Stewart nods to King’s Shakespearean scholar

Frank Neufeld // Western News

King’s University College professor Paul Werstine served as co-editor of 'Folger Shakespeare’s Sonnets,' part of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Perhaps he is correct – a sonnet a day does keep the doctor away. Sir Patrick Stewart’s recitations of Shakespearean sonnets posted to his @sirPatrickStew Twitter feed have become a staple of reassurance in a tempestuous time for his 3.4 million followers.

A recent instalment, a reading of Sonnet No. 18, continued the social-distancing tradition while also shining an unexpected spotlight upon Shakespearean expert, King’s University College professor Paul Werstine.

On March 21, Stewart first treated viewers to his first sonnet reading in the series. Since then, seated comfortably in a chair at his home, he has followed that with a sonnet a day.

Before recently launching into one of Shakespeare’s best-known sonnets – “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? / Thou are more lovely, and more temperate.” – he offered up this context:

“I think the moment has come for me to tell you something about this book I’ve been reading for the past two weeks,” he said, showing viewers a thick tome. “Well, it’s an American edition of sonnets and it was produced by the Folger Shakespeare Library, a great institution. The editors are Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine.”

Stewart goes on to read the editors’ interpretation of the first set of sonnets.

From his home in Canada’s London, Werstine was both surprised and delighted when his son flagged the mention to him.

“I’d been aware of Sir Patrick reading these sonnets before, and that he was reading from this Folger edition,” Werstine said. “When he actually mentioned our names and cited the sections we’d written, I was very pleased to hear it and I was reminded of my co-editor Barbara Mowat.”

Mowat, Director of Research at the Folger Library in Washington, D.C., had been Werstine’s co-editor for decades on this project and others. She died in 2017.

“I do remember agreeing we needed to make some sense out of this sequence for our readers – just to give them some idea of the way in which there are parts to the sequence of 154 sonnets, and reasons for the order in which we find them,” said Werstine, who did not recall which of them wrote the short commentary Stewart read aloud.

Werstine was gratified Stewart thought those passages would be useful to his listeners.

“You can pretty-much define me as a Shakespeare editor. I’ve been interested my whole career in the history of editing Shakespeare, the history of printing Shakespeare, the effect of the printing process on literary texts.”

Werstine is also a long-time admirer of Stewart, a stage actor well before his famous television role is as Captain/Commander/Admiral Jean Luc Picard in the Star Trek franchise.

Werstine recalled watching the actor’s presence and economy of movement when performing as King Claudius in Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. The two also met briefly in Washington, D.C., years ago, when Mowat introduced them during an event.

“He was a very congenial man. He has a great voice and has a great presence as a person.”

This public acknowledgement has been fun for Werstine. “I’ve been hearing from people I don’t ordinarily hear from – former graduate students and colleagues asking if I’ve seen this. It’s been a great opportunity to catch up.”

It has also been a reminder that great literature and poetry endure, wherever they are shared.

“Sir Patrick is creating a whole new audience for Shakespeare sonnets by performing them in this medium. I’m enormously grateful to him for that.”

The Folger Shakespeare’s Sonnets edited by Mowat and Werstine is available online without charge.