Quick Ideas on Teaching Poetry – Shakespeare’s Sonnets

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  • I have a strong bent toward teaching poetry. And I notice that some readers have been searching for guidance. So, I don’t know how innovative my ideas are, but any ideas might be useful. So… I thought I’d write up some quick posts when the thought occurs to me.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Sonnets FrontpieceIf your job is to introduce students to Shakespeare’s Sonnets. First, read  my two posts: What is: Shakespearean, Spenserian and Patrarchan Sonnets and Iambic Pentameter and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. There’s much good information in these posts that may inspire further avenues for exploration.

The thing to remember, in teaching the sonnets, is that these are the works of a Dramatist. We tend to think of Shakespeare as a poet (when reading the sonnets) but Shakespeare’s foremost instincts were always that of a Dramatist. (By contrast, I would call Keats a poet first and an aspiring dramatist second.)

Think of each sonnet as a soliloquy or think of them as characters in a play responding to another character. Or, similarly, you could think of each sonnet as a letter written in response to a missing letter.

150px-shakespeareConsider having your students write the missing letters or write the missing speech to which the sonnets are responding. The advantage to teaching the sonnets in this light is that it enforces the perception that Shakespeare was not writing detached Romantic Poetry. This sort of poetic conception didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s day. The Elizabethans were trained rhetoricians who reveled in disputation, debate and wit. Nearly all of Elizabethan poetry is written to someone or in response to someone. They are meant to display wit, inventiveness and rhetorical prowess.

If you feel like challenging your students, have them write one heroic couplet, summing up the argument to which Shakespeare will respond. The exercise will help students think like Shakespeare and the Elizabethans.