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How to understand a Shakspeare sonnet

Updated on January 13, 2012

Introduction

Let's face it, Shakespeare is intimidating. His intense mastery of language and the beautiful depth of his poems and plays are often lost in the sea of centuries old phrases and pieces of a long dead dialect. This mass level of confusion resulting from his classic writing style often pushes impending readers away long before they even begin their journey into the marvelous world of lyrical genious that is any Shakespearian work. But the journey is not so diffucult, if you know where to begin, for Shakespeare did not only write massive, five act plays and long form poems, but also very significant short form poetry, in the form of 154 sonnets, small fourteen line poems. While a two thousand line play might be quite the task to handle, a fourteen line sonnet, on the other hand... But what is a Sonnet, what are the techniques that go into composing one, and how does an indivudual go about breaking it down into something understandable? If you are interested in these questions, read on my friends, read on.

What is a Sonnet?

A sonnet is a short poem, consisting of three quatrains, or stanzas containing four lines each, and a fourth stanza containing two lines. Each line also contains ten syllables. The first three stanzas build an idea, or tell a story, wile the final stanza sums up the idea, concludes the story, or gives a different view on the topic presented in the first three stanzas. Regardless of which it does, there is always a definite difference between the content of the fourth stanza and the content of the previous three. The following is Shakespeare's sonnet number LXXI (seventy-one). This particular sonnet focuses on a lover, approaching his death and urging his beloved to move on after he dies.

No longer mourn for me when I am dead

Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell

Give warning to the world that I am fled

From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell:

Nay, if you read this line, remember not

The hand that writ it, for I love you so,

That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,

If thinking on me then should make you woe.

O! if, I say, you look upon this verse,

When I perhaps compounded am with clay,

Do not so much as my poor name rehearse;

But let your love even with my life decay;

Lest the wise world should look into your moan,

And mock you with me after I am gone.

Each stanza has a rhyming pattern of ABAB, or 1,2,3,4. In other words, every other line in each stanza rhymes. For example, here is just stanza number one.

No longer mourn for me when I am dead

Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell

Give warning to the world that I am fled

From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell:

The last words of the first and third lines rhyme, as do the last words of the 2nd and fourth lines. The two same sounds are not repeated throughout the the entire poem. Instead, each stanza has it's own set of rhyming sounds, in the same pattern. For example, the second stanza is...

Nay, if you read this line, remember not

The hand that writ it, for I love you so,

That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,

If thinking on me then should make you woe.

Same pattern, different sounds. The same goes with the third stanza. The fourth, and final, stanza is a bit of an oddball, containing only two lines. These lines either rhyme or, in some cases, just have similar sounds. This one, for instance, doesn't end with a rhyme, but instead is simply two variations of the "O" sound.

Lest the wise world should look into your moan,

And mock you with me after I am gone.

Also, notice the change in content. The first three stanzas focused the lover urging his beloved to move on, while the last stanza expressed why he wants her to move on. There is a definite change in content, reflected by the change in poetic style. So now that you know the basic structure of a sonnet, it's time to get into some of the most interesting aspects of Shakespearian writing, his use of poetic techniques.

Poetic Techniques

A brilliant man once told me that, contrary to popular belief, as an actor, Shakespeare is not the hardest type of theatre to perform, but, in fact, the easiest. Shakespeare filled his work with clues telling actors, via poetic technique, exactly how to deliver each line. That is actually something to keep in mind when reading Shakespeare. Unlike many other poets and literary giants still famous today, his works were all meant to be performed on a stage. Unlike the poetry of, say, Edgar Allen Poe or the novels of Charles Dickens, none of Shakespeare's works were designed to be read quietly on a comfy chair, by the light of a warm fire, but were, instead, designed to be shouted from a stage, by actors. One mistake often made by beginners, when reading a Shakespearean sonnet for the first time, is to read the poem line by line, assuming that, as with many other poets, the sentence, or point, is supposed to stop at the end of the line. The best thing to do when reading a Shakespearean sonnet is to read all the way to the punctuation. For instance, "Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell", by itself, makes a lot less sense than, "No longer morn for me when I am dead that you shall hear the surly sullen bell give warning to the world that I am fled from this vile world with vilest worms to dwell."

Some of the basic poetic techniques Shakespeare uses to instruct actors in their line delivery are the repetition of a particular sound (eg. surly sullen bell), and the use of two variations of the same word in a single line (eg. ...this vile world with vilest worms to dwell). Another, prominent technique is the use of Iambic Pentameter,which is a poetic technique in which every other syllable within a given line is designed to be emphasised. Think of Iambic pentameter as the beat that a Sonnet is designed to follow (eg. ba-BUM ba-BUM ba-BUM, or No longer morn for me when I am dead...). When reading really let these concepts, designed to instruct actors, allow your imagination to flourish with patterns, and techniques. But even with all of these figured out, that still leaves perhaps the most frustrating and intimidating aspect of Shakspearian writing, the language.

Ye Olde English

Perhaps the single most difficult and intimidating thing about attempting to read Shakespeare is that he wrote his works in a dialect that no longer exists. Some words have different meanings or were spelled differently then, other words simply no longer exist. Shakespeare also wrote his works to be incredibly relevant to his time and culture, so, consequently, his works are full of cultural references and forms of slang which are very foreign to modern audiences. Sadly, there is no way to address this entirely in one article, due to the shear volume of references Shakespeare uses. The simplest way to tackle this is to find copies of his works that contain notes, or "translations" of various lines and references. Many reputable dealers, such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble, provide such books at a very low cost. Many Internet sources (see below) offer paraphrases of his Sonnets as well as brilliant analysis and information on the more obscure words Shakespeare uses.

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