On March 21, beloved British actor Patrick Stewart shared a reading of William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 116” on Instagram. The 14-line verse, one of 154 composed by the English poet and playwright, offers an apt meditation on matters of the heart, advising, “Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds, / Or bends with the remover to remove.”
Fans practicing social distancing and staying indoors amid the novel coronavirus pandemic welcomed Stewart’s recording with enthusiasm. As of Tuesday afternoon, his post boasts more than 457,000 views and 3,800 comments.
In response to this rousing reception, Stewart—best known to younger audiences as Captain Jean Luc-Picard in the Star Trek franchise and X-Men’s Professor Charles Xavier—decided to embark on a new creative project. Beginning with “Sonnet 1” on March 22, the actor is now performing daily live readings of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
“When I was a child in the 1940s, my mother would cut up slices of fruit for me (there wasn’t much),” wrote Stewart in his March 22 post. “And as she put it in front of me she would say: ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away.’ How about, ‘A sonnet a day keeps the doctor away’?”
Stewart is reading his social media sound bites from the Folger Shakespeare Library’s book of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The text pairs the Bard’s poems with introductions, explanatory notes and illustrations from the Washington, D.C.-based library’s collection of rare books.
A classically trained actor, Stewart performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company during the 1960s and ‘70s, reports Entertainment Weekly’s Omar Sanchez. Over the course of his career, Stewart has performed in Shakespearean classics including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, Macbeth and Hamlet.
Most recently, Stewart regaled his followers with a rendition of “Sonnet 18.” One of Shakespeare’s best-known works, the poem begins with the sentiment, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate.”
“Sonnet 18” kicks off a set of 109 love sonnets penned by the Elizabethan scribe in honor of a mysterious young man. The full collection of sonnets, first published in 1609, encompasses romance, daily life, finances and politics.
“The sonnet is one of the smallest, most compact poetic forms, just 14 lines of tightly rhymed verse,” writes Hannah Crawford, an expert in early modern literature at King’s College, London, for the British Library, “but Shakespeare shows that it is capable of encompassing the most profound range of human experience and emotion.”
According to Crawford, Shakespeare published his “highly traditional and also highly experimental” collection when sonnets’ popularity in England was waning. While the Italian sonnet form follows a two-part structure—a set of eight lines known as an octave, followed by a strong turn, or volta, into a set of six—Shakespeare’s sonnets did away with this two-part form.
Instead, the literary giant largely crafted 12-line segments followed by a conclusive couplet. A few of his sonnets also represent exceptions to the strict 14-line rule. “Sonnet 99” has an extra line, for instance, and “Sonnet 126” is only 12 lines long. “Sonnet 145,” meanwhile, is written in a different meter than the others, with just four beats per line instead of the usual five.
The Bard’s 1609 quarto of poetry defined a new genre—Shakespearean sonnets—that continues to inspire poets today. The remaining 130 or so sonnets will keep Stewart and his listeners busy for several more weeks. If you’re looking for other livestreamed educational opportunities, consider LeVar Burton’s live readings on Twitter (Wednesdays at 6 p.m. for teens and Fridays at 9 p.m. for adults) or the Lincoln Center’s Pop-Up Classroom of artists, which highlights creatives from dancers to flipbook-makers and puppeteers.