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.
Spenser’s Sonnet XV from Amoretti and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130.
This lesson will take 1 forty-five minute class period.
What's On for Today and Why
Students will read and respond to a Shakespearean sonnet which is in the Petrarchan tradition but mocks its conventions. This lesson should begin to give them some ideas about why Shakespeare is revered more than other sonneteers.
What You Need
Spenser’s Sonnet XV or a projection of it on a smart board (A copy can be found in the plan for Lesson #3).
Shakespeare Sonnets 130, 138
For the teacher, The New Folger edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, edited by Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine, or another well-annotated edition.
Suggested Homework for the Next Lesson:
Read Sonnet 138, by Shakespeare (“When my love swears that she is full of truth.”)
Journal Writing: Ask students to write about the importance of trust in any relationship.
Sonnet 130, Shakespeare
Sonnet 138, Shakespeare
What To Do
1. Pass out copies, or project on a screen, the text of Sonnet XV, part of Edmund Spenser’s sonnet sequence, Amoretti (There is a copy of the text of the sonnet in Lesson 3). Explain that it was fashionable in the late 16th-early 17th centuries to write linked sonnets addressed to a beloved. (Amoretti contains 88 sonnets).
2. Have the students do a “read around” of Spenser’s sonnet, stop to stop (count colons and semi-colons as “stops” in this case).
3. Have a student look up the term “blazon” and choose the meaning most appropriate to describe this sonnet. Paraphrase, collectively, the first four lines. Define archaic words (ween) or forms (needeth, tradeful, spoil).
4. Discuss the poet’s attitude towards his beloved and the implications of the mercantile images he uses to describe her beauty.
5. Have students do a "read around” of the text of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, each person reading a line. Ask students to identify and define unfamiliar words and usage (Refer to the notes in the Folger edition of the sonnets).
6. Have students respond to the following questions in their journals: What’s going on in this poem? How does the poet feel about his mistress? How can you tell? Share the responses aloud.
7. Discuss the tone of Shakespeare’s sonnet. How does it compare to Spenser’s? Which specific words in Sonnet 130 lend humor to the whole?
8. Compare the diction in the two sonnets. What connotations do words like “treasure” “riches” “sapphires” have in Spenser’s, and “dun” “wires” and “reeks” have in Shakespeare’s?
9. In both sonnets, the last two lines oblige us to re-think what came before. How convincing are these final lines, in each case?
How Did It Go?
Did students gain new insights into Shakespeare’s originality?
Did they demonstrate an understanding of how Shakespeare shows off his own familiarity with sonnet conventions and, at the same time, upends them?
Did they appreciate the humor and wit in Sonnet 130?
Were they able to compare intelligently the styles and attitudes of the two poets?
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.