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  • Writer's pictureKyle Lee

Shakespeare's Sonnets in Three Hours

I do believe I have said before on this very website that I do not necessarily enjoy Shakespeare. I do, however, understand the essentialness of his work and why it is core to so many English classes. My wish when it comes to the work of Billy Shakes is that it didn’t always have to be the same things. I get Hamlet. I do, but by the sixth time I had to study it in my educational career, I wished I was poor, poor Horatio. Skull dug up or not, he was at rest. To be? I wanted to not be. Hamlet is one of those inescapable pieces of literature that, along with items like The Great Gatsby, The Red Wheelbarrow, A Doll’s House and Beowulf, you’re going to encounter one way or the other. All of them have value but there are a few nails I could drive into the desk when I slam my skull into it. As a teacher, I can say that of the above, I only covered The Red Wheelbarrow. I didn’t teach any of Shakespeare’s plays for much the same reason because I had the freedom to not do so. I’m sure I could have found a way to do it, but like a petulant five year old, I didn’t want to. For my Creative Writing class, though, it would have been a bit of a disservice to talk about sonnets and not cover Shakespeare in some way. Sonnets in themselves are not hard to teach because of their variety but they do have certain expectations placed upon them. So, as an introduction, I throw up a slide that reads “Shakespeare’s Sonnet in Three Hours.” Keep in mind, this is a GROSS oversimplification of things and meant only to be an introduction to the form. I know you poetic scholars will read this and be aghast with how I’ve bastardized it all! Where do we begin? William Shakespeare did not invent the sonnet, nor is the sonnet by origin English. But Shakey Bill wrote 154 sonnets in his time (more or less). Typically, those sonnets fall into one of two categories. Sonnets 1 through 126 were about “The Fair Youth” who had fallen in love and in many cases, wrote to his bro about how enamored he was with a particular woman. Yet, sonnets 127 through 154 take a more shadowed turn as they are about “The Dark Lady” who turned the world upside down. A broken heart? A betrayal? Remorse? Angst!

We do have to make a few exceptions here. A sonnet contains 14 lines. Sonnet #99 had 15 lines while #126 came up short with only 12 lines. Another key characteristic of a Shakespeare’s sonnets is that they were written in iambic pentameter. Sonnet #145 diverges from this as it was completed in iambic tetrameter. Scandalous! There were six(ish) additional sonnets in Shakespeare’s Cinematic Universe, namely in Romeo and Juliet, Love’s Labour Lost, Henry V and Edward III (though partial). For the purposes of this exercise, I am not going to include these in our numbers. That’s right! We’re getting into some math!

As I stated before, a sonnet contains 14 lines. Let’s work that out.

Additionally, I’ve said that Shakespeare’s sonnets were written in iambic pentameter, meaning that each line will contain ten syllables per line. I for one have never had the knack of writing or catching the sound iambic pentameter. It wasn’t until someone eloquently pointed out to me that the unstressed/stressed mechanic of iambic pentameter was like heartbeat. Bum BUM. Bum BUM. That said, each line of iambic pentameter thus contains five heartbeats.

Still with me? Good, because this is where things get a little more esoteric. The average rate of human heartbeats per minute ranges from 60 to 100. In my reasoning of this exercise I put The Fair Youth at the low end of 60 HB/M as he is calm, rested and content within the love an glory of his beloved. Whereas the The Dark Lady causes distress, putting us up at the upper end of 100 HB/m. Lets convert that to minutes. You know… for science! English, math and science! Oh my!

If we total up those minutes, that puts us at 176.17. If we covert that to hours, that gives us 2.94. And that my friends, is how you get Shakespeare’s Sonnets in Three Hours. --- Photograph taken, copyrighted and provided by Juxtaposedphotography. Used by explicit permission from the artist.

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