Unpacking Shakespeare through his Sonnets

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SWBAT determine two or more central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to provide a complex analysis of a Shakespearean sonnet.

Big Idea

Mystery abounds as Shakespeare's sonnets astound.


This lesson focuses on Shakespeare and his sonnets.  The purpose of this lesson is to stress the importance of the sonnets in learning about Shakespeare's life and the origins of some of the themes in his works.  For example, in the last series of sonnets, Shakespeare writes about the "dark lady" and how her appearance flies in the face of the Elizabethan idea of beauty.  This theme is prevalent in Othello where the "dark" characters are good and the "fair" characters are evil.  Secondly, students will decode the sonnets in determining central ideas and any other information that helps us learn more about Shakespeare.  Students will explicate a sonnet and describe its relevance in an oral presentation.  Many of the themes in Shakespeare's sonnets will reappear in Othello.  These themes would include jealousy, beauty, and unrequited love.

Vocabulary Test: Othello Acts III and IV

30 minutes

Students will be assessed on the vocabulary given to them for Acts III and IV.  This assessment is Common Core aligned as it requires students to determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings.

Shakespearean Sonnets: Notes

10 minutes

This lesson focuses on Shakespearean Sonnets.  I would feel remiss if I didn't spend some time pointing out the significance of the sonnets since so much of what we know of Shakespeare's life has been gleaned from the sonnets.  I teach them at this point in the play because I feel students are becoming adept at grappling and decoding the language.  Depending on the aptitude of the class, sometimes I prolong this lesson if I feel students need more practice.  Understanding Shakespeare's sonnets gives students the root of where his themes and ideas came from.  Many believe the best window into his brain is through the sonnets.  I want students to have access to the intimate knowledge of Shakespeare and those life events that inspired his work.  The last section of sonnets describing the dark lady offer the best insights into the racial issues in Othello.

I begin the activity by lecturing on the definition of a sonnet and the themes and sections of Shakespeare's sonnets. Many critics believe that when read in order, Shakespeare's sonnets tell a story of his love life. (See attached link for further information). This point always gets students' interests. 

The attached Powerpoint Shakespeare and his Sonnets discusses structure and themes of all 154 sonnets.

Shakespearean Sonnet Critique Project

30 minutes

In this activity, I want students to have an opportunity to interpret and analyze a Shakespearean sonnet.  It is basically an assessment that they can manage the language of Shakespeare without my prompting.  I place students into pairs so that they can bounce ideas off each other in trying to figure out what the sonnet is about and analyze the text to extract two or more themes.  Students will follow the attached outline to create a Powerpoint presentation on the assigned sonnet.

Since much of what scholars know about Shakespeare has been extracted from his sonnets, I will ask students to draw a conclusion as to what biographical information is revealed through the text.

In assigning the sonnets, I want to choose sonnets from each of the three categories outlined in my notes.  Depending on the size of the class, I will divvy up the sonnets in order; I usually choose the most interesting and packed sonnets from each category: the young man, the love triangle, and the dark lady sonnets.  Ultimately, I will have students present the sonnets in order by category.  When we are completed with the sonnet presentation, students will write a reflection as to whether a story can be gleaned from the sonnets when they are examined in order.

Students will present their sonnets the next day in class.