Skip to main content

Rufus Wainwright Photo credit to Matthew WelchMatthew Welch

'Scorn not the sonnet," the Romantic poet William Wordsworth once wrote, in a sonnet defending sonnets. "With this key, Shakespeare opened his heart."

That's one view of William Shakespeare's 14-line poetic output. A century later, Aldous Huxley, parodying Wordsworth, floated another: "With this key, Shakespeare let down his pants."

It's the below-the-belt aspect of Shakespeare's 154 sonnets that attracted Canadian singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright to them first, of course.

"My mother, Kate McGarrigle, piqued my interested in the sonnets when I was a teenager when she said, 'You know, there's one he wrote about masturbating,'" says Wainwright, hosting a fast and friendly interview in the curio-cluttered living room of the home he shares with his husband, Jorn Weisbrodt, in Toronto's Annex.

Take note, parents: Wainwright was thereafter hooked on sonnets.

And now, at 42, he is the composer behind one of the more idiosyncratic commemorations of, or perhaps cashing-ins on, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death.

Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets is an endearingly oddball collection of classical, pop and cabaret songs that borrow the poems as lyrics, alongside recorded performances of them from, among others, Helena Bonham Carter, Carrie Fisher and the great 92-year-old German stage actress Inge Keller.

Sonnet #129 – the one that was teen Rufus's gateway drug to the rest – is on the album as both song and spoken word, and its two appearances give you an idea of how wildly eccentric the project is.

First, a certain vet of the Stratford Festival by the name of William Shatner tackles the sonnet, unusually impersonal for Shakespeare, that begins: "Th'expense of spirit in a waste of shame/ Is lust in action."

Shatner performs this mediation on the madness of sexual desire and consummation as a tortured soliloquy. There are plenty of Captain Kirk's trademark pregnant pauses as he reaches its world-weary concluding couplet: "All this the world well knows," he says. "Yet none knows well / To shun the heaven … that leads men to … this … hell."

On the next track, in-demand Austrian soprano Anna Prohaska offers an angry, almost mocking retort – singing the same words in an accusatory manner over menacing strings plucked and struck by the BBC Symphony; softening only, for a moment, into wistfulness in the final lines.

The dramatic effect of this juxtaposition is of a man trying to explain to his mistress that his lust for her is a madness that only leaves him feeling bad – "A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe" – and the mistress then furiously slinging his words back in his face.

Well, that's my read, anyway. When it comes to the ordering of the sonnets on his album, or the matching of singers and speakers, or overall narrative, Wainwright doesn't offer up any particular explanation.

"My thing with Shakespeare I would say – not my thing, the thing," he says, "is that I do strongly believe one could arbitrarily flip through the sonnets and pick any nine and put them in any order and there are these mystical connections that arise."

Wainwright's professional involvement with Shakespeare's sonnets is almost as long as his personal one, dating back to 2002 – when he was invited to write music to one for a benefit for London's Royal Academy for the Drama Arts.

A few years after that, he was even more deeply pulled into the poems by Robert Wilson, the avant-garde American director who his (then future) husband Weisbrodt worked with before becoming the artistic director of Toronto's Luminato Festival.

Wilson asked Wainwright to compose settings for a wide selection of the poems for a Berliner Ensemble production he was directing called Shakespeare's Sonnets. All nine on the new album were in that show – though some appear in versions he later re-orchestrated for the San Francisco Symphony.

According to the reviews I've read of Wilson's production – on this side of the ocean, anyway – critics were somewhat baffled by the meaning of it all.

"The sonnets selected are presented in no particular order and vary randomly between those addressing the so-called Fair Youth, and speaking mostly of a serene and spiritual love, and those addressing the figure known as the Dark Lady, more turbulent and fraught with suffering," Charles Isherwood wrote in The New York Times.

That same criticism could be levelled at Take All My Loves, which gives listeners eight sonnets that were directed to the Fair Youth and only one to the Dark Lady.

Wainwright doesn't really think of the poems in that way, however. Indeed, when he sings them – he's on five of the tracks here – there's one person he primarily imagines: His mother.

"When I really got into singing them myself, was when I had some of them on [2010's All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu], the solo piano record I did right after my mother passed away," he says. "My mother was very much the Dark Lady of my life."

If the choice of sonnets is a bit random, the collection of actors who contribute to the albums is equally haphazard, as curious as the assortment of blocks of wood, thick metal chains, vases and miniature statues (a knight guarding the fireplace!) scattered around Wainwright's living room.

While Wainwright wrote the songs over 13 years, the album came together quickly in about a month over Oscar season – and he and his producer Marius de Vries grabbed whoever was around in L.A. Why both Stars Wars and Star Trek? Wainwright explains: "I was staying with Carrie Fisher at the time and William Shatner is the neighbour of my producer."

There were attempts to get Leonardo DiCaprio and Ryan Gosling involved – "so I'd have something fun to look at for the afternoon," Wainwright jokes – and to get a hip-hop artist to rap a sonnet: "We asked Snoop Dogg to do it, but it would have cost us $30,000."

The one performer who Wainwright wants to emphasize is not on the album by accident is Florence Welch, the theatrical lead vocalist of Florence and the Machine who here soulfully tackles the sweet Sonnet 29 (When In Disgrace With Fortune and Men's Eyes).

The two met one day while Wainwright was with his daughter in the swimming pool in the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard. "She walked in, in this incredible bathing suit with her long red hair, and dove into the pool – and my daughter Viva immediately exclaimed, 'It's Ariel from The Little Mermaid!'"

Wainwright, however, thought only of Shakespeare. "She has this very Elizabethan look and could be a character from A Midsummer Night's Dream," he says.

Outside of the sonnets, Dream holds a special place in Wainwright's heart. It was the first Shakespeare play he saw – in a production in Regent's Park in London that his dad (Loudon Wainwright III) took him and his sister (that'd be Martha) to when he was 12.

And not long after that, at the boarding school in upstate New York the Montreal-raised singer was sent to "after failing every course" at high school at home, Wainwright appeared in a production of Dream. "I played Bottom," he says. "Which is hilarious."

When it comes to the Bard, Wainwright talks most enthusiastically about his wordplay – the unlikely juxtapositions like "master-mistress" (Sonnet 20) or "darkly bright (Sonnet 43). "He has these two-word things that, in themselves, are just astounding," says the singer, who happens to be sporting a DSQUARED zipper sweater that says Raisin Hell for the interview.

While he did his reading, Wainwright says it would have been "a folly" to get too intellectual about them. He was encouraged by Wilson from the start not to be daunted by them, but to take more intuitive approach.

That's, in my view, a smart one. With so few documents exist to tell us about who Shakespeare was, the world has endlessly mined the sonnets for information – and concluding that he was gay, or bisexual, or involved in a sordid ménage à trois.

But as Northop Frye joked, the most you can get from the sonnets as transcripts of experience "is the reflection that pederastic infatuations with beautiful and stupid boys are probably very bad for practising dramatists."

More seriously, the great Canadian critic also noted: "Any critic of Shakespeare's sonnets will, to some extent, tell the world more about his own critical limitations than about his subject."

As Wainwright says, rightly of his project, and not at all onanistically: "Shakespeare will communicate himself. I was trying to be a vessel to those words."

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe