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"Sonnets": how can I enjoy and understand them?

The 154 Shakespeare sonnets have been grouped by critics in various categories, some of which are as follows:

            Admiration or affection for a  young man or "youth": 1-126

            Affection for a "dark lady": 127-154

            Urging young man to reproduce ("procreation" sonnets) 1-17

            Love triangle and reproaches 40-42

            Love triangle rivalry with another poet 79-86

            Authorship controversy - sonneteer is "Will" and possibly rival also?:   135, 136, 143

            Reference to stage fright: 23

            Most sexually suggestive: 20, 52, 129, 151

            Paired sonnets: 15, 16 & 17, 46 & 47, 50 & 51, (lots more).

Unlike the plays which were addressed to a general audience, the Sonnets were probably written to be read carefully by people who knew and appreciated literature.

Getting the books:

Use a book which is well footnoted, such as:

                        G. Blakemore Evans, The Sonnets,

                        Stephen Booth, Shakespeare’s Sonnets

                        Katherine Duncan-Jones, Shakespeare’s Sonnets

            Another excellent book, with short essays rather than footnotes for each sonnet is:

Helen Vendler, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

            References: One problem in reading the sonnets is to determine whether a word meaning                         you suspect, was a meaning used in Shakespeare’s day.  If you have access to an Oxford English Dictionary ("OED"), it can be a great help.  (Some university libraries now provide their teachers and students access to the Oxford English Dictionary over the web - a wonderful resource.)  Also, as to the many sexual meanings in Shakespeare's language, Eric Partridge’s, Shakespeare’s Bawdy is useful.  For a strongly argued thesis that the sonnets are homoerotic, read Such Is My Love, by Joseph Pequigney.

Getting the basics:

            a) For the basic meaning, read to the punctuation, not to the line ends. 

b) Read slowly, consider each word.

c) Read as three quatrains (4-line groups) followed by a commentary couplet (2 line group).  This is the typical organization of a Shakespearean sonnet.

d) Read as an octave (8 line group) followed by a sestet (6 line group).  This is the typical organization of a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet, and sometimes found in Shakespeare.

e) Look for the most obvious meaning first.

f) Try to get a sense of the nature of the speaker (poet), and whether he is speaking to himself or another person.

Getting the art:

a) The writer, Frank O’hara, said all love poetry can be summed up "I need you, you need me, yum, yum".  Sam Goldwyn, the movie maker, said (approximately) "If I’d wanted to send a message, I would have used a telegram".  A Shakespeare sonnet is love poetry and art, not philosophy or a telegram.  The basic meaning may be very ordinary, perhaps even foolish or slightly embarrassing.  Don’t stop there!  The art lies in the way it is said, the images that are used, the suggestiveness of secondary and tertiary meanings which add to, play with, or perhaps even undermine, the main meanings or feelings of the poem.  For example, the word "lines" in Sonnet 16, line 9, probably incorporates the meanings of: 1) lineal descendants, 2) wrinkles, 3) lines of poetry, and possibly a suggestion of 4) loins, which was probably pronounced the same as lines in Shakespeare’s day.  Play it as a puzzle - multiple meanings - pictures - sounds - feelings; a multi-faceted jewel.

            b) Sonnets, as used in Shakespeare’s day, were primarily love poetry, and love poetry             often had sexual content, sometimes obvious but more often through punning and other secondary meanings and suggestions.   This was Renaissance, not Victorian, England.  If you think a sonnet is sexually suggestive, you are probably right.

c) Look for patterns - each quatrain may deal with a subject - time, or change, or fidelity - in a different way, with different or related types of images leading to the end couplet which makes a final comment.  Perhaps the octave asks a question which the sestet answers.

d) Look for the same word, or similar words, repeated several times throughout the sonnet - possibly with different or shaded connotations, or appraisals from different points of view, and picked up again in the couplet.

e) Look for changes in feeling, triggered by changes in images and meanings.  The emotional change in Sonnet 29, lines 10-14, is obvious and powerful.  The emotional change in Sonnet 73, lines 9-12, is subtle, as a warm glowing image supplants the prior cold and dark images.

Further Tips:

a) Read 5 times or so, letting your mind float.

            b) Read aloud - listen for the sounds - see if they evoke new meanings.  Sometimes you             will enjoy the beauty of a line, even if much of its meaning remains unclear -

"Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang".  

            c) Memorize at least one sonnet.  You’ll be amazed how much you learn about that             sonnet by the memorization process, and you’ll have a friend for life.

d) Every Sonnet interpretation is intensely personal.  Because of the way poetry is written and read - the multiple meanings, the hints and suggestions, the appeal to feelings and emotions rather than to rational clarity, the use of images - it is often difficult to know whether what I feel and see when I read a poem is what the poet consciously intended me to see, or what the poet unconsciously included (whether due to Freudian unconscious drives and meanings, or to his artistic muse and genius), or what I am unconsciously adding because the words or images evoke aspects of my personal background or imagination which are entirely unrelated to anything the author intended either consciously or unconsciously.

e) When you do refer to footnotes, evaluate them yourself for accuracy and importance.

f)  Look for suggestions and correlations with other sonnets, especially those numbered close to this one.

but one of the shakespeare.com FAQs

Copyright © 2002 Dana Spradley, Publisher, for shakespeare.com