A talk by Sir Brian Vickers

Thursday 23 June 2016
Beveridge Hall, London
Part of the 'Shakespeare: Metamorphosis' season

Review by Abby Draycott

The esteemed Sir Brian Vickers led an evening at Senate House dedicated to exploring Shakespeare’s sonnets, ensuring an erudite and illuminating occasion. Joined by renowned actors Edward Fox, Joanna David and Dominic West, each with firm Shakespearean roots, served only to heighten the event with their powerful readings.

400 years on and Shakespeare’s sonnets remain as pertinent as ever. Vickers celebrated their timeless nature, attributing it to their continued readability, relevance and inclusiveness. The sonnets are a conversation between you and I; they are open and negotiable poems. Shakespeare’s sonnets are largely nameless and gender neutral, therefore permitting any combination of male and female speakers, a universality allowing readers to project freely onto them, which perhaps explains why they have endured for four centuries.

By categorising a carefully chosen selection of the sonnets into poignant groupings, Sir Brian Vickers led the audience on a journey through the themes that dominate Shakespeare’s poems. Many of the sonnets are structured as face-to-face conversations leading to intimate discussions on infidelity, confrontational accusations and cathartic confessions. Take the claims of betrayal that rip through Sonnet 138, in which its seething rhyming couplet presents the piercing idea of lovers jointly lying to one another - Therefore I lie with her, and she with me,/And in our faults by lies we flattered be. Shakespeare’s somewhat more hopeful sonnets, such as Sonnet 29 - For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings,/That then I scorn to change my state with kings - were interspersed within these cynical choices. In quoting Goethe’s famous line, Nothing is harder to bear than a succession of fair days, however, Vickers justified his deliberate poetic selection, with Shakespeare’s pessimism often proving more thought-provoking than his outpourings of love.

Sir Brian Vickers also explored matters such as the passing of time, aging and the imminence of death, all of which govern much of Shakespeare’s work. He in fact alluded to the quotation from Sonnet 30, remembrance of things past, which inspired the English title translation of Marcel Proust’s 1912 masterpiece A la recherche du temps perdu, notably propelled by the theme of temporality. In Sonnet 73, the speaker confronts growing old and mortality - issues that unite all readers - In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire/ That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,/ As the death-bed whereon it must expire. Love, however, proves to be protection against age and death in Sonnet 104 - To me, fair friend, you never can be old,/ For as you were, when first your eye I ey'd,/ Such seems your beauty still, with Shakespeare’s verse able to preserve the beloved for posterity.

Ovid was sure that his work would outlive his death; but Shakespeare was certain that his poetry would accomplish even more than this, and indeed it has, with his sonnets having transgressed the passage of time. One particular poem, Sonnet 116, famously lies outside of temporal boundaries - Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks/ Within his bending sickle's compass come;/ Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,/ But bears it out even to the edge of doom. Coming to a close on an optimistic note, the actors read how the poet believed his work would outlive his death, an apt way in which to end the evening with this self-fulfilling prophecy on the power and continued endurance of Shakespeare.