Teaching William Shakespeare’s sonnets is a great way to introduce Shakespeare to students because the texts are so short they are like a bite-sized introduction to Shakespeare.
It’s far easier to convince students to analyze something that’s only 14 lines long, as opposed to something like Hamlet, which weighs in at about 4000 lines.
And like all of the Bard’s plays, William Shakespeare’s sonnets deal with universal themes such as love, lust, death, aging, time, beauty, and fidelity.
Tip #1 for teaching William Shakespeare’s sonnets: Take away the fear of Shakespeare
As I explained in this post, one of the biggest problems students have with Shakespeare is the fear of his language. All the thees and thous become confusing, many expressions are archaic, and many students can struggle with Shakespeare’s figurative language.
Heck, many students struggle with literal language, let alone words arranged in iambic pentameter with strange pronouns, unfamiliar vocabulary, and over four hundred years removed from the vernacular they are familiar with.
One of my favorite ways to combat the fear of Shakespearean language is to use my Shakespearean insults lesson as one of the introductory lessons about Shakespeare.
The Shakespearean insults lesson is not only fun, but it’s also funny and powerful. By showing that Shakespeare was messing around, cracking jokes, and basically writing Elizabethan sitcoms, students can realize that they don’t need to be afraid.
Other great ways to take away the fear of Shakespeare include
- Watching summaries and analysis of Shakespearean plays by Crash Course Literature, such as Hamlet (video 1 and video 2), Macbeth (video 1 and video 2), and Romeo and Juliet (video 1 and video 2)
- Watching summary and analysis of Shakespearean sonnets by Crash Course Literature
- Watching annotated summaries of Shakespearean plays by Overly Sarcastic Productions, such as Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Othello and more
- Listening to podcasts or watching videos that summarize the plays by Thug Notes, such as Macbeth and Romeo and Juilet (although ensure you pre-view these as they do have language and content warnings)
- Listening to podcasts that analyze the plays such as The Play’s the Thing, which analyzes Shakespeare’s plays one act at a time, or #SuchStuff a podcast that explores Shakespeare’s impact on the world, or No Holds Bard which has funny summaries of plays as well as how to use Shakespearean quotes in real life
- Listen to the sonnets being read by Sir Patrick Steward on Instagram (you can find them using the hashtag #ASonnetADay)
- Send students on a research quest to answer questions such as when were Shakespeare’s sonnets written, which texts are William Shakespeare’s famous sonnets and why that may be, or when were Shakespeare’s sonnets published
Tip #2: Why did Shakespeare write sonnets
Another great tip to use sonnets to introduce Shakespeare to your students is to answer the question, why did Shakespeare write sonnets?.
Historians speculate that Shakespeare wrote his poetry, including his sonnets, as a way to earn money while theaters were closed in London in 1592 during an outbreak of the Bubonic Plague.
Sonnets were also a popular form of poetry at the time, and poetry was a way for Shakespeare to bolster his reputation as a serious writer. During Shakespeare’s time, playwrights were considered to be less artistically talented than poets.
A few great videos to get students to learn about Shakespeare and his times are
- Crash Course Theater and Drama 14 – Straight Outta Stratford-Upon-Avon
- Crash Course Theater and Drama 15 – Shakespeare’s tragedies and an acting lesson
- Crash Course Theater and Drama 16 – Comedies, romances, and Shakespeare’s heroines
Tip #3: How to read William Shakespeare’s sonnets
The third tip for teaching William Shakespeare’s sonnets is to actually show students how to read and analyze Shakespeare’s sonnets. Because students will absolutely need to be shown how to analyze the Bard’s work.
Explicit teaching of the structure of a Shakespearean sonnet is helpful. An easy way to cover this is to have students research and answer questions such as
- How many lines are in Shakespearean sonnets?
- What is the rhyming scheme in Shakespearean sonnets?
- What topics or themes are covered in the sonnets?
- Are there changes and/or continuity throughout the sonnets?
- Are there ‘characters’ in the sonnets?
An easy way to do this is to watch the Crash Course Literature video about Shakespeare’s sonnets and use this worksheet.
The worksheet and video step through three of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Sonnet 18, Sonnet 116, and Sonnet 130.
After doing that, you have a few options, you could
- Get students to do a one-pager of a sonnet from the video
- Ask students to write analytical responses using one of the sonnets from the video
- Give students copies of unfamiliar sonnets to discuss and analyze in small groups
- Get students to analyze an unfamiliar sonnet on their own
This is a fast, easy, low-prep way to teach students how to read William Shakespeare’s sonnets, scaffold practice, and enable students to analyze Shakespeare’s sonnets independently.
Tip #4: Make sure you’re teaching Shakespearean English
One of the struggles that students often have with Shakespeare is the unfamiliar language. An easy way to overcome this and to begin teaching Shakespearean language is to have students practice ‘translating’ Shakespearean English into contemporary English.
Students can do this using a Shakespearean insults lesson and translator worksheet, such as this one here that I love using with my students. If you want to know more about running a Shakespearean insults lesson, check out this blog post.
Another option for teaching Shakespearean English is to get students to translate lines from plays or poems using the Shakespeare to English translator.
If your school has the budget, you can also order No Fear Shakespeare books or graphic novel adaptations of the plays you wish to study.
Tip #5: Why do we teach Shakespeare?
Another tip for teaching William Shakespeare’s sonnets is to explain why we are still teaching about Shakespeare hundreds of years later.
You can either go general and mention common reasons such as
- his plays and poetry address universal human themes
- Shakespeare’s language is beautiful
- explaining the many ways Shakespeare has influenced humans
- or, that understanding how to read difficult language is important
Or you can be specific about why YOU teach Shakespeare. For more ideas about this, see this blog post here.
Either way, it’s important to address the elephant in the room: why teach Shakespeare today. Otherwise, your students will likely tune out and give up within the first five minutes.
Tip #6: Give some context about Shakespeare and his time
Another great way to teach William Shakespeare’s sonnets is to give students some context about Shakespeare’s times. Easy ways to do this include
- Watching a documentary about Shakespeare and Elizabethan England
- This day in the life of Shakespeare timeline by the BBC
- Explore this webpage by the BBC about why Shakespeare is special
- Watching the Crash Course Theater and Drama video about Shakespeare’s life
Tip #7: Find fun ways to teach Shakespeare
The last tip we have to teach your students William Shakespeare’s sonnets is to find fun activities for students to do. Our favorite fun Shakespeare activities are listed below
- Shakespearean insults lesson
- Watching the Crash Course Literature videos and using my fun visual note-taking worksheets
- Exploring some of the BBC’s fun bitesize Shakespeare activities
- Watching the Crash Course Theater and Drama videos and using my fun worksheets
- Exploring whether Shakespeare wrote Star Wars
Want more ideas for teaching Shakespeare?
Hopefully, you’re not still worrying about how to teach Shakespeare. If you want to find out more about teaching Shakespeare, check out these blog posts with ideas, resources, activities, and worksheets for teaching Shakespeare
- 13 easy, engaging lessons for Romeo and Juliet
- 12 excellent teaching resources for Macbeth – make Macbeth easy
- Fun, engaging, and easy Shakespearean insults lesson you have to try
- Teaching Shakespeare in high school 7 easy tips
- 5 awesome free resources to teach Shakespeare
- 15+ worksheets on Shakespeare for your ELA classroom
- 20 ‘best of Shakespeare’ quotes for your ELA classroom