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 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”), or Sonnet 29 (“When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes”) or Sonnet 65 (“Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea”).
Note: This lesson could be replaced by “Performing Sonnets” by Simon Rodberg and Caleen Sinnette Jennings on memorizing a sonnet through performance—an exercise in “close reading on your feet” in Peggy O’Brien’s words. See link in "What You Need" below.
What’s On for Today and Why
Showing one line at a time of a sonnet, or any poem, demonstrates the way it accumulates meaning and prevents students from leaping ahead to the couplet to identify the “message” of the sonnet. Going slowly, students can focus on diction and consider the multiple connotations of individual words. One can oversimplify and say, for example, that Sonnet 29 is about the transformative power of love, but this does not tell you anything about the texture and brilliance of the poem.
This lesson will take 1 x forty-five minute class period.
What To Do
1. Project the first line of the sonnet on a screen that all students can see. Ask students what they think the subject of the sonnet will be. If there are unfamiliar words, define them and ask for secondary meanings which might enrich the texture of the poem. For example, in Sonnet 29, “fortune” can mean both “wealth” and “random luck,” and suggest the Goddess Fortuna with her wheel.
2. Add the second line and ask how this second line enlarges the meaning of the first one. Go slowly, discussing each important word.
3. Continue the process, pausing at each period or semicolon to ask for a paraphrase of what the speaker of the poem has said, literally.
4. In all three of the suggested sonnets, there is a clear volta (shift) between lines 8 and 9. At the end of the octave, ask students to write for 2-3 minutes on what conclusion the poet will reach.
5. Uncover the last six lines, one by one, calling for connotations and associations with individual words, not just denotations.
6. When the whole sonnet is visible, have students read it chorally.
7. Ask for a paraphrase of the whole poem. Discuss the process by which Shakespeare arrives at the idea expressed in the couplet.
8. If time, mark the metrical pattern on the lines and discuss the effect of any variations from iambic pentameter.
9. Ask students to write in their journals for 2-3 minutes about a personal meaning the sonnet has for them and how reading it one line at a time affected their understanding of the whole poem.
What You Need
One of the following:
Screen and overhead projector
Text of a sonnet on a transparency, Smart board and text on Power Point.
Links to student laptops.
You can also use photocopies of the sonnet, double spaced, and pieces of blank paper to hide the lines not yet discussed.
The New Folger edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, or other annotated edition.
Performing Sonnets Lesson Plan
Sonnet 18, Shakespeare
Sonnet 29, Shakespeare
Sonnet 65, Shakespeare
How Did It Go?
Did students participate actively in the close reading?
Did they appear to understand the sonnet’s theme and literal meaning?
Did they understand the importance of each word in building a structure?
Did they take their thinking to a higher level of abstraction?
Did they respond emotionally as well as intellectually?
Did they find a personal connection to the sonnet?
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.
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