Often Shakespeare can seem, to many, a little out of touch with everyday modern life and whilst I don’t agree (contrary to popular belief he continues to have a profound effect on day-to-day life whether we notice it or not, though I’m not going quite as far as to deifying him) this week he popped up again online and made his presence known. Now I know what you’re thinking – of course it pops up if you do the right search or follow the right people on Twitter but I’m talking about trending Shakespeare, or Shakespeare-style content going viral. There are times of the year where we might expect this to be a more common phenomenon, take April 23rd for instance or the release of the new RSC season, but – seemingly out of the blue – Pop Sonnets well, er, popped up on my feed last week and it has continued to crop up throughout the week. It caught the attention of big names in the social media sphere like Buzz Feed, Huffington Post and Slate.
Believe me, I’m not complaining. I’m well aware that this is by no means a new project and I’m a little late to join the party full of excited fans fingers who click on their Tumblr site. You can catch all their latest works on their Twitter account @popsonnet.
The Globe ran a #ShakespeareOr quiz today based on these Pop Sonnets which illustrated how similar they are to Shakespeare’s works and BuzzFeed have also got a Pop Sonnet or Shakespeare quiz running. This shows the rise in awareness of this fantastic project over the last few weeks.
The project revamps popular songs, and slots them neatly into sonnet form. But not just any sonnet form (yes, what do you mean, of course there are different kinds) this project – headed up by Erik Didrikson – uses the Shakespearian sonnet form. Strictly speaking. And I’m going to proceed to explain this to you with the handy assistance of the alphabet (as all good poetry analysts employ). Now your classic sonnet consists of 14 lines, and it’s thanks to Petrarch a bloke from Italy who loved his form, and then later Spenser, that this filtered down to Shakespeare, his collection of sonnets, and even further down to 2014 and modern song mash-ups. These 14 lines can be divided up into 4 parts, 3 sets of 4 lines (or quatrains) leaving you with a set of 2 lines (or a couplet), but then comes the key difference: it’s all in the rhyme. Shakespeare decided to go for the following set-up: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG (for those unfamiliar with what these letters mean the key thing to know is that each letter represents the word at the end of a line which rhymes with it’s matching letter, say the first line ended with ham and the third line with jam – that’s why both are A, they share a rhyme) something the project has replicated.
Each Thursday a new sonnet arrives fresh into the ether. It launched in April of this year (the Christmas month of Shakespeare studies – especially when he’s turning 450) and now has a 22-strong song archive to its name. This week saw a rewrite of Avril Lavigne’s ‘Complicated‘.
The other big part of this project is a kind of renaissance – switching from the modern language of the youth of today, or rather the songwriters of this century and back tracking a few hundred years back to ye olde folke o’ yester-year. A real renaissance which, like the original one back with the Elizabethans, revitalises contemporary forms. Yes it’s funny to rewrite Let it Go (apologies if this is now lodged in your brain for the next little while – hey, I didn’t write it), Shakespearian sonnet style, especially for those Shakespeare scholar parents destined to sit through the movie with their kids. It adds another dimension to Frozen. But more than that, this project shows how on point Shakespeare is. Looking at the rewriting of one verse form to another it grows clear how the simple switch of a word from 21st century dialect to Shakespearian speech reveals how the central concerns and themes of the verse haven’t really altered. The rewrite of We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together, the bitter break-up song which undoubtedly gets stuck in your head is more Shakespearian than you think.
I realise this statement will probably see me ousted by most academics but Taylor Swift and Shakespeare, at least in their verse, aren’t that different. Checketh out the sonnet in question:
“I swear you shan’t again reclaim my heart” sound familiar? Yes Shakespeare was angsty too. The hope captured in the lines “The cycle never breaks; our sordid tales/ end always with ellipses, not full stops” captures the yearning sometimes expressed in Shakespeare’s sonnets. Sure, Taylor Swift is adamant that she is never ever getting back together but the finality doesn’t hit until the final couplet and the meandering around the subject of losing and finding love is a classic battle found in any love verse. Because, let’s be honest, love is the root of most verse. Love in all its manifestations. Verse, be it popular songs or 16th century poems, presents a multifaceted love.
But essentially, what I really wanted to say is, without projects like this, perhaps we wouldn’t notice that verse hasn’t really changed that much. Ok, perhaps Swift isn’t Shakespeare re-incarnated but Pop Sonnets gives us that necessary jolt of déjà vu that brings us running back to Shakespeare. Pop Sonnets proves that adapting Shakespeare keeps him fresh and allows us to constantly uncover new and exciting meanings we might have missed before.
Shakespeare, it seemed could woo in 14 lines, not always admittedly – that’s why there’s more than one sonnet and let’s be clear they weren’t all directed at his lover(s) – but so too with musicians of today, some of them are one-hit wonders and woo their listeners only briefly, others have a wider repertoire and keep producing wooing works usually limited in length by time not lines, though the modern catchy tune about never, and yes never ever getting back together is indeed limited in its line scope, repetition being the order of the day. But as the rewrite of these songs shows, Shakespeare and popular culture today isn’t really that different and besides, it challenges us to get out of our cosy critic comfort zone and embrace Shakespeare in a new medium or alternatively to appreciate pop songs in a new light, not solely because they’re reworked Shakespeare style but because below the money-making-music (sometimes) lies real feeling. Feelings dating much further back than Shakespeare admittedly but these sonnets and their playful nature encourage us to look at love and Shakespeare in a new light.
Pop Sonnets show how Shakespeare should be: fun and exciting, contemporary, and popping up to sing along to you every now and then!