Pop Shakespeare’s typography

If you’ve been spending any time on social media recently, you’re likely to have come across Pop Sonnets, a new Tumblr that provides, in their words, “Old twists on new tunes, every Thursday.” Here, for instance, is their deft rewriting of Gloria Gaynor’s 1978 hit, “I Will Survive“:

Pop Sonnets' adaptation of Gloria Gaynor
Pop Sonnets’ adaptation of Gloria Gaynor


If you know Gaynor’s song, you’ll appreciate the adaptation of the song’s chorus and verse structure to the sonnet’s characteristic use of the final turn. If you know your Shakespeare, you’ll also appreciate the echoes of Pop Sonnet’s couplet with that of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18:

Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 (STC 22353)
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (STC 22353)

Instead of giving you a reading of how Pop Sonnets’ adaptation of Gaynor’s anthem of self-reliance inverts Shakespeare’s invocation of male artistic mastery, I’ll call your attention to something else: the sonnet’s typography.

I think many readers of Pop Sonnets will recognize the “old timey” feel of how the poems are presented. You, devoted followers of early modern texts, will have more quickly recognized the specific resonances of the 1609 edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets—the drop cap starting off the sonnet, the indented couplet, the style of roman type. There are some differences in the Pop Sonnets typography, of course, including the use of roman numerals to number the poems and, more startlingly, the use of an em-dash to set off the final couplet. But I don’t think it’s far-fetched to suggest that Pop Sonnets is deliberately evoking Shakespeare’s sonnets through its typographical choices, and that it’s those choices that provide, in part, the enjoyable frisson of reading modern pop songs in early modern poetical form.

Typography doesn’t always hearken back in its associations, but can create other types of intertextual play. Take a look at Adam Bertocci’s mashup of Two Gentlemen of Verona with the Coen Brother’s cult hit, The Big Lebowski, Two Gentlemen of Lebowski:

a page opening from Adam Bertocci's Two Gentlemen of Lebowski
a page opening from Two Gentlemen of Lebowski

Does it look at all familiar? Does it look, maybe, like this?

page opening from A Midsummer Night's Dream
page opening from the Folger edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

This, I hope you quickly recognized, is a page opening from the Folger Shakespeare Library edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The two plays feature the same layout—play text on the right-hand side of the opening, with commentary and illustrations on the left. Is this a coincidence? It seems unlikely: the layout of the Folger editions is one of the things that separates it from other Shakespeare editions. And it seems even more unlikely to be mere coincidence when you realize that the Folger editions and Two Gentlemen of Lebowski share the same publisher, Simon and Schuster. The visual effect of Bertocci’s play is one more intertextual layering of his extended riff on the Coen brothers and Shakespeare.

Lest that sound too dry, I’ll add one more crucial aspect of both these examples. Their typography is part of the joke and part of their appeal.

The Collation is back to its normal publishing schedule in September, with two posts a week and crocodile mysteries for you to solve. In the meantime, enjoy the last days of summer and don’t forget to laugh at typographical jokes!

UPDATE: Shortly after publishing this, I stumbled across the information that Pop Sonnets uses IM Fell—a digital font created by Igino Marini based on John Fell’s seventeenth-century fonts. For more information, see Marini’s post on his project.