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Shakespeare's Sonnets

"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"... William Shakespeare certainly had a lot to say about love. He wrote 154 sonnets in all.

In 2016, to mark the 400th anniversary of the great writer's death, the BBC and our partners have delighted in interpreting and reflecting his poetry in a range of ways. "They were but sweet, but figures of delight..." We hope you delight in our collection of sonnet-related treats...

What is a sonnet and why are Shakespeare's sonnets still popular? Find out more from BBC iWonder.

Actors Bharti Patel and Owen Brenman from the BBC drama Doctors

Sonnets from Shakespeare Day Live

23 April 2016 marked 400 years since the death of Shakespeare. That evening, from the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, hosts David Tennant and Catherine Tate were joined by stars including Benedict Cumberbatch, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen and many more to pay tribute and celebrate the Bard.

This unique event took place in the presence of Their Royal Highnesses the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, and celebrated Shakespeare's extraordinary legacy and his enduring influence on all performance art forms - from opera to jazz, dance to musicals.

Rufus Wainwright treated us to a performance of Shakespeare's Sonnet 29. He also spoke to BBC Radio 6 Music about his new album, Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets, which includes guest appearances from Florence Welch, Martha Wainwright, Carrie Fisher and William Shatner.

Shakespeare Day Live! from the RSC

Sonnet 29: Rufus Wainwright at the RSC

Rufus Wainwright performs Sonnet 29

Rufus Wainwright performs Sonnet 29 with the ENO Chorus

The New Shakespeare Songbook

On the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, the BBC and Austrian broadcaster ORF - with the support of the European Broadcasting Union - decided to commission a New Shakespeare Songbook, offering today’s composers and musicians across Europe the chance to respond afresh to these timeless texts.

When my love swears that she is made of truth I do believe her, though I know she lies, That she might think me some untutor'd youth, Unlearned in the world's false subtleties...
Sonnet 138

Norway's Ane Brun reimagined Sonnet 138 with a subtle tweak to the words. Here's the original sonnet:

When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutor'd youth,
Unlearned in the world's false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false speaking tongue:
On both sides thus is simple truth suppress'd.
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O, love's best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years told:
Therefore I lie with her and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flatter'd be.

New Shakespeare Songbook - France

New Shakespeare Songbook: Norway

Sonnet 138 - performed by Ane Brun

BBC drama Doctors does the Sonnets

Doctors is a drama series set in a busy practice in the West Midlands, England, following the turbulent lives and loves of the staff and patients.

I chose Sonnet 27 because I was fascinated by the idea of obsessive love
Doctors Writer Ray Brooking on Sonnet 27

In tribute to Shakespeare - a Midlands man himself - the programme team filmed a collection of sonnets, read by members of the cast.

They even produced a week of episodes inspired by the sonnets. Doctors writer Ray Brooking explains why Sonnet 27 inspired him...

"Although I was excited by the opportunity to reinterpret one of the bard’s works in a contemporary setting, it was also a challenge. I struggled when studying Shakespeare at A level, so trying to analyse his sonnets was initially a little like going back to school. However, once I was able to understand the themes of the verse, I realised that I had found a timeless story that would be perfect for an episode of Doctors.

More from Doctors and the Sonnets

Sonnet 18: Lorna Laidlaw

Lorna Laidlaw delivers one of Shakespeare's best known sonnets.

Sonnet 130 read by Ian Midlane

Sonnet 57 read by Adrian Lewis Morgan

Sonnett 116: Laura Rollins

Laura Rollins recites Sonnett 116

Sonnet 71 read by Matthew Chambers

Sonnet 73 read by Owen Brenman, with Bharti Patel

Shakespeare on Tour: who was the 'fair youth'?

William Herbert, the 3rd Earl of Pembroke, is famously cited as a candidate to be the mysterious ‘Mr.W.H’ – the ‘fair youth’ to which many of Shakespeare’s sonnets were dedicated. Find out more from BBC Shakespeare on Tour.

Hay Festival: Talking about Shakespeare

The world's writers, thinkers and opinion-formers descended on the little Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye once again. This year's Hay Festival celebrated the global impact of Shakespeare in the 400th anniversary year of his death with a programme of talks, workshops and projects...

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Hay Festival: Talking About Shakespeare - Imtiaz Dharker

The poet goes through the inspiration she took from Sonnet 43 for her own work

Actor Maxine Peake at Hay Festival 2016

Shakespeare on BBC Radio 3

In this anniversary year, and from the archives, BBC Radio 3 have treated us to drama and music. Sonnets in the City gave us five short dramas inspired by sonnets, featuring Maxine Peake among the cast. In 2009, as part of Radio 3's Poetry Season, Sir Ian McKellen read 14 sonnets...

Sir Ian McKellen reads Sonnet 12 for BBC Radio 3

Sonnet 12

Sir Ian McKellen reading on Radio 3

Sonnets in Drama - from BBC Radio 3

How like a winter hath my absence been From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year! What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen! What old December's bareness every where!
Sonnet 97

In a clip from the Radio 3 Drama adaptation A Winter's Tale, Sonnet 97 is set to music by Tim van Eyken, and sung by Lisa Knapp.

Sonnet 97 set to music

Sonnet 97 set to music by Tim van Eyken, singer Lisa Knapp

Eve Best and Danny Sapani star in Shakespeare's late play The Winter's Tale.

More Sonnet treats from the BBC and elsewhere

From the BFI: The Angelic Conversation (extract, 1985). Derek Jarman's evocative and radical visualisation of Shakespeare’s love poems, read by Dame Judi Dench.

From the British Library

Explore Shakespeare's Plays and Sonnets