Shakespeare’s sonnets are at once the most argued-over lyrics in the English language and vivid documents in the history of sexuality, gender, and race. As a sequence, they form one of the strangest love stories ever told: an aging, melancholic poet with a penchant for finance metaphors courts a young man first by trying to convince him that he is too good-looking not to have a wife and children (?) and second by professing love for him against the competing advances of a rival poet; the speaker then abruptly turns his attention to a “dark lady” whom he finds repellant but with whom he yearns to have sex, and when they accomplish this task he brings the sequence to a close in a heap of guilt. The speaker may or may not be Shakespeare. The Sonnets may or may not have been released in an unauthorized edition. Later editors may or may not have changed the male pronouns to female ones in order to make Shakespeare “seem straight.”
This course will move through Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1609) in its entirety, a few poems a day