By Kevin Costa
Shakespeare’s Sonnets are fantastic for so many reasons. Peter O’Toole, in an interview on NPR a few years ago, said, “They’re my life companion. They’re at the side of my bed. They travel with me. I pick them up, and I read them all the time. I find them endlessly informing, endlessly beautiful, endlessly – they say, they hit the spot so many times on so many things.”
He’s right. I find myself turning to the Sonnets in times when I’m looking for a companion who seems to understand me before I myself do — and, let’s be honest: isn’t that why we love literature in the first place?
When I with my students, I like to emphasize how “companionable,” to borrow a word from Yeats, poetry can be. The greatest lyric poetry feels like that friend you turn to who just “gets” you. There is no judgement but only unconditional love from a poem. I start there.
Years ago, I remember watching Trevor Nunn working with David Suchet on what would later become the series, Playing Shakespeare. Nunn asked Suchet to perform Sonnet 138 as if it were Suchet’s part of the dialogue in an imagined scenario. I was riveted. Understanding Shakespeare for the stage was the object there, but I have found this approach to be a superb way of achieving all the objectives of close reading in and English classroom. Laurence Perrine would approve!
With lyric poetry, we often feel that a person is right there speaking to us or, at least, to another person. A poem, in other words, gives us a character. And this is where you might begin, too. Let us look at Sonnet 18.
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 wand’rest 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.
Okay, now where to begin? To start, get students in pairs and have them pick a Sonnet (or you can pick one for them, if you wish). Or the whole class can work on the same one; we’re doing Sonnnet 18 here, but in your class, it’s up to you. Have the student(s) speak their poem aloud to each other, and then have them respond to these questions together: What do you think the speaker is talking about? To whom? What words jump out? Ask students to repeat this a few times. They should also use a dictionary to look up words they don’t know or don’t know well. I urge my students to put a dictionary on their phones, if they own one.
Once they have a working understanding of the poem, get students to imagine a scenario inspired the by specifics of the sonnet. Where, for instance, would this sonnet take place in a larger play? Why would a person need to speak these lines to that person in this particular way? Are they in a house? A Starbucks? What is the relationship between both people?
Some of my students have performed Sonnet 18 over the years, and they’ve come up with a range of scenarios. Most recently, one student imagined this sonnet to be delivered to a close friend who was suffering from very low morale. I asked them to improvise some dialogue to set the scene and told the speaker of the sonnet to simply jump into Shakespeare’s text whenever the right moment came. It’s always fun.
It’s also a rigorous, memorable way to teach poetry at the same time that that it encourages deep learning. So, let’s say that a student is now really familiar with poem or even has it memorized. And this student has a scenario and is playing it out with a classmate. You’re now ready to help them discover the function of traditional elements like imagery, connotation, rhythm, meter, syntax, line breaks, and so on.
In Sonnet 18, for instance, one could argue that the speaker’s whole argument is made in the first two lines. The speaker asks a question and then answers it in line two: “Should I compare you to a summer day; I could, but you’re better.” But clearly that doesn’t do enough, right? The speaker needs to continue in order to convince his or her friend that he or she achieves a perfection that surpasses the ostensible perfection of a summer’s day.
By putting this poem in an imagined scenario, then, students experience how a lyric poem explores an idea and that this idea is “on the move,” so to speak. Students can perhaps also see that imagery, to alight on one element, isn’t there for decoration; rather, it’s there to support and voice an evolving experience. In other words, performance underscores how a poem — however short — isn’t a static group of words but is, rather, a living, emerging event.
You, the teacher, can coax these discoveries in your students. Ask your students, when they perform the sonnet, to discover each image as they arise in the poem. Tell them that each image is like a key on a big key ring and that each discovery of an image is the speaker trying it in a lock to see if a closed door opens. Here, the closed door is the friend with low morale.
When one key doesn’t work, it’s time to try another — and so the next image is discovered. And then you might ask your students why this word might come before that one. And then you might ask them to describe how the words feel when speaking. Is the experience one of smoothness or do the words feel rough? If the expected de DUM / de DUM / de DUM / de DUM / de DUM of the iambic pentameter is broken up, as one could argue is the case at the start of line three (“Rough winds,” a spondee), then how does this disruption emphasize the sense of the line there? Again, performing this spondaic foot will throw up all kinds of clues about how form and content blend to create a potent event.
This kind of work takes time, but it’s worth it. Once students own a poem from the inside out, they’ll be more likely to read more than just the cartoons in The New Yorker. And when they think of rhythm and meter as tools for performance, then they are more likely to understand why we care about scansion at all.
Try this out. And don’t just stick with Shakespeare. Try it with John Donne’s “The Sun Rising,” with Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz,” Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Love is Not All,” or Sharon Olds’s “I Go Back to May 1937.” It all works. And you’ll like it. Trust me.
Kevin J. Costa is a Teaching Shakespeare Institute 2010 alumnus and Director of the Fine and Performing Arts at McDonogh School in Owings Mills, MD.