Thou Maist Have Thy Will: The Sonnets of Shakespeare and His Stepsisters
"Thou Maist Have Thy Will": The Sonnets of Shakespeare and His Stepsisters
Josephine A. Roberts, Louisiana State University
One of the dangers in teaching Shakespeare's sonnets is that undergraduates may quickly become overwhelmed by the array of unanswered and unanswerable questions that surround the 1609 Quarto. When they come to the sonnets with the expectation of hearing the unmediated voice of the Bard, they confront instead a group of shifting and mysterious figures—the fair young friend(s), the rival poet, and the dark lady. If they share Wordsworth's conviction that "Shakespeare unlocked his heart" in the sonnets,1 they may follow in the wake of many earlier generations of readers who have searched in vain for a key.
To lead students into more fruitful approaches to the sonnets, I prefer to teach the sequence in conjunction with lyrics by contemporary women poets, including Elizabeth I, Aemilia Lanyer, and Lady Mary Wroth. By using a paratactic method—juxtaposing sonnets on related subjects, such as absence, night, lust, betrayal, or constancy—it is possible to see how these poets differ in their treatment of conventional motifs.2 It is also valuable to explore how Shakespeare and the women authors radically transform their Petrarchan heritage, for most of these poets are writing after the extraordinary outpouring of English sonnet sequences in the 1590s. They confront the common problem of how to write in a genre in which the female beloved is generally silent, distant, and unattainable.
One strategy to use in teaching the sonnets is to divide the class into teams, each responsible for researching and discussing a critical perspective on the poetry. Although the particular approaches listed below could easily be changed or expanded, the advantage of having students working together is the opportunity it gives them to discuss the poetry in small groups, to formulate their own interpretations, and then to share their results with the class; often the groups offer vastly different readings of the same poem, especially Sonnets 20, 93, or 116. In the first week of study on the sonnets, I generally meet with each of the teams outside of class to discuss the readings (and in some cases to provide additional reading materials, such as xeroxes of the 1609 Quarto or Wroth's manuscript poems). During the second and third weeks, the teams give their class presentations. The students working on physical features of the texts generally speak last because their topic is the least familiar and requires some extra time for preparation.
SUBJECTIVITY OF THE SONNETS
Rather than open the study of Shakespeare's sequence by analyzing Thomas Thorpe's dedication to the 1609 Quarto (this topic is actually explored by the last group), we begin with a discussion of Queen Elizabeth's "On Monsieur's Departure":
I grieve and dare not show my discontent,
I love and yet am forced to seem to hate,
I do, yet dare not say I ever meant,
I seem stark mute but inwardly do prate.
(The entire section is 8,315 words.)