Secrets of the Sonnets by Juliet Smith
TARANAKI DAILY NEWS, 17 MARCH 2001
Pictures of Shakespeare, newspaper cuttings and large, complicated-looking diagrams line the walls.
Books are stacked in meticulous piles.Sculpted heads are on display and a sense of being in another world is heightened by bushy vines growing through walls and the open doorway.
This is the workroom of artist, Shakespeare expert and serious thinker Roger Peters.
Over the past few years in this room, Peters has plotted out a comprehensive and unique theory of William Shakespeare's philosophies.
"I'm in and out of here all day, continually plodding away," he says. "It came to be my writing space when I was kicked out of the side room of the house as my daughters were getting older."
Life models used to be sketched here, with the burner cranked up in winter during a different artistic stage.
Peters, who has intense eyes and a beard not unlike that of Shakespeare, meets visitors at the gate of his farmhouse near Kaponga. He shares the house with his art-teacher wife, Maree, and one of his four daughters.
The garden, which overlooks the Kapuni River, is littered with Peters' classical sculpted heads.
Inside the house, Maree Horner's painting room is filled with large abstract paintings. Elsewhere, knee-high figures are stuck to the ceiling, adding a quirky touch to an already creative household.
"They have stayed up since a party and I haven't taken them down since then," Peters says. The plasticine, resin and sand figures were part of an exhibition in Wanganui and are slowly deteriorating.
"I'm still waiting for one to fall off," he jokes.
In the 1970s, Peters studied architecture and then changed tack to major in sculpture at Elam Art School in Auckland.
His early works were conceptual and experimental, such as a series of installation works with heated light rods, some of which were re-exhibited in a retro exhibition at Auckland's Art Space two years ago. He then made traditional figurative sculpture and classical bronze-cast heads, teaching himself the lengthy modelling process.
But for now Peters' sculpture work is on the back-burner as he devotes himself full-time to the study of Shakespeare's sonnets.
Peters' obsession dates back to 1995. When giving a talk about his sculpture exhibition at Wanganui's Sarjeant Gallery, he met a woman who was into the sonnets.
"We were introduced and struck up a mutual interest society. I read all the sonnets with a group of three other people over two weekends. I sensed something was in the sonnets that I had come to through my own work."
Readers of the Stratford Press will be familiar with Peters' column, published every two weeks. In it the sonnets, which were written between 1590 and 1610, are steadily dissected, decoding what comes across to most of us as a foreign language.
He is up to sonnet 120.
Peters says the columns are a labour of love because he has to find a sponsor to get each one published.
"I think they were trying to put me off doing it."
He took on the challenge and says some people only read it to get a kick from seeing Stratford businesses, which would normally have nothing to do with the arts, sponsor the column.
Peters' book is taking shape as the columns progress, nearing the final stages before publication is sought.
While it sounds slightly bizarre to spend several years of your life writing about Shakespeare in a country house near Kaponga, New Zealand, it makes sense to him.
"Nothing else has been written like this. It deserves to be out there. What I am doing is looking at each sonnet individually and applying his philosophy."
Peters says where he differs from other scholars is in taking a systematic approach to each sonnet.
"Most scholars pick out sonnets but say virtually nothing on others. They have been coming at it from a completely wrong angle for the last 400 years. Most people misunderstand him. They are coming to him from a Christian or Greek expectation."
Peters says the sonnets are basically approached as love poems to a young man rather than as a form Shakespeare used to systematically set out his life philosophy. The sonnets are crucial, he says, because the underlining philosophy also forms the basis for all his plays and other poems.
He credits Shakespeare with sorting out the logic of the mind, on a par with Galileo sorting out the planetary system and Darwin doing the same for evolution.
Despite not yet having a publisher, Peters is confident the book will be published and sees it as a life-long study with three more volumes planned. He proposes that Shakespeare's works all embody an overriding philosophy on a mythic level of truth and beauty based in nature, one he says has been overlooked by academics.
"He bases his understanding in nature. The way in which we think and understand things is determined by the way we understand male and female." This philosophy explains areas academics have grappled with, such as the strange dedication at the start of the original book of sonnets, loaded with punctuation and making little sense.
Peters says any book on the sonnets will dedicate at least 10 pages to explaining the dedication.
According to Peters' theory, which uses numbering principles of male, female and nature, the logic of the sonnets falls perfectly into place.
Shakespeare's ideas even surpass that of the Bible, he says.
To allow easier digestion of his theoretical discourse, Peters takes this visitor to his favourite walking spot down by the river.
"I'm constantly addressing people. Most people burn out after half an hour," he says.
Discussions take place with artists, English teachers and academics. He engages in lengthy e-mail debates with overseas scholars about his ideas and where he sees failings in theirs. His large wall diagrams attest to a seminar he gave at Massey University last year.
While Roger Peters does not consider himself an academic, he has read widely across disciplines to develop his ideas, from Plato and Homer to theorists such as Duchamp and Wittgenstein. His appetite for such heavy reading must have come from his childhood, when he took to reading the encyclopedia, one of the few books his parents kept.
For light relief he sometimes works on what he calls his side projects, in a small room between his modelling studio and writing room.
The latest project is a miniature book that sits snugly in the palm, containing a reduced set of images of the "history of madness". The handbound books are placed in crafted wooden boxes and given to special friends and family.
Other projects have included his larger-than-life Shakespeare heads, on display at the Stratford library and council buildings.
Peters considers himself an artist, with no writing pretensions.
"My wife told me my writing was terrible. I still write in a deliberate way but that is not necessarily a bad thing."
He credits his wife as being a driving force behind his work and says her art also comes from a similar ethos.
"Basically it's where Shakespeare is coming from, too. Ann Hathaway, Shakespeare's wife, was crucial to his experiences."
Retired English teacher and Stratford school principal Richard Habershon says Peters approaches Shakespeare in a revolutionary way that collides with existing theories.
"He has delved so deeply it staggers me. He sees illusions and connections and creativity that I have never seen. It is certainly innovative and remarkable and it hangs together. He has a profoundly different point of view that goes against the traditional views of Shakespeare."
For that reason, he says, Shakespeare scholars will and do react vigorously against his ideas.
Shakespeare authority Ida Gaskin, of New Plymouth, says Peters' theory is very interesting but she believes it is impossible to know what the truth is and exactly what Shakespeare's thoughts were.
Regardless of what others think, Peters knows he is on to something.
His cheap and idyllic country lifestyle gives him the luxury of space and time, if need be his whole lifetime, to continue to pursue his theories.
And he will continue working with the driving singularity that is his hallmark.