Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138: A Close Reading Module



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Illustration for Shakespeare Sonnet 15
Item Title: 
Shakespeare's sonnets / illustrated by Henry Ospovat
Item Call Number: 
PR2848 1899c Sh.Col.
Item Creator: 
Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616.
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Authors: 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, also taught the Folger's "Shakespeare's Sisters" seminar.

Common Core Anchor Standards: R.1, R.2, R.5, R.9, R.10, SL.1, L.4, L.5


  • Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138
  • And for comparison: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130

Lesson Overview

This short lesson can act as a close reading module for one Shakespearean text. Sonnet 138 is accessible and witty,and is usually a favorite with students as it is about love, trust, male-female relationships, and (obliquely) sex.

Materials: The teacher should have a copy of the New Folger edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, even if the students do not.

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, 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. Encourage students to use context clues and background knowledge to reach their own definitions. They should have no trouble getting the pun in the couplet.
  4. Discuss: How do the wit and humor in this sonnet compare 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 and 138 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.


  • 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?