Archive for the ‘Sonnets’ Category

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)

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Earlier this week, we invited you to share our sonnet-writing contest with your students. And we hope you do!

Shakespeare's Sonnets

William Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Illuminated by Ross Turner, 1901. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Why teach Shakespeare’s sonnets?

  • Exploring Shakespeare’s sonnets can be a good way to introduce students to his language.
  • Many ideas and themes in the sonnets also appear in Shakespeare’s plays and can be useful lead-ins. For instance, looking at individual sonnets in Romeo and Juliet can be a door into the play.
  • The strictures of the sonnet form can inspire creativity in students.

You can find a unit plan for sonnets on our website that includes these lessons:

  • Easing into Shakespeare with a modern sonnet
  • Petrarch: Father of the sonnet
  • Juliet vs. Laura
  • Close reading
  • Writing a group sonnet
  • Sonnet performance festival
  • And more…

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Winners and runners-up from the 2013 Shakespeare's Birthday Sonnet Contest

Winners and runners-up from the 2013 Shakespeare’s Birthday Sonnet Contest, with poetry coordinator Teri Cross Davis (center), at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Each year, Folger Shakespeare Library invites students in grades 3 through 12 in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia to submit original sonnets for the annual Shakespeare’s Birthday Sonnet Contest.

We are now taking submissions for this year’s contest, marking Shakespeare’s 450th birthday!

All entries must follow Shakespearean sonnet form:

  • 14 lines of iambic pentameter
  • an ABAB-CDCD-EFEF-GG rhyme scheme

A judge will select the top sonnet in three categories: grades 3-6, grades 7-9, and grades 10-12.

Winners in each category receive a full set Shakespeare’s plays, and runners-up receive a copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Winners and runners-up are also invited to read their entries at Shakespeare’s Birthday Open House at the Folger Shakespeare Library on April 6.

Be sure to have your students send in their submissions by Friday, March 21. Please email submissions to Teri Cross Davis, at tdavis@folger.edu, or mail them to the address below.

Attn: Sonnet Contest/Poetry Coordinator
Folger Shakespeare Library 
201 East Capitol Street, SE,
Washington DC 20003.

Here’s an example of a winning entry from the grades 7-9 category, by Jennifer Owens, National Cathedral School:

A lonely figure stands beside the docks,
Not noticing the spray against her feet.
Her focus is on capturing the rocks
Where surf and salt and spray and stone all meet.

Her skillful brushstrokes toss and hurl the waves
Against the jagged outline of the sky.
Each speck of foam and breath of air she saves
No detail undetected by her eye.

The hours pass, she doesn’t seem to care,
Content to stand and paint beside the sea.
She brushes back a strand of fiery hair
That like the ocean tumbles loose and free.

And when at last the artist’s work is done,
Her two great loves have been turned into one.

Encourage your students to write sonnets of their own. We can’t wait to see what they come up with!

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Today is William Shakespeare’s 449th Birthday. Though he’s not here to celebrate with us, we enjoy celebrating him! This afternoon we’re hosting our second Electronic Field Trip in which students explore Shakespeare’s language up on their feet!

Our good friend and contributor, Holly Rodgers, and her ESL/ELL class celebrated by writing sonnets inspired by their favorite season, and a few examples are included below. How are you celebrating?

Summer Sights
By Anh Tran

Summer is here, how lovely days play out
side in the hot day play ball at the beach.
Eat ice cream on a hot day, play and shout
all day. My favorite ice cream’s mango peach.

And apple picking will be fun for one.
The summer day, I got no rules to break
or follow, but with my family have fun.
Make a cake and make a milk shake, fun take!

A break from all that homework is so great.
Summer homework is just to have some fun.
To the pool, swim, eat pizza on my plate.
Look at the sky, the clouds I see, and sun.

Can name the different clouds up in the sky.
Still see them without looking with my eye.

Summer Friend
By Hannah Tijani

A summer day is great for outdoor play.
It’s fun to go play with a big, beach ball.
I hit with my hands then I like to lay
upon the sand, then I go to the mall.

I also like to play upon the swings.
Sometimes I pump and kick my legs so high.
Feel that I almost touch the cloudy rings
of wispy puffs of cotton in the sky.

I like to go swimming at my own pool.
Sometimes I see my friends who go there, too.
The water feels so good on my skin, cool
like ice that’s melting into liquid blue.

I wish that summer didn’t have to end.
My favorite season is my best friend.

Summer Stage
By Rosana Ayala

Hot days need ice cream to go play with friends.
We sing and dance and have a lot of fun.
Chocolate and strawberry love to blend
in my mouth as to my stomach they run.

I go to the beach on hot summer days.
I play soccer on summer days with friends.
I go to pools with my sis and do plays
for my family our acting up ascends.

I like to eat mangoes on summer days.
It’s fun to let the juice drip from my lips.
I like to entertain others amaze
them with my talents like shaking my hips.

Like those Hawaiian hula dancers do.
Maybe tomorrow I’ll go to the zoo.

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August seems to be a big time of year for weddings, and Shakespeare’s sonnets are especially popular as wedding readings. They’re short, sweet, and often sound romantic. I, myself, chose Sonnet 29 to be read during my ceremony, and another friend of mine selected Sonnet 116 for hers. That same sonnet is read in Shakespeare RE-told: Much Ado About Nothing as Benedick and Beatrice prepare for Hero’s wedding and practice it as the reading. There’s a depth of meaning to be found in the sonnets – but it’s all down to who’s reading them and what they’re bringing to it.

There’s a project going on in NYC right now simply called “The Sonnet Project” in which actors will be filmed performing all 154 sonnets as a lead-up to Shakespeare’s 450th birthday on April 23, 2014. The audio album When Love Speaks features some of the most popular Shakespearean actors of our time reading Sonnets. Go to YouTube and you’ll see a host of students, actors, and fans interpreting the sonnets for themselves.

One of the reasons sonnets are so popular could be, given by Louisa Newlin and Gigi Bradford for our Teaching Sonnets Unit,: “Although many of the Sonnets are full of troubling – and fascinating –ambiguities, their tone is arresting. They are conversational, personal, and often intensely passionate …” In these short poems, we’re given Shakespeare’s lovely use of language unburdened by story or character. We, the readers, are the character, and we can interpret the poem’s meaning for ourselves.

So if you’re attending any weddings this month, listen for the reading selection. If it’s a sonnet, why did the couple choose that particular one? Which of the sonnets might your students personally relate to when they start reading the poems, and how can they express that?

I was going to post a video here, but the YouTube cache of available videos of people performing sonnets is just too large! Check it out and share your favorite in the comments!

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During this month’s Teaching Shakespeare Institute, some of our Summer Scholars have chosen to blog their experiences on their own sites, and have given permission to share some of them here. Today we’ll look back on yesterday’s very full day of activities with Greta Brasgalla:

And we are back for another week!  Today was a bit strange because we had lectures all day including an extra one in the evening.

Morning Lecture:  David Schalkwyk on The Sonnets

David is the epitome of the Shakespearean professor–suit, tie, errant hair, and British accent.  In short, completely charming to listen to.  He discussed the sonnets and some of the themes that are present.  He framed his lecture by saying his son was getting married and he wanted to read a sonnet at the wedding.  He soon discovered that none of them are appropriate.

Helen Vendler says that unlike a play, the lyric is empty of any particular voice.  Any person who speaks them, becomes them.

We learned the importance of pronouns in the sonnets.  For those of you who have no idea about this (as I did), here is a summary

  • thee and thou are used for close family, for God, and from Master to servant
  • you is more formal
  • this is similar to the use of tu and usted in Spanish

As one looks through the sonnets ( we looked at 13, 57, 58, 121, 135, 126) you see Shakespeare making use of these pronouns to emphasize his intimacy with the subject and his displeasure with their relationship.

Interesting fact:  The phrase “Do you love me?” is only used once in Shakespeare (the Tempest). “Dost thou love me?” is used many times.

Independent Research and Lunchtime Colloquium on LUNA database

We had some time after lecture to go into the Reading Room and begin research, or work with Stephen [Dickey] and Margaret [Maurer, two of TSI's resident instructing scholars] on EEBO (Early English Books Online).  Both of them really helped me find some items on my research topic:  Venice as another  “other” in Merchant and Othello.

At lunch, we learned about the LUNA database which is accessible to the public.  It hold digital images of everything the Folger has photographed over the years.  You can search “Hamlet” and find pics of costumes and renderings of productions as well as pics of the Folio.  Really great for showing your students different ways of staging a play.  Click on the link and check it out!

Curriculum Presentation:  Mary Ellen Dakin “Reading Shakespeare with Young Adults”

MaryEllen had us doing some video projects today using her idea of the relationship between the Literary/Theatrical/Cinematic connection.  MaryEllen calls this “transmediation.”

Our assignment was to film a scene, but add in scenes of us planning, expert advice, and other tidbits.  MaryEllen used the sample of Al Pacino’s “Looking for Richard” for this.  We filmed our scene and my friend Melanie did some speed editing on Moviemaker.

After dinner, we went back to the Folger for a great lecture by Ralph Cohen about the Blackfriars Theater.  Interesting that the seating in the BF was exactly the opposite of the Globe:  rich people were onstage and in the front of the theater to be seen.

A great day today made even better by the mild weather over here!

Greta heads the English Department at El Dorado Ninth Grade Academy in El Paso, TX.  She holds a Master of Arts degree in English and American Literature and a Bachelor of Arts in English and Theatre Arts from the University of Texas at El Paso, and now has 20 years of classroom experience.

Check back during the month of July for more “TSI Experiences” from participants and staff!

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As I’ve just spent several hours in my garden doing quite an onerous task, I had this thought: Shakespeare may have avoided spending lots of time back home with Ann and the kids to avoid something that all suburban homeowners know only too well–weeding.

But he cleverly included lots of references to weeds throughout his  sonnets and plays. Here are a few:

“Thy youth’s proud livery, so gazed on now, /Will be a tatter’d weed, of small worth held” Sonnet 2

“For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds; /Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.” Sonnet 94

“I must up-fill this osier cage of ours /With baleful weeds and precious-juiced flowers.” Friar Laurence from Romeo and Juliet

“‘Small herbs have grace, great weeds do grow apace: /And since, methinks, I would not grow so fast,  /Because sweet flowers are slow and weeds make haste.” York from Richard III

” O thou weed, who art so lovely fair and smell’st so sweet that the sense aches at thee, Would thou hadst ne’er been born. ” Othello

“He was met even now /As mad as the vex’d sea; singing aloud; /Crown’d with rank fumiter and  furrow-weeds, /With bur-docks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo-flowers, /Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow /In our sustaining corn.” Cordelia from King Lear

“…do not spread the compost on the weeds, /To make them ranker.  Hamlet

“Now ’tis the spring, and weeds are shallow-rooted; /Suffer them now, and they’ll o’ergrow the garden /And choke the herbs for want of husbandry. Queen Margaret from Henry VI part 2

Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners: so that if we will plant nettles, or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs, or distract it with many, either to have it sterile with idleness, or manured with industry, why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills. Iago from Othello

Then there’s this passage from Richard II:

Go, bind thou up yon dangling apricocks,
Which, like unruly children, make their sire
Stoop with oppression of their prodigal weight:
Give some supportance to the bending twigs.
Go thou, and like an executioner,
Cut off the heads of too fast growing sprays,
That look too lofty in our commonwealth:
All must be even in our government.
You thus employ’d, I will go root away
The noisome weeds, which without profit suck
The soil’s fertility from wholesome flowers.


Why should we in the compass of a pale
Keep law and form and due proportion,
Showing, as in a model, our firm estate,
When our sea-walled garden, the whole land,
Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up,
Her fruit-trees all upturned, her hedges ruin’d,
Her knots disorder’d and her wholesome herbs
Swarming with caterpillars?

And here’s Hamlet again in his famous soliloquy:

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t! ah fie! ’tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.”

And then there’s this news report which claims that our playwright may have had some added inspiration of the chemical kind.

OK, now I’ve got to get back to my “unweeded garden” because something is rotten there.

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We spend a great deal of time talking about teaching Shakespeare’s plays, but not much about the sonnets.  Until recently, we  hadn’t paid as much attention to teaching sonnets as we might have on our website of resources for teachers.  This month, Folger Education rolled out a series of new web pages devoted to the sonnets:  Why Teach  Sonnets? History of the Sonnet, and Sonnet Structure.  Have you checked them out?  They are part of the introductory material on sonnets available to teachers.  Those pages are followed by a 10-lesson unit plan that includes work by Petrarch, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Rita Dove, Carol Ann Duffy, Billy Collins and, of course, Shakespeare. The lessons can be taught in their sequential order, or teachers can select just a few to use in their classrooms.  

But maybe we’re just not teaching sonnets these days?  Are we?  Which ones? Why is it important to teach sonnets?  Shakespeare’s sonnets? Let’s hear from you!

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