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Tuesday 23 July 2019

Opera: The man who inspired the bard's sonnets

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare

Colin Murphy

Camille O'Sullivan takes classic songs and transforms them into narratives of love and grief. And now she has taken a classic narrative of love and grief and transformed it into song. The result is magical.

O'Sullivan's sung version of Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece, at the Dublin Theatre Festival, was one of my theatrical highlights of last year. It comes to the Cork Opera House from Thursday to Saturday (corkoperahouse.ie).

Produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, it is the result of a collaboration with British director Elizabeth Freestone and pianist and composer Feargal Murray. The poem tells the story of Lucrece, wife of a Roman soldier, who is raped by Tarquin, the son of the king. It takes the voices first of Tarquin, as he contemplates the rape, then of Lucrece, as she considers suicide, and then of her father, and O'Sullivan embodies these characters as she sings.

Behind the poem, too, is a story of love – and, perhaps, of grief. At the age of 28, William Shakespeare, a rising star of the stage, suddenly found himself without vocation or salary. Plague had struck London. The theatres were closed down.

He had a wife and children to support and ambition to whet. And so, it appears, he turned to poetry, in pursuit of patronage.

He had already started work on his sonnets, possibly in response to a commission from the family of the 19-year-old Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley. Southampton, rich and powerful, was defying expectations to marry, and his family was worried.

Having failed to persuade him with financial threats, they turned to a more subtle, psychological approach: Southampton was a lover of theatre and literature, and so they commissioned a writer to attempt to influence him through poetry. The result was a poem called Narcissus, about a young man who falls in love with his reflection in the water and then drowns.

That first attempted warning failed. Enter Shakespeare. The first 17 of his sonnets are addressed to an unnamed "fair youth" who is in love with himself; they advise him to marry, so that he can ensure his looks and talent are perpetuated through his progeny.

We don't know for sure that those poems were the result of a commission, or that they were intended for Southampton (Like much in Shakespeare's life, this story is plausible conjecture rather than hard fact – I have relied on the thorough account in Stephen Greenblatt's biography of Shakespeare). But we do know that Shakespeare dedicated his first narrative poem, Venus and Adonis, to the young Southampton, in 1592 – the year of the plague – and that this was probably a bid for patronage.

Venus and Adonis is another story of self-love gone wrong: Adonis rejects the advances of Venus, and is duly killed by a boar. The dedication included a promise to follow up with "some graver labour". True to his word, a year later Shakespeare dedicated the more sombre The Rape of Lucrece to Southampton.

By then, however, his relationship with the young earl had developed: in place of the blandly sycophantic dedication of a year earlier, he wrote: "The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end."

What had happened in the meantime? A clue comes from the sonnets. The poet starts by advising the "fair youth" to marry, but soon falls in love, himself, with the youth, who becomes "the master mistress of my passion."

The best-known, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day" (sonnet 18), is written for this fair youth, rather than, as commonly assumed, a fair lady.

Some claim the love is platonic, but the intensity and eroticism of the poems suggest it is not (Greenblatt notes that Elizabethan culture acknowledged and even celebrated homosexual love – though such love could only ever be transient).

Whether or not Southampton was seduced by Shakespeare, he eventually took the advice he had been originally offered: he married and had children. Meanwhile, the plague had lifted. Shakespeare went back to his preferred literary form: the stage.

Did he grieve for the lost love of the young earl, and for the impossibility of spending a life with him? We will never know.


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