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For Teachers 

Helping student understand the sonnets:  I'm a believer in the value of having students read sonnets aloud.  For an assignment, have each student pick a sonnet to recite to the class.  (I do not allow students to pick familiar sonnets, such as "Shall I compare thee.")  In order to recite the sonnet successfully, the student will need to understand the syntax, vocabulary and overall meaning of the sonnet, as well as develop an interpretation of the sonnet's tone, which can often be changing or ambiguous.  By reciting the sonnets, students can also get a sense of how the form of the sonnets, especially its three quatrain and couplet structure, works with the sonnet's content.  I also like this assignment because students have fun listening to one another read (I always make sure there's clapping after each recitation).  A lot of people have posted readings of the sonnets on YouTube.  The class could watch some of these, or even post its own.  There are  professional recordings of readings of the sonnets, including by Sir John Gielgud and by Helen Vendler (selected sonnets were included with the hardcover edition of her book; I'm not sure about the paperback edition).

Helping students engage with the sonnets: The sonnets deserve their fame, but they are also a victim of their own success.  Because they are now so celebrated it is hard for students to hear how uncertain the feelings expressed in the sonnets often are, or to imagine how risky many of the feelings expressed could be.  As a result, students sometimes find the sonnets romantic but not relevant (just "flowery poetry"). So have the students pretend that the sonnets they are reading have been sent by a  not very well known admirer (situation: a not well known "friend" sends you the sonnet over Facebook) .  How would your students feel about the sonnet?  Would they like it?  Feel complimented?  Pursued?  Flattered?  Lied to?  What impression would they form of the sonnets' writer?

Helping students appreciate the poetry of the sonnets: Consider having students focus on the language rather than moving directly to a discussion of the sonnet's meaning.  Students could pick one sonnet and list the following:

· The rhymed words and their division into quatrains and couplet.

· Patterns of repetition including sound patterns (alliteration, assonance, consonance) and word patterns (kinds of repetition such as parallelism or antithesis) 

· Wordplay such as puns

· Metonymy and ellipses: these are two figures of speech that make for the compressed language of the sonnets (and often make their reading difficult for students).  Metonymy involves the substitution of part for whole (as in "crown" to mean "king"), ellipses the omission of words  (e.g. as in the colloquial phrase "see you" for "I will see you later.") 

· Sources of comparison: identify the metaphors or similes in the sonnet and describe what other language (sight, sea voyages, law, music, etc.) they are taken from.  How many languages in one sonnet can the students find?  Then describe what the comparison is to, and (if you want students to start thinking further about meaning) why Shakespeare picks--or moves between--various languages.

I recommend the website Silva Rhetoricae, with its fantastic lists and categorization or Renaissance and classical rhetoric, to help guide students through this kind of analysis.  The benefit here is that when students do discuss the meaning of the sonnet, they will have a much better idea of what they are discussing if they have done this formal analysis first.  And at least as important: students will develop a sense of the great artistry of the sonnets.

Helping students understand the sonnets in historical terms. While we don't know a lot about why or to whom Shakespeare wrote his sonnets (if anyone), we do know some things, such as the motives writers had for composing sonnets in the Renaissance.  And there is broad agreement on other matters, such as the division of the sonnets into a larger group (1-126) written to or about a man, and a smaller group (128-154) written about or to a woman.  Students might explore the differences between how Shakespeare writes sonnets for the man versus how he writes sonnets for the woman--you could also consider the "love triangle" sonnets 40-42.  Why might there be these differences?    What do they tell us about ideas of men or women in the Renaissance?  How might these ideas be connected to what we see in Shakespeare's plays (if you're reading any: Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night or Othello would work well).  Do we share any of these ideas?  Depending on your situation and inclination you could also discuss the sexuality of the sonnets.  (For reasons I set out in my book, I think no one who reads the sonnets should be unaware of the likely male recipient of many, and the explicitly male recipient of some).  The attitude toward the male recipient is often described as platonic or spiritual.  Does this claim seem persuasive?

Helping students appreciate the importance of reception. I think that it is important to reflect on  how the framing of a work of literature affects how we read.  And the sonnets are especially interesting in this regard because of the variety of ways they have been framed.  Have students go to a bookstore and look at the covers of various editions of the sonnets.  What do the different illustrations communicate about the sonnets or how do they shape a reader's expectations for them?  How many different ways of framing can the student find?  Does the visual framing go well with the content?  What other kinds of framing are there, such as in the editor's introduction?.  This assignment is also useful in helping students think of literature as something human and shaped, not descended out of  nowhere as "classics" (the idea of the "classic," I believe, creates student/reader passivity toward the literary text).  

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Sonnet Secrets

Stuff you probably never knew about Shakespeare's Sonnets: 

Five outlandish proposals for the identity of  the young man of the sonnets:
1.  Wine personified (expressing Shakespeare's drinking problem)
2.  Shakespeare himself  (love poems to his creative muse)
3.  Queen Elizabeth
4.  The Protestant Church
5.  An imagined illegitimate son, or Shakespeare's real son Hamnet

Five proposed alternative authors of the sonnets and their corollary identifications of the young man (I do not subscribe to any alternative authorship theories for either the plays or the sonnets).
1. Philip Sidney to Sir Edward Dyer
2. Walter Raleigh to King James' eldest son Prince  Henry
3. Francis Bacon to  himself
4. The Earl of Oxford to his illegitimate son by Queen Elizabeth
5. Anne Whately to William Shakespeare (Anne Whately,  whom Shakespeare is supposed to have betrothed but not married,  is a personage created out of thin air--from a clerical error in a church register of marriage licenses).

