Helping student understand the sonnets:
I’m a believer in the value of having students read sonnets aloud. For an assignment, have each student pick a sonnet to recite to the class. (I do not allow students to pick familiar sonnets, such as “Shall I compare thee.”) In order to recite the sonnet successfully, the student will need to understand the syntax, vocabulary and overall meaning of the sonnet, as well as develop an interpretation of the sonnet’s tone, which can often be changing or ambiguous. By reciting the sonnets, students can also get a sense of how the form of the sonnets, especially its three quatrain and couplet structure, works with the sonnet’s content. I also like this assignment because students have fun listening to one another read (I always make sure there’s clapping after each recitation). A lot of people have posted readings of the sonnets on YouTube. The class could watch some of these, or even post its own. There are professional recordings of readings of the sonnets, including by Sir John Gielgud and by Helen Vendler (selected sonnets were included with the hardcover edition of her book; I’m not sure about the paperback edition).
Helping students engage with the sonnets:
The sonnets deserve their fame, but they are also a victim of their own success. Because they are now so celebrated it is hard for students to hear how uncertain the feelings expressed in the sonnets often are, or to imagine how risky many of the feelings expressed could be. As a result, students sometimes find the sonnets romantic but not relevant (just “flowery poetry”). So have the students pretend that the sonnets they are reading have been sent by a not very well known admirer (situation: a not well known “friend” sends you the sonnet over Facebook) . How would your students feel about the sonnet? Would they like it? Feel complimented? Pursued? Flattered? Lied to? What impression would they form of the sonnets’ writer?
Helping students appreciate the poetry of the sonnets:
Consider having students focus on the language rather than moving directly to a discussion of the sonnet’s meaning. Students could pick one sonnet and list the following:
• The rhymed words and their division into quatrains and couplet.
• Patterns of repetition including sound patterns (alliteration, assonance, consonance) and word patterns (kinds of repetition such as parallelism or antithesis)
• Wordplay such as puns
• Metonymy and ellipses: these are two figures of speech that make for the compressed language of the sonnets (and often make their reading difficult for students). Metonymy involves the substitution of part for whole (as in “crown” to mean “king”), ellipses the omission of words (e.g. as in the colloquial phrase “see you” for “I will see you later.”)
• Sources of comparison: identify the metaphors or similes in the sonnet and describe what other language (sight, sea voyages, law, music, etc.) they are taken from. How many languages in one sonnet can the students find? Then describe what the comparison is to, and (if you want students to start thinking further about meaning) why Shakespeare picks–or moves between–various languages.
I recommend the website Silva Rhetoricae, with its fantastic lists and categorization or Renaissance and classical rhetoric, to help guide students through this kind of analysis. The benefit here is that when students do discuss the meaning of the sonnet, they will have a much better idea of what they are discussing if they have done this formal analysis first. And at least as important: students will develop a sense of the great artistry of the sonnets.
Helping students understand the sonnets in historical terms:
While we don’t know a lot about why or to whom Shakespeare wrote his sonnets (if anyone), we do know some things, such as the motives writers had for composing sonnets in the Renaissance. And there is broad agreement on other matters, such as the division of the sonnets into a larger group (1-126) written to or about a man, and a smaller group (128-154) written about or to a woman. Students might explore the differences between how Shakespeare writes sonnets for the man versus how he writes sonnets for the woman–you could also consider the “love triangle” sonnets 40-42. Why might there be these differences? What do they tell us about ideas of men or women in the Renaissance? How might these ideas be connected to what we see in Shakespeare’s plays (if you’re reading any: Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night or Othello would work well). Do we share any of these ideas? Depending on your situation and inclination you could also discuss the sexuality of the sonnets. (For reasons I set out in my book, I think no one who reads the sonnets should be unaware of the likely male recipient of many, and the explicitly male recipient of some). The attitude toward the male recipient is often described as platonic or spiritual. Does this claim seem persuasive?
Helping students appreciate the importance of reception:
I think that it is important to reflect on how the framing of a work of literature affects how we read. And the sonnets are especially interesting in this regard because of the variety of ways they have been framed. Have students go to a bookstore and look at the covers of various editions of the sonnets. What do the different illustrations communicate about the sonnets or how do they shape a reader’s expectations for them? How many different ways of framing can the student find? Does the visual framing go well with the content? What other kinds of framing are there, such as in the editor’s introduction?. This assignment is also useful in helping students think of literature as something human and shaped, not descended out of nowhere as “classics” (the idea of the “classic,” I believe, creates student/reader passivity toward the literary text).