Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Folger Digital Texts: Exploring Shakespeare's sonnets and poems

The Folger has just added Shakespeare’s sonnets and poems to Folger Digital Texts, which means that the complete works of Shakespeare as edited by the Folger Shakespeare Library are now available online for free. (Bonanza for teachers!)

Alberto Sangorski. Songs and Sonnets by William Shakespeare. Manuscript, 1926. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Alberto Sangorski. Songs and Sonnets by William Shakespeare. Manuscript, 1926. Folger Shakespeare Library.


Using Folger Digital Texts, you can read and search the sonnets, Lucrece, The Phoenix and the Turtle, and Venus and Adonis. It’s the same familiar text as the one that appears in the Folger Editions, so you can be confident that everything’s been vetted by the experts.

Do you need some ideas for teaching the sonnets? You can find a variety of lesson plans on the Folger website.

As for the other three poems, here’s some good contextual material to rely on:


Shakespeare’s long poem Lucrece takes place as Rome becomes a republic. As a minor epic (a popular genre in Shakespeare’s time), it centers on figures of seemingly secondary importance: Sextus Tarquinius, the king’s son, and Lucrece, the wife of his friend. (Read more)

The Phoenix and the Turtle

The poem by Shakespeare now known as “The Phoenix and Turtle,” or “The Phoenix and the Turtle,” was first printed with no title; it was one of several additional poems in the 1601 publication of a long poem by Robert Chester. In the classical tradition, the mythical phoenix consumes itself in fire, from the ashes of which another phoenix is born. In Shakespeare’s poem, the phoenix is female and the turtle (that is, a turtledove) is male. (Read more)

Venus and Adonis

With Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare launched his career as a poet. The poem is a minor epic, a genre that many poets in the 1590s chose for their first efforts. Characters in a minor epic usually come from the periphery of myth or legend; its interest is in eroticism, sophistication, and wit. Within this genre, Venus and Adonis was so successful that it was Shakespeare’s most popular published work throughout his lifetime. (Read more)


  • Wonderful! This is an enormous public service. The Folger Shakespeare Library has been so innovative in serving both the scholarly and the wider communities.

    I can’t resist commenting that the Folger editions are rather dismissive of challenges to the traditional authorship theory. I would encourage teachers to let their students know there has been some controversy on this subject. It strikes me as wrong to indoctrinate students with the traditional authorship theory, without at least informing them of the many credible people who have questioned it.

    Especially when a 2007 New York Times survey found that only 82% of Shakespeare professors in the U.S. believe there is no doubt the traditional theory is correct. If that number strikes you as surprisingly low, bear in mind that this survey was anonymous. I can attest that anyone who openly challenges the traditional theory will be met with unscholarly, personal attacks on their credibility (which leads me to assume the traditional theory lacks sufficient evidence for its defenders to stick to the facts of the matter).

    It would be ironic for the Folger to dismiss Edward de Vere’s claim to authorship, when it owns his Geneva Bible. 13% of Biblical passages echoed once in Shakespeare are marked in his Bible. But the more interest Shakespeare showed in a given verse, the more likely it is that it’s marked in de Vere’s Bible– all the way up to 88% of verses echoed six times in Shakespeare.

    Further, many psalms are marked with pointing hands (“manicules”) in the edition of the Whole Book of Psalms bound with de Vere’s Bible. This translation was used as an early “hymnal” in the Elizabethan era. The psalms marked in de Vere’s Bible pointed me to this psalm translation as the one that seems to have most influenced Shakespeare’s works– something not previously known. The journal Notes & Queries had me consolidate the ten notes I sent them on those discoveries into two long articles.

    I haven’t checked recently, but in the past the Folger’s Hamnet online catalogue even tried to downplay this important evidence, by citing a scholar who speculated that someone else marked up de Vere’s Bible.

  • Many Geneva Bibles have passages marked out — the one I have uses little right angle hooks. If you compare the lectionary in the back with the marked passages, you might find the reason for those echoes in the plays, Shakespeare and his audience knew their Bible, but they knew it best in the small chunks read out in church and at family lessons.

  • Thank you for your comments, “oschene.” Just a couple of clarifications. The Bible read in church services was, by law, the Bishops Bible. The Geneva Bible was studied at home, especially because of the voluminous commentaries printed in the margins, that emphasized a Protestant point of view. And scholars agree that the Geneva Bible most influenced Shakespeare’s works, though there are sometimes echoes of other translations.

    Roger Stritmatter’s dissertation research on de Vere’s Bible compared Shakespeare’s Biblical echoes with those of some other contemporary writers, and he found little overlap in their respective interests in Biblical passages.

    Unless one begins with absolute certainty that “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare,” his findings strongly suggest we need to re-examine the authorship question.

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