Five sonnets that I believe deserve more attention than they usually receive: 15, 76, 115, 122, 135.

Five of the most risquè sonnets: 20, 42, 135, 136, 137.

The sonnet with the most dramatic rise in popularity, as measured by rates of selection for anthologies: sonnet 130 ("My mistress's eyes are nothing like the sun").  The sonnet experiences a whopping 1200% increase in the rate of anthologization pre- and post-1900, almost all of the increase coming post-1950.

The only sonnet with any likelihood of having been written for Anne Hathaway: sonnet 145 (written in tetrameter rather than pentameter, it has never been a popular sonnet).

Interpretation--some grace notes in popular sonnets:

· Sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day").  The sonnet repeats the word "eternal" twice.  The first time it refers to the recipient of the sonnet, but the second time to the sonnet itself.  What is Shakespeare really praising in this sonnet? 

· Sonnet 29 ("When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes").  The line "Like to the lark at break of day arising" provides a nice example of the musicality of Shakespeare's sonnets.  Note the echoes of the letters l, i, k, and a, and especially how Shakespeare opens and closes the line with the long i

· Sonnet 55 ("Not marble, nor the gilded monuments").  The sonnet begins with things that are strong but dead and that mark the dead (these "monuments" are specifically tombstones).  It ends with the living: "you live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes." 

· Sonnet 73 ("That time of year thou mayst in me behold").    Shakespeare reverses the comparison and the thing compared in his metaphor.  He doesn't say I am like the autumn, but the autumn is like me!  The speaker of the sonnet may be aging, but he sure is important. 

· Sonnet 116: ("Let me not to the marriage of true minds").  The idea of a strong bond between a pair of lovers is emphasized by the echoing words of the first quatrain: "love"/"love,"; "alters"/alteration"; "remover"/remove."  Even word sounds can't separate themselves. 

· Sonnet 130 ("My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun").  This sonnets suggests that poets' figures of speech dis-figure the beloved  as much as they figure her, since no one really has eyes like the sun, etc.  There is a wonderful visual equivalent of this idea in a picture from a 1654 book The Extravagant Shepherd-- you can view it here.

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Recommended Websites

The Amazing Website of Shakespeare's Sonnets  Text and interpretation of Shakespeare's Sonnets, along with the text of other Renaissance sonneteers

Luminarium An excellent site devoted to medieval, Renaissance and Restoration literature.  Has online texts, brief author biographies, and criticism.

Open Source Shakespeare  A great online Shakespeare concordance and search engine.

Renascence Editions  A large collection of online Renaissance texts.

Silva Rhetoricae  A wonderful compendium of  Renaissance rhetoric, this site both provides a sense of the rhetorical knowledge Shakespeare would have had, as well as a guide to particular figures of speech in the sonnets.  To most easily find particular figures of speech, view "the Flowers" of rhetoric by groupings. 

Sonnet Central  Contains collections of sonnets from various times and places, including Elizabethan and early seventeenth-century sonnets.

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Recommend Books and Articles  Format for printing

Booth, Stephen. Shakespeare's Sonnets. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.

Bray, Alan.  "Homosexuality and The Signs Of Male Friendship in Elizabethan England." In Queering the Renaissance, Ed. Jonathan Goldberg.  Durham: Duke University Press, 1994.

-----.  Homosexuality in Renaissance England.  New York: Columbia University Press,  1995.

Callaghan, Dympna. Shakespeare's Sonnets. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007.

Duncan-Jones, Katherine, ed.  Shakespeare's Sonnets. The Arden Shakespeare.  London: Arden Shakespeare, 1997.

Edmondson, Paul and Stanley Wells. Shakespeare's SonnetsOxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Greene, Thomas. "Pitiful Thrivers: Failed Husbandry in the Sonnets."  In Shakespeare and the Question of Theory.  Ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman.  New YorkMethuen, 1985.

Greenblatt, Stephen.  Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare.  Chicago: University  of Chicago Press, 1980.

Fuller, John. The SonnetLondon: Methuen, 1972.

Marotti, Arthur F. "'Love Is Not Love': Elizabethan Sonnet Sequences and the Social Order." ELH 49 (1982): 396-428 .

Henderson, Katherine and Barbara McManus. Half Humankind: Contexts and Texts of the Controversy About Women in England, 1540-1640. Urbana: University of  Illinois Press, 1985.

Rollins, Hyder Edward, ed. A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare; The Sonnets.  Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1944.

Schiffer, James, ed..  Shakespeare's Sonnets: Critical Essays. New York: Garland, 1999. 

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire.   New York: Columbia  University Press, 1985.

Schoenbaum, Samuel.  Shakespeare's Lives. New ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

Smith, Bruce R.  Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England: A Cultural Poetics. Chicago: University of  Chicago Press, 1991.

Vendler,  Helen.  The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Cambridge: Harvard University Press,  1997.

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Choice Magazine

"The most realistically balanced, generally honest guide to these remarkable poems that this reviewer has encountered."  read more  

Jonathan Goldberg,
Emory University

"This is the book I would recommend to any novice and even to more experienced readers approaching the sonnets." read more

Nichole Lehman,
Chantilly High School

"This book will come in handy when I teach the sonnets." read more

Katherine Duncan-Jones, editor of the Arden Sonnets,
Oxford  University

"Matz proves himself to be a sharp and subtle analyst of individual Sonnets."
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