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Interpreting Shakespeare’s sonnets

David Schalkwyk, a professor of Shakespeare Studies at Queen Mary University of London, delivered a lecture on Oct. 23 on William Shakespeare’s sonnets, focusing on the development of Shakespeare’s dramatic voice. The dramaturge is best known for his plays, meaning that his poetry is sometimes overlooked in popular culture.

Schalkwyk’s lecture was organized by McGill English Professor Paul Yachnin and funded by the Lang family, which awards a scholarship to one Arts student each year to encourage interest in plays and theatrical texts. In his lecture, Schalkwyk argued that Shakespeare’s use of pronouns effaces his voice as a poet in his sonnets. Schalkwyk highlighted that contemporary scholars and actors have used the absence of an obvious speaker, as an opportunity for finding different approaches to Shakespeare’s sonnets.

“The actors are remedially trying on the sonnet,” Yachnin said. “‘How does it fit me? Does it look ok?’ That’s their job. Whereas we, scholars, sort of dig into the language and see what’s going on in the language.”

The contrast between the scholarly analysis of voice and an actor’s interpretation illustrates how complicated it is to approach Shakespeare’s sonnets, but also exemplifies a different method for literary examination.

“What we found when we put our heads together is that the students brought this really interesting degree of attention to the language that was very helpful for the actors, and the actors brought a kind of immediacy and investment in the sonnet that was very helpful for the students,” Yachnin said.

Schalkwyk argued that Shakespeare’s use of language in his sonnets doesn’t evoke one particular perspective, but rather brings to life the voices of various characters.

“Shakespeare shadows [the narrative voice in his sonnets],” Schalkwyk said. “[Those personas include] a servant, poet, dramatist, actor, father, husband, lover, ambitious member of the upcoming middling sort, ageing man overwhelmed by the fragility of human things and the inexorability of time.”

Elsasoa Jousse, U2 Arts, wants to write her honours research paper on Shakespeare and went to the event to try to find inspiration.

“I try to go to everything related to Shakespeare really,” Jousse said. “[The lecture] was interesting, something that I’m not completely unfamiliar with, so I could follow, but there were a lot of ideas I hadn’t considered before.”

Chloe Holmquist, U2 Arts, reached a similar conclusion and appreciated the lecture’s new approach to the study of Shakespeare.

“Last semester, I read all of Shakespeare’s sonnets so I was very intrigued by the concept of coming up with a voice by analysing all these sonnets,” Holmquist said. “I thought [the] subsection on pronouns was really interesting, and I never considered analysing the sonnets that way before.”

Kateryna Fylypchuk, U2 Arts, is studying Drama and Theatre and believes it is important to study other facets of Shakespeare’s art.

“It’s very eye-opening to see the fact that different voices can be heard,” Fylypchuk said. “When we think of Shakespeare as having a very male-dominated outlook, especially in terms of drama [as] actors were all male, it’s very interesting to think that there is no particular voice attributed to the actors, the texts, and Shakespeare himself.”

In addition to the lecture, Yachnin was also involved in the planning of an Infinitheatre production entitled Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Transforming the Voices of Montréal from Oct. 22 to 27.

“[Film and theatre director] Guy Sprung and I started talking about two years ago about doing the sonnet show at McGill,” Yachnin said. “I direct the Early Modern Conversions Project here, and […] then the English department came into it as well. So the Infinitheatre, the English Department and the Conversions Project are partners with what Guy and the actors are doing at the Moyse Hall.”

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