William Shakespeare's Sonnets
Had we but world enough, and time, I would
put an analysis of all of Shakespeare's sonnets on this site, but life
is short, and there are many other interesting texts to study in terms
of grammar. Most students do, however, at some point, and all students
should, at some point, study some of Shakespeare's sonnets. To my knowledge,
little attention has been given to the syntactic complexity of the various
sonnets and thus to how that difficulty may affect students' ability to
comprehend, and thus enjoy, these poems. I have provided separate pages
for notes on each poem so that, in the future, we might add specific suggestions
for teaching them, but the primary purpose of these pages is to suggest
that a KISS Approach to grammar will make the study of the sonnets not
only more productive for students, but also more interesting and enjoyable.
As for interpretations of the sonnets, there are many web sites that provide
them, and I have started a list of links at the bottom of this page to
sites that should be helpful.
One problem in dealing with the syntax of
these sonnets is that different editors have punctuated them differently,
and even, if I remember correctly, interpreted the words in the folios
differently. Not being a Shakespearean scholar, I have decided to use the
texts as I found them in my Classics Club edition of The Complete Works
of William Shakespeare, published by Walter J. Black, Inc. (Roslyn,
N.Y., 1937). Discussions of variations in the texts, especially as they
affect syntactic interpretations, are welcome on the KISS
The notes below are not so much about the
sonnets but rather about why I placed them in various workbooks.
A love poem, this sonnet is more appropriate
for tenth graders than it is for younger students. The numerous verbals
also fit right into the ideal KISS curriculum.
The relatively complex clause structure and
minimal use of verbals makes this sonnet appropriate for an exercise on
Whereas most of these sonnets were selected
because they are frequently taught and appear in anthologies for students,
this one was chosen for three different reasons. First, it has several
sentences with ellipsed verbs; second, the syntax is relatively simple;
and third, the theme should be appropriate for and understandable to younger
Many, if not most students, will probably
read "glory" as a noun, i.e., a subject and thus be confused. Similarly,
students will probably have trouble with the meaning of "humour." (Words
that are still in use, but have changed meanings, cause students frequent
problems since the students assume that they understand the meaning of
the word.) Also in regard to vocabulary, students may even use "better"
as a verb, but may have problems in recognizing it as one in a text.
web site of Shakespeare's sonnets" notes that "This is often thought
to be the most enigmatic of the Sonnets." It is included here for a number
of reasons, not the least of which is to present some students with a challenge.
The vocabulary should not present students with as much of a problem as
that in Sonnet # 146 does, the only word that might throw students being
"husband" -- most students will be unfamiliar with its meaning as a verb.
"The web site
of Shakespeare's sonnets" does a nice job of explaining the enigmas
in the sonnet, so I will say no more about that here.
Although the rhyme scheme of this sonnet is English,
Stephen Spender, a widely recognized literary critic, discusses it in terms
of an octave and sestet. (For more on this, click
This one is funny. [My wife thinks my border
is gross, and it reminds her of Medusa, but I think that it is both silly
and fitting for the poem.] The syntax should challenge, but not overwhelm,
ninth graders. This sonnet can be a nice introduction or review to parody
and satire. For more on this, see "The
web site of Shakespeare's sonnets."
The text of the second line of the sonnet
is a matter of debate. For more on this, see "The
web site of Shakespeare's sonnets." This is, perhaps, one of the best
possible works for introducing students to literary embodiments of the
between flesh and spirit. It is included here not only because it is
frequently anthologized, but also because its theme is important for students
My experience in teaching this sonnet has
been that many, if not most students are bewildered by the idea of talking
to one's soul. Thus the initial direct address confuses them, and that
confusion is compounded by the following appositive -- "the centre of my
sinful earth." The body / soul (flesh / spirit) conflict that was felt
by many in Shakespeare's time, and by many for centuries thereafter, appears
to be foreign to many current students. As a result, some students will
be totally lost because they don't see the frame of reference for the lines
in the poem. They need to be told that the speaker is talking to his soul
about the attention that is being given to his body.
The vocabulary in this sonnet may be particularly
troublesome in that students will know a meaning for many of the
words, but it will not be an appropriate meaning. Thus some students are
familiar with a mathematical "array," but will not see "array" as a verb
meaning to clothe or decorate. "Pine," for many students, evokes trees,
but they are unfamiliar with "pine" as a verb. Currently, of course, most
students cannot identify nouns and verbs in the first place, so all words
are just words. They do not, in other words, realize that "pine" is being
used as a verb in "Why dost thou pine within," and thus do not really sense
that their problem in comprehension is located in their considering "pine"
to mean a tree.
In line four, "gay" leads some students into
a wrong line of analysis, wrong in the sense that there is not much else
to support it in the sonnet. Within the students' world of experience,
"gay" is used almost exclusively with sexual connotations, and thus the
earlier meaning is overshadowed. As noted above, most students are not
familiar with the soul / body conflict, so they have serious problems in
seeing that "outward walls" refer to the body. Even if they do see that,
"painting" the body will probably evoke the face painting done at fairs
and arts & crafts shows, rather than the speaker's real intent -- the
use of cosmetics and, from the speaker's perspective, superfluous attention
to grooming and appearance.
Lines five and six continue some of these
problems, but add new ones. Again many students will have trouble equating
a "fading mansion" with a body that dies. Then too, most students have
a vague notion of the meaning of "lease," but will have trouble fitting
it into the context of the poem. In part, this problem is the result of
another -- in "cost," students will hit a direct object that not only precedes
its verb, but is separated from it by the gerundive phrase ("having so
short a lease"). If they do manage to untangle the syntax, the result is
an S/V/C pattern that does not appear to make sense -- Why dost thou spend
so large cost? Untangling this with students can, perhaps, lead to some
interesting discussion. What word could be used in place of "cost"? What
does "cost" mean here? It is not just money. It is also time, attention,
and emotionally involvement.
Most students like the reference to worms,
but I am still surprised by the number of college students who do not know
what "inherit" means. On their own, therefore, they will simply slide right
over "charge." Perhaps one of the most important things a syntactic analysis
of poetry can do is to slow down the reading, making the students focus
on each word. "Charge" has a number of connotations that students can themselves
see, if they are forced to slow down and thing. "Charge" means responsibility
(to be in charge), and the soul is charged with the proper care of the
body. "Charge" means investment of money or energy -- to charge a purchase
or a battery. Whatever the soul does is thus a "charge," and the speaker
is asking the soul if it really wants to put such investment into a body
that will just be eaten up by worms.
In line ten, many students will stumble over
"aggravate," which they interpret as "irritate" rather than simply "increase."
Note that the students should not be blamed for this. We learn words by
hearing them used, and the word "aggravate" today is more frequently used
to mean "irritate." Similarly, "store," in the sense of a supply of something,
is rarely used today, but the students do have a sensible (though inappropriate)
meaning for "store." Again, what I am suggesting is that "store" presents
more of a problem for students than does "dross" in line eleven. Students
know that they do not know what "dross" means, so many of them will look
An English and/or Italian Sonnet?
This sonnet presents another interesting example
for the discussion of literary form -- is it an Italian sonnet, an English
sonnet, or both? The question arose in connection with my explanation of
Donne's "Holy Sonnet XIV." (Click
here, if you are interested.) In this Shakespearean sonnet, the
rhyme scheme, although some are near or half-rhymes, is clearly English
-- abab cdcd efef gg. In terms of content, however, can anyone seriously
challenge the fact that it has an octave, and then a turn to a sestet?
Clearly in the octave, the speaker questions his soul and describes what
his soul is doing, whereas in the last six lines he tells his soul what
it should do. I can't imagine a clearer "turn." And, as in Donne's sonnet,
I would suggest that the English/Italian dichotomy reflects the speaker's
theme -- Soul, you are doing this (English), but you should be doing this
Links to Relevant Sites
There are many sites on the web devoted to
Shakespeare, but I have found the following of particular interest:
web site of Shakespeare's sonnets