Louisa Newlin taught high school English for more than 40 years. She wrote "Nice Guys Finish Dead: Teaching Henry IV, Part I in High School" for the Shakespeare Set Free series. She leads workshops on sonnets for teachers.
Gigi Bradford, former director of the NEA Literature Program and Folger Poetry Series, currently teaches the Folger's "Shakspeare's Sisters" seminar.
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138
What's On for Today and Why
This is a short lesson which can either start off Lesson 6, which usually takes 20-25 minutes, or, time permitting, be appended to Lesson 4.
Sonnet 138, accessible and witty, is usually a favorite with students as it is about love, trust, male-female relationships, and (obliquely) sex.
What You Need
Copies of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138 (A copy can also be found in Lesson 4). Again, the teacher should have a copy of the New Folger edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets or other annotated edition, even if the students do not.
Sonnet 138, Shakespeare
What To Do
1. Have students read the text aloud in four groups, one for each quatrain and one for the couplet. This emphasizes the structure of the poem, which, unlike Sonnet 130 read in the previous lesson, has a clear volta between octave and sestet.
2. Ask students what is going on in the poem. To whom do they imagine the poet is speaking? How would they describe the relationship between the two lovers?
3. Check with students to make sure they understand the meaning/sense of “untutored” “vainly,” “simply,” “credit,” “unjust” – all the words that we still use but which have other meanings now. They should have no trouble getting the pun in the couplet.
4. Discuss: How does the wit and humor in this sonnet compared to that in Sonnet 130? Are there differences in tone? In what ways can both be said to be “Anti-Petrarchan”?
5. Sonnets 127-152 are often referred to as the “Dark Lady” sonnets. Ask students to write responses to the following questions in their journals: Do you think that Sonnets 130 and138 are about the same woman? Why or why not? Share these responses. If students did the suggested homework for this lesson (writing on the importance of the trust in relationships) these could be shared now.
How Did It Go?
Were students able to explicate the sonnet without much difficulty?
Are they increasingly comfortable reading Shakespeare?
Did they enjoy reading and discussing the poem?
Do they express interest in reading more sonnets?
If you used this lesson, we would like to hear how it went and about any adaptations you made to suit the needs of YOUR students.