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Notes for
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 List.
     The notes below are not so much about the sonnets but rather about why I placed them in various workbooks.

# 18 "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" AK   G9   L3.1.2

# 29 "When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes" AK G10 L4.1

     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.

# 73 "That time of year thou mayst in me behold" AK   G10  L3.1.2

     The relatively complex clause structure and minimal use of verbals makes this sonnet appropriate for an exercise on subordinate clauses.

# 91 "Some glory in their birth" AK G11 L3.2.1

     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 students.
     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. 

94 "They that have power to hurt" AK  G11  L3.1.2

     "The 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 here.)

130 "My mistress' eyes" AK  G9  L3.1.2

     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." 

146 "Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth" AK G11 L4.1 Verbals

      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 conflict between flesh and spirit. It is included here not only because it is frequently anthologized, but also because its theme is important for students to consider.
     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 it up. 

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 (Italian).

Links to Relevant Sites

     There are many sites on the web devoted to Shakespeare, but I have found the following of particular interest:

The amazing web site of Shakespeare's sonnets