In this lesson, our instructor Rebekah Hendershot teaches The Sonnets. Youll learn what a sonnet is, the functions of each part, why they matter, and then go over what is known and not known about them. Rebekah also explains major sonnets such as Sonnet 18, Sonnet 20, and Sonnet 130. Additionally, the mysterious sonnet characters are explored in detail. Youll look into questions such as: Who was The Fair Youth? Was Shakespeare gay? What dark features did the Dark Lady have? And who was the Rival Poet? The lesson concludes with a list of ways to approach sonnets and read them effectively.
This lesson will teach you how to read and understand a set of poems by William Shakespeare, one of the greatest writers in the history of the English language (and the man who invented quite a lot of it).
These videos are not a substitute for reading Shakespeare, listening to Shakespeare, or watching Shakespeare performed.
Seriously. Don’t be that guy.
What is a Sonnet?
A Shakespearean sonnet is a 14-line lyric poem, usually about love in some form.
The structure calls for four quatrains (groups of 4 lines) and a couplet (a pair of rhyming lines).
The rhyme scheme is usually abab / cdcd / efef / gg.
Shakespearean sonnets are written in iambic pentameter.
The first quatrain establishes the sonnet’s theme.
The second quatrain develops the sonnet’s theme.
The third quatrain rounds off the sonnet’s theme.
The final rhyming couplet concludes the sonnet, often with a twist or surprise ending.
What Do We Know?
The language indicates these poems were probably written in the 1590s.
Theatres closed 1592 – 1594 due to a plague outbreak.
Some poetry was written on commission; these poems may have been written for a wealthy patron.
Probably circulated in manuscript form.
Published in 1609, almost certainly without Shakespeare’s permission; published in another edition in 1640 with some major (and highly inaccurate) changes.
What Don’t We Know?
Who (if anyone) commissioned the sonnets
How Thomas Thorpe got his hands on them
Who “W.H.” was
Who the various characters were
Why Do the Sonnets Matter?
Some of the finest poetry ever written in English
Created a new sonnet form that has been imitated for centuries since.
Just about the only writing we have by Shakespeare that isn’t a play
Great for quoting and driving academics berserk
What It Means: Sonnet 18
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate: Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, And summer's lease hath all too short a date: Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, And often is his gold complexion dimm'd; And every fair from fair sometime declines, By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd; But thy eternal summer shall not fade Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest; Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade, When in eternal lines to time thou growest: So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this and this gives life to thee.
What It Means: Sonnet 20
A woman's face with nature's own hand painted, Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion; A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted With shifting change, as is false women's fashion: An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling, Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth; A man in hue, all 'hues' in his controlling, Much steals men's eyes and women's soulsamazeth. And for a woman wert thou first created; Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting, And by addition me of thee defeated, By adding one thing to my purpose nothing. But since she prick'd thee out for women'spleasure, Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.
Sonnet Characters: The Fair Youth
An attractive young man, identity unknown
Some sonnets encourage him to procreate
Later sonnets suggest either romantic or platonic love
Affair with Dark Lady?
Possibly Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton
Was Shakespeare gay?
Sonnet Characters: The Dark Lady
An attractive young woman, identity unknown
“Dark” features include black hair and dusky/olive-colored skin
An object of sexual love (more so than the Fair Youth)
Many identities proposed, none proven
An enduring mystery
Sonnet Characters: The Rival Poet
A competitor for fame, wealth, and patronage
Possibly George Chapman, Christopher Marlowe, or any number of other poets
What It Means: Sonnet 130
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun Coral is far more red than her lips' red; If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head. I have seen roses damask, red and white, But no such roses see I in her cheeks; And in some perfumes is there more delight Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks. I love to hear her speak, yet well I know That music hath a far more pleasing sound; I grant I never saw a goddess go; My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground: And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare As any she belied with false compare.
How to Read a Shakespearean Sonnet
Break the sonnet into quatrains and couplets. Observe how each section changes the nature of the sonnet and builds toward its conclusion.
Read line-by-line, translating each small segment before moving on to the next.
Look for allusions to other works and to the older, Petrarchan style of sonnet.
Read the sonnet aloud to get the sound of the words—and keep an eye out for puns (especially sexual ones)!
Read the sonnets before and after your assigned sonnet to get an feel for the context.
Pay particular attention to that last couplet!
Lecture Slides are screen-captured images of important points in the lecture. Students can download and print out these lecture slide images to do practice problems as well as take notes while watching the lecture.
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