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Whether you're working on a paper, or just want to explore a poem you love a little more deeply, this step-by-step guide will show you how to study one of Shakespeare's sonnets and develop a critical response.01of 06
Split Up the Quatrains
Luckily, Shakespeare's sonnets were written to a very precise poetic form. And each section (or quatrain) of the sonnet has a purpose.
The sonnet will have exactly 14 lines, split up into the following sections or "quatrains":
- Quatrain One: Lines 1-4
- Quatrain Two: Lines 5-8
- Quatrain Three: Lines 9-12
- Quatrain Four: Lines 13-14
Identify the Theme
The traditional sonnet is a 14-line discussion of an important theme (normally discussing an aspect of love).
First, try and identify what the sonnet is trying to say? What question is it asking of the reader?
The answer to this should be in the first and last quatrains: lines 1-4 and 13-14.
- Quatrain One: These first four lines should set out the subject matter of the sonnet.
- Quatrain Four: The final two lines normally attempt to conclude the subject and ask the important question at the core of the sonnet.
By comparing these two quatrains, you should be able to identify the sonnet's theme.03of 06
Identify the Point
Now you know the theme and subject matter. You next need to identify what the author is saying about it.
This is normally contained in the third quatrain, lines 9-12. The writer typically uses these four lines to extend the theme by adding a twist or complexity to the poem.
Identify what this twist or complexity is adding to the subject and you will work out what the writer is attempting to say about the theme.
Once you have some understanding of this, compare it to quatrain four. You will normally find the point that was elaborated in quatrain three reflected there.
Identify the Imagery
What makes a sonnet such a beautiful, well-crafted poem is the use of imagery. In just 14 lines, the writer has to communicate their theme through a powerful and enduring image.
- Go through the sonnet line by line, and highlight any images the author uses. What connects them? What do they say about the theme?
- Now look closely at quatrain two, lines 5-8. Typically, this is where the writer will extend the theme into imagery or a powerful metaphor.
Identify the Meter
Sonnets are written in iambic pentameter. You will see that each line has ten syllables per line, in five pairs (or feet) of stressed and unstressed beats. This is usually one unstressed (or short) beat followed by a stressed (or long) beat, a rhythm also known as an iamb: "ba-bum."
Work through each line of your sonnet and underline the stressed beats.
An example of perfectly regular iambic pentameter is the following line:
"Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May" (from Shakespeare's Sonnet 18).
If the stress pattern changes in one of the feet (pairs of beats), then focus on it and consider what the poet is attempting to highlight by varying the rhythm.06of 06
Identify the Muse
The popularity of sonnets peaked during Shakespeare's lifetime and during the Renaissance period, it was commonplace for poets to have a muse-normally a woman who served as the poet's source of inspiration.
Look back over the sonnet and use the information you have gathered so far to decide what the writer is saying about his or her muse.
This is slightly easier in Shakespeare's sonnets because his body of work is split into three distinct sections, each with a clear muse, as follows:
- The Fair Youth Sonnets (Sonnets 1-126): These are all addressed to a young man with whom the poet has a deep and loving friendship.
- The Dark Lady Sonnets (Sonnets 127-152): In sonnet 127, the so-called "dark lady" enters and immediately becomes the object of the poet's desire.
- The Greek Sonnets (Sonnets 153 and 154): The last two sonnets bear little resemblance to the Fair Youth and Dark Lady sequences. They stand alone and draw upon the Roman myth of Cupid.