Shakespeare really likes to pun on his first name. A lot. And it’s frankly difficult to imagine some unknown but much discussed Elizabethan Dark Lady being seduced by the revelation that the noun “will” and the nickname “Will” sound alike. Imagine!

When you’re an undergraduate working toward a B.A. in English, it’s easy to get excited about the thicket of mechanical poetic devices you’re asked to hack through. Clever. And yes, Shakespeare’s skill is prodigious.

At nearly 52 years old, listening to all the sonnets one after the other, my attention is divided. The compulsive theater nerd in me can’t help trying to identify the actor speaking each sonnet. Umm, metallic, creaky tenor with a sardonic bent – Anthony Jacobs. Earnest, husky-voiced, youthful – Richard Marquand. Gary Watson and Anthony White sound too much alike. George Rylands – high-pitched and heavily accented. David Gibson, velvety-voiced with a very light touch. Tony Church – instant recognition.

The second object of my attention is untangling the wordplay (or, as I said earlier, hacking through it). But after a while, after a rather short while, in fact, I give up both games. Perhaps if I were reading a single sonnet, I could admire the cleverness, let it melt in my consciousness like bittersweet chocolate. But in a time-bound experience where each one passes in about a minute or a little more, what registers is the shift in emotional content from one poem to the next. The identity of the actor becomes less important than the change in performer or in the same performer’s approach. The Argo team is not big on selling jokes. “My mistress eyes are nothing like the sun” is delivered with straightforward bitterness and no hint of irony, no indication that this is meant to divert or amuse. Tony Church(?) springs through sonnet 135 (“Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy will”) adroitly, but with the same intriguing sincerity projected by the reader of “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”. Sometimes this directness has an unexpectedly grim effect. Sonnet 77, “Thy glass will show thee how thy beauties wear”, concludes the first of two CDs with a note of arresting bleakness.

The approach is consistently intelligent yet guileless, and avoids the question of how much of the poetry is autobiographical, how much a cynical though deft reworking of familiar themes. And the result is a complex and compelling portrayed of a single, multifaceted personality, a unique and individual poetic voice. I’m glad I started with the Sonnets. The recording is a winner and worthy of revisiting.

Sonnets. Read by John Barton, George Rylands, Anthony White, David Gibson, Anthony Jacobs, Gary Watson, Richard Marquand.

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