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SonnetFest engages Shakespeare

Ann Marie Jakubowski | Thursday, February 14, 2013

For those who pass through O’Shaughnessy Hall today, SonnetFest 2013 will bring all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets off the page and to the public with an unconventional reading in celebration of Valentine’s Day.

As part of the fourth annual SonnetFest, 87 readers will recite sonnets in the Great Hall of O’Shaughnessy Hall today from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The readers will deliver their sonnets sequentially in a variety of languages.

Scott Jackson, executive director of Shakespeare at Notre Dame, said the goal of the event is to share the poems’ beauty with the entire community, and the Valentine’s Day context just complements the experience.

“Back when the event started, we had been trying to figure out a way to engage the student population with Shakespeare and bring his work off the page,” Jackson said. “The idea of a public reading of the sonnets seemed like a great way for everyone to be able to make a small contribution in an unintimidating, accessible format, especially somewhere as public and high-trafficked as the Great Hall.”

Jackson said the combination of Shakespeare and Valentine’s Day “just makes perfect sense” because of the deeply sentimental nature of the sonnets.

“Sonnets deal with all different times in life, from birth to death to romance to betrayal, but all have this element of friendship underlying,” Jackson said. “Most of them are in some way about love, but sometimes this love transcends its dictionary definition.”

The event is scheduled down to the minute, with most of the 87 readers contributing two sonnets each, Jackson said. Participants come from all colleges and departments of the University and combine to create an experience Jackson described as “a bit of a marathon.”

“It’s incredible because all these different departments, all these different students gather around something as universal and timeless as Shakespeare’s verse and unite through that,” Jackson said. “To see students across the University make that leap and find that engagement is amazing.”

The idea of internationalizing Shakespeare is a priority of SonnetFest, and Jackson said the variety of languages augment the experience since it becomes clear that the sonnets’ themes ring true in any translation.

“We’ve had 15 or more languages, everything from French, Spanish, German, and Russian to Klingon, Morse Code, Parseltongue and American Sign Language,” Jackson said. “We’ve had folks sing sonnets, and people have definitely had fun with it.”

Professor JoAnn DellaNeva, associate dean for undergraduate studies and one of today’s readers, said she appreciates how public the event is and how it is uniquely capable of reaching a diverse audience.

“I love that the SonnetFest is held in the O’Shaughnessy Great Hall with its continuous traffic, so that even people who hadn’t planned to attend this event or who didn’t even know about it suddenly find themselves in the middle of a public reading and stop and listen to a poem or two,” DellaNeva said.

At its core, the event is about giving life to the language and helping students and faculty access the true beauty and significance of the poetry, Jackson said.

“I feel that Shakespeare’s language is constricted when you just read it off the page,” Jackson said. “The words affect you differently when they’re voiced, and you get to make a personal connection to them.”