering, with hot cider, cookies and some free books.

Speaking of random acts, my daily sonnet reading ritual is drawing to a close. I thought weather would be the big story: “Sonnets Delivered in Driving Sleet Storm! Reader and Listeners Survive!” In fact, there was serious rain one day and drizzle on another, but otherwise it’s been sun and drifting clouds and chirping birds and crackling piles of leaves.

A bigger story has been the crowds. Over thirty people on some crisp October days, and not a single day without at least a single listener, thanks, especially, to Janelle, Kristin, Jenna, Luke, Diane and others. A shock, because I totally expected to be alone out there half the time.

Still, the biggest story has been the revealing intensity of reading these 154 sonnets in sequence. (Actually we’re only up to 136 by this Thursday). I’ve read the sequence a good number of times before, but I’ve never before had the experience of this day-by-day building of the story, this rise and fall of emotions, such ecstasy and despair, anger and love, all so evenly metered out across time.

If I were a poet, I would write a sonnet about how it’s felt. Instead, I’m hosting a small celebratory hot cider and cookies party on the final day of classes. To provide some leisure, I’m expanding the usual five minutes (12:05-12:10 p.m. Mon-Fri) to a full hour, 11:45 a.m. - 12:45 p.m. In addition to the cookies, I’ll be bringing a box of the “Complete Shakespeare Sonnets” to give to those of you who will know yourselves as the most faithful attenders. I labeled this reading sequence a “ritual performance happening.” Bring your friends and feel some of the “happening” yourself.

3. A meditation

Sonnet 87

Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know’st thy estimate:
The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;
My bonds in thee are all determinate.
For how do I hold thee but by thy granting?
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,
And so my patent back again is swerving.
Thyself thou gavest, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me, to whom thou gavest it, else mistaking;
So thy great gift, upon misprision growing,
Comes home again, on better judgment making.
   Thus have I had thee, as a dream doth flatter,
   In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.

One of my very favorite sonnets. A poem of loss. An announcement that the relationship is ended, the lover gone, no hope for a return. But no crying or yelling or slamming doors. Just a quiet lament.

The amazing thing is how much of the feeling of that departure is carried in the extra syllables at the end of twelve of the fourteen lines. The syllables are “extra,” because the typical Shakespeare sonnet line ends with the tenth, stressed syllable: “No longer mourn for me when I am dead / Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell…” (Sonnet 71: 1-2). In those lines, the “dead” and the “bell” ring out with force. We read the end of the line with a special punch, so that the words will strike home.

But in Sonnet 87, the eleven-syllable lines fall off into a final unstressed syllable, one after another, with a sinking, deflated feeling that matches, ever so perfectly, the poet’s defeated realization that it’s all over. Really, this time for sure.

So much depends on that extra single unaccented syllable. Such art.