Shakespeare's Sonnets: Reading and Interpreting the Major Poems

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  • 2:02 What is a Sonnet?
  • 6:44 Sonnets #1-18
  • 8:11 The Fair Youth, the…
  • 10:04 Sonnet #116
  • 11:21 Sonnet #79
  • 12:15 Sonnet #130
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

In this video we'll learn about Shakespeare's sonnets, which contain some of his most famous poetry. Shakespeare addresses both a Fair Youth, speculated to be a young earl and patron, and a Dark Lady, whom he describes in frank and unromantic terms. We'll discuss the meter and rhyme scheme of the typical Shakespearean sonnet, as well as the structure of the overall work.

Shakespeare's Sonnets

'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?'

No, I don't thinks so. I don't really like summer. I burn really easily because I'm super pale, and it's too hot out to wear my jacket! Not a big fan.

It turns out that Shakespeare not a big fan of summer days either. In this famous sonnet (that's the opening of the sonnet), he quickly answers: 'Thou art more lovely and more temperate.' Meaning 'thou,' the person to whom the sonnet is addressed to. So, whoever this person is is 'more lovely and more temperate' than a summer's day, which I can heartily agree with even without knowing that person. 'Temperate' seems to be a bit of a pun, because it can mean mild climate, and it can also mean self-restrained. So you're not as hot as summer (yay!), but it also means that you're even-keeled, even-tempered and you're not going to freak out about stuff.

This is 'Sonnet 18', which is really one of the most famous sonnets that Shakespeare ever wrote. He wrote a bunch of them; he wrote 154! So, it's kind of high praise. Are we going to talk about all of them in this video, you may be wondering with dread in your heart. No, we're not going to! You might also be wondering if you have to read all of them. No, you don't!

The Sonnets are kind of the English Lit type person's first experience with talking about stuff that you've only read part of. Once you get to Paradise Lost, the Sonnets don't seem nearly so bad, and you get incidentally exposed to a lot of them if you read and do a lot of lit stuff.

But since it can be daunting to read 154 sonnets all at once (and have coherent thoughts about them and be reading carefully), we English-type folks have all kinds of ways of talking about the Sonnets while only reading a few famous ones really closely. So listen hard, young grasshopper, and I will share with you the secrets of 'distant-reading' the Sonnets. So here we go.

What Is a Sonnet?

You already know your first fact about the Sonnets as a group: there are 154 of them. Second fact would probably be what a sonnet really is, so let's talk about that.

A sonnet, you have hopefully gleaned by now, is a type of poem. It's a short poem. We love sonnets because they're only 14 lines long. They're never longer than 14 lines. Also, they're never shorter than 14 lines, so if that's a problem, you may want to stick to haikus. Maybe that will be your area. There are a few sonnets in Shakespeare's cycle that violate one or more of the sonnet rules (including the length rule), but in general, this is how it works. There are a bunch of different kinds of sonnets in the world. They're distinguished from each other by what type of rhyme scheme they use; they all have 14 lines.

Guess which type of sonnet Shakespeare wrote. If you guessed c (English/Shakespearean Sonnet), you're correct! Shakespeare was such an important sonnet-writer that they named the rhyme scheme he used after him - Shakespearean sonnet!

So what was this rhyme scheme? We're going to take a look at the rest of that summer's day sonnet (remember, number 18), and we're going to figure out what's going on with the rhyme scheme. We're just going to read the whole thing because it's pretty. So, here we go:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer's lease hath all too short a date:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimmed,

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed:

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,

Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

So what do we see vis-a-vis the whole rhyming situation? You can basically divide this thing into three 'quatrains' and a 'couplet.' A la 'quartet,' or 'cuatro' in Spanish, 'quatrain' just means a set of four lines, pretty easy. And a 'couplet' just means a set of two, like a 'couple,' or one of my favorite British TV show, Coupling.

The first quatrain rhymes a/b/a/b, the second c/d/c/d and the third e/f/e/f. And the final couplet rhymes g/g. So 'day' and 'May' rhyme, temperate and date (kind of) rhyme; Shakespeare gets a little fuzzy with this stuff sometimes.

And then 'shines' and 'declines', 'dimmed' and 'untrimmed.' But they're not related to 'day' or 'temperate' from the first quatrain; it's a new set of rhymes in the second quatrain (that's the c/d/c/d part). So that's the rhyme scheme.

Now we're going to take a look at something called 'meter,' which is another distinguishing factor of sonnets in general. Meter, most simply, is just defined as the rhythm of a poem, how you pause and emphasize as you read along. Shakespeare's sonnets are written in a kind of meter called iambic pentameter. Iambic refers to the fact that the lines are divided into 'iambs,' which are basically two-syllable 'feet' with the emphasis light-STRONG. There are tons of types of 'feet.' Feet is just another way to say metrical divisions, so a set of syllables. There are things called trochees that go STRONG-light. And one of my favorite, an anapest, has three syllables, and it goes light-light-STRONG. So, iambs go light-STRONG and are just two syllables that go like that.

Pentameter means there are five iambs to a line. Think pent like in pentagon. Shakespeare is a huge fan of iambic pentameter and uses it all the time. Probably because, unlike some other meters, which can sound sing-songy, you barely notice it's there.

If you go iambic trimeter, which has three iambs per line (so it has six syllables total), it sounds kind of like a chant. 'I LOVE the JOcund DANCE, / The SOFTly BREATHing SONG.' Anapestic tetrameter (that's a fun one) has four anapests per line. It sounds like Dr. Seuss: 'Every WHO down in WHO-ville liked CHRISTmas a LOT. But the GRINCH who lived JUST north of WHOville did NOT.' But 'Shall I compARE thee TO a SUMmer's DAY?' when you read it, sounds pretty natural, even when I over-emphasize the syllables. So, that's why he chooses iambic pentameter.

Sonnets #1-18

Now I've bored you to death talking about meter, but it's important so I hope you listened. We're going to talk a bit more about what this sonnet means.

It's the 18th in the sequence. One through 17 were explicitly about encouraging a young man to have children. They're called the 'procreation sonnets,' actually, in reference to this. Number 18 doesn't do this; it's the first one to shift away from that. It praises pure beauty, is what it does. He's saying that the beloved is better than a summer's day for so many reasons, and he names all the reasons.

And as Shakespearean sonnets are wont to do, each quatrain develops the idea further of why the beloved is so much better. Summer still might be windy and nasty ('rough winds do shake the darling buds of May') and even if it's nice, it goes by too quickly ('summer's lease hath all too short a date'). Sometimes it's too hot, and sometimes it's cloudy. 'But thy eternal summer shall not fade;' you'll always be awesome, whereas summer is only kind of awesome only sometimes.

In his couplet, what Shakespeare likes to do is makes some kind of clever turn or new take on his material. In this couplet, he's true to form. What he's saying is that the beloved's eternal summer will not fade because it is preserved in art 'so long lives this, and this gives life to thee.' A lot of his sonnets do this; a lot are self-referential in this way, talking about what they do as poems.

The Fair Youth, the Rival & the Dark Lady

So, I eluded to this a bit, but what is the overall structure of Shakespeare's sonnet sequence? And what are a couple more famous ones that you should know? We'll go over bits and pieces of them. Again, distant reading of the sonnets, that's what we're up to.

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