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Institutions of Love and Death: Shakespeare's Sonnets in Elderly Care Facilities

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Shakespeare’s Global Sonnets

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In 2006, the Finnish actor Jussi Lehtonen created Rakkaus ei ole ajan narri [Love's Not Time’s Fool], a monologue based on Shakespeare’s sonnets, which premiered at the Finnish National Theatre and then toured around various care institutions in Finland, e.g. assisted living centres for the elderly, dementia units, homeless shelters, drug rehabilitation facilities, psychiatric hospitals, and prisons, as well as theaters and schools. This chapter analyses the responses of elderly viewers to two broad themes raised in Shakespeare’s sonnets that have been seen as taboo subjects for the elderly: love, sexuality and loss, and ageing and death. In a third section, we take up issues connected to memory loss and cognitive decline, demonstrating that Shakespeare’s sonnets provided a point of contact even for patients with severe dementia. Shakespeare’s sonnets became a means of integrating Finnish institutions of theatre and care, while providing elderly viewers with what they seemed to regard as a meaningful artistic experience, allowing them to resist the stigmatization of ageing. The analysis sheds light on the complex and sometimes contradictory attitudes towards Shakespeare and his sonnets in elderly care institutions in Finland, and perhaps also offers a model for theatre practitioners interested in bringing Shakespeare to care institutions.

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  1. 1.

    In 2010, it was performed at the Duke Theatre in New York (Isherwood 2010) and in 2011 at the Rose Theatre in Kingston (Billington 2011), with Parry and Michael Pennington, but has not been extensively revived.

  2. 2.

    A total institution is an isolated unit where people in similar life situations live a longer period of time in a routine-like and hierarchical setting. Life in a total institution leads to institutionalization of an individual. In Goffman’s typology (1961, 4), total institutions are divided into 5 subgroups. Of these, “institutions established to care for people felt to be both harmless and incapable” include nursing homes.

  3. 3.

    Writing for the leading Helsinki newspaper, Tomi Kontio (2005) roundly criticized the decision not to follow the sonnet form. For a much more measured response, highlighting the translation’s strengths as well as weaknesses, see Salenius (2005).

  4. 4.

    The dramaturgies consisted of the choice and order of the sonnets that formed a dramatic plot. No other texts were used in the performance. There was an introduction where Lehtonen presented himself and the performance and invited people to discuss with him after the performance. In the longest version, the sonnets included were: 113, 74, 12, 104, 64, 3, 110, 57, 46, 58, 75, 129, 116, 73, 61, 12, 147, 97, 8.

  5. 5.

    This is an anti-coagulant medication.

  6. 6.

    The Touring Stage also develops socially oriented documentary theatre, where performances are made with differently marginalized communities in order to make their voices heard in society (Lehtonen 2021b, 45–46).


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This work has been partly supported by the Academy of Finland research project ArtsEqual (grant number: 293199).

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Correspondence to Jussi Lehtonen .

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Keinänen, N., Lehtonen, J. (2023). Institutions of Love and Death: Shakespeare's Sonnets in Elderly Care Facilities. In: Kingsley-Smith, J., Rampone Jr., W.R. (eds) Shakespeare’s Global Sonnets. Global Shakespeares. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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