Questions on Shakespeare’s Sonnets

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Shakespeare, William. Selected Sonnets. Read at least the following: 15-16, 20, 30, 35, 41-42, 55, 60, 73, 77, 83, 87, 88, 94, 97, 106-07, 110-11, 116, 124, 129-30, 133-34, 138, 144. (Norton Romances, 2nd ed. 597-659).

Note: The rhyme pattern for an English sonnet is abab cdcd efef gg. Three quatrains (four-line units) and a concluding couplet that comments in some manner on the subject of the quatrains. “Sonnet 130” illustrates the possibilities of this structure well: the three quatrains make fun of Petrarchan over-praising, and the final couplet overturns the mocking tone by genuinely praising the love object. “Sonnet 73” with its succession of metaphors and neat summation-couplet, exemplifies the “sugared style” of many of the poems (i.e. the piling up and development of a series of metaphors, often one per quatrain) of sonnetry. The 154 sonnets are divided broadly between 1-126, which are supposedly addressed to “a fair young man” and 127-54, which are addressed to “a dark (-haired) lady.”



1. In “Sonnet 15,” examine the progression of metaphors in the first and second quatrains and the shift to personification in the third quatrain (“quatrains” are four-line units). How is this progression typical of Shakespeare’s sonnet form?

2. In “Sonnet 15,” how is “Time” a kind of artist, one that rivals the poet himself?

3. What claim does the poet make in the final couplet? Explain how the word “ingraft” (i.e. graft, engraft) is central to this claim — what is the provenance of this word, and what does it mean in the context of this poem? Consider how the term “ingraft” figure relates to the theme of “nature” developed earlier in the sonnet.


4. How does “Sonnet 16” turn against the claim set forth in “Sonnet 15”? What paradox does the final couplet reinforce?


5. How does “Sonnet 20” construe the difference between male friendship and sexual relationships between men and women? Moreover, in what way is the speaker playful in describing the male friend’s gender and appearance?


6. Examine the basic conceit of “Sonnet 30” (as evidenced in words such as “sessions,” “summon up,” “expense,” “cancelled,” “pay,” etc.): to what is the speaker comparing the process of grieving and loss?

7. In “Sonnet 30,” observe the poem’s rhetorical sequence: “When… Then… Then… But if….” Is the antithetical final couplet (13-14) convincing? Why or why not? Which part of the sonnet predominates — the first three quatrains taken as a unit or the final couplet? Explain your rationale for responding as you do.


8. In “Sonnet 35,” what seems to be the nature of the “trespass” that the speaker’s friend has committed? How is the speaker complicit in this trespass, even if indirectly? How does this sonnet pay testament to the confusion that accompanies strong emotional connections between friends or lovers?


9. What event or situation do “Sonnets 41-42” describe when taken together? How does the speaker try to resolve his dilemma? How convincing do you find this attempt, and why?


10. In “Sonnet 55,” the addressee is promised a species of immortality. How, then, is poetry supposedly better than the “gilded monuments” of the great? When the speaker says the addressee will “live” (14) in the sonnet, what kind of immortality is meant? How do you interpret the poem’s concluding thought that the addressee will “dwell in lovers’ eyes” (14)?


11. Consider “Sonnet 60’s” three quatrains separately — how does each reiterate or inflect the basic idea that the speaker is conveying? How does the poet’s “verse” (13) supposedly defeat the effects of time?


12. In “Sonnet 73,” what different metaphors govern the three quatrains? How do these metaphors represent the passage of time and the speaker’s stage of life? Is time construed as an enemy as in some of the other sonnets, or does this poem treat it differently? Explain.


13. In “Sonnet 77,” what engagement with the sonnets does the speaker enjoin for the addressee? What power does writing possess, in the context of this sonnet?


14. In “Sonnet 83,” how does the speaker differentiate himself and his verse from the rival poet and his efforts? What does he identify as the cause of his temporary falling-out with the addressee of the sonnet?

SONNET 87-88

15. In “Sonnet 87,” how does the speaker characterize his friendship with “the fair youth”? What is required on the part of the older friend (the poet), and what privileged status is granted to the younger?


16. What distinction does “Sonnet 94” make between the moral power of self-possession and physical attractiveness? At what point does this sonnet transition from idealism to disillusionment?


17. In “Sonnet 97,” what states of mind does the speaker associate with winter, autumn, and summer, respectively? How does the speaker’s current sensibility affect his perceptions of natural processes going on around him?


18. In “Sonnet 106,” the speaker exalts the excellence and attractiveness of the addressee at the expense of all previous verse. What were those previous poets, then, describing? But in what respect do present poets — the speaker included — also fail? What is it that they are unable to describe?


19. Compare “Sonnet 107” to “Sonnet 55,” another poem about the poet’s ability to grant or attain immortality through verse. What twist does the present sonnet add to the basic theme — how will the poet himself triumph over Death? What value will the sonnets have for their addressee?

SONNET 110-11

20. Taken together, what story do “Sonnets 110-11” tell about the speaker’s conduct? What reference to his profession as poet/actor does the second of the two sonnets apparently make?


21. What ideal of love does “Sonnet 116” advance? Against what less idealistic definition or understanding of that concept does the poem declare itself, by implication? Is the concluding couplet an effective way to end the argument? Why or why not?


22. In “Sonnet 124,” how does the speaker delineate an unchanging, ideal love by means of negations and references to the realm of politics? How do you interpret the final couplet, with its ambiguous reference to “fools of Time, / Which {i.e. who} die for goodness, who have lived for crime” (13-14)?



23. Consider the imagery in “Sonnet 129” — how does such imagery constitute a departure from Shakespeare’s “sugared style” (i.e. the piling up and development of a series of metaphors, often one per quatrain) of sonnetry? Why is the subject that the poem deals with difficult to render in images?

24. Explain how the rhythmic and descriptive qualities of “Sonnet 129” accord with its theme. (Reading the poem aloud will help you respond.)


25. How does “Sonnet 130” call into question the old Petrarchan manner in love poetry? What counter-standard of excellence does the poem advance to replace Petrarchan idealism?

SONNET 133-34

26. How might “Sonnets 133-34” be interpreted as a disillusioned remake of “Sonnets 41-42”? How do the economic references to debt, bonds, and so forth help the speaker describe the confusions inherent in the kind of love triangle in which he is enmeshed?


27. How does “Sonnet 138” deflate courtly pretensions regarding love and expression? Since the poet dismisses “simple truth” (8), what quality or attitude keeps the relationship between the two lovers sound? In responding, refer to the final couplet and its ambivalent use of the word, “lie.” What does “lie” mean in this context?


28. How does “Sonnet 144” describe the “dark lady” as nothing less than the source of corruption and evil? What is the threat presented by female sexuality in this poem, with its traditionalist misogynistic leanings? How does the speaker situate himself between his male friend and the “dark lady”?

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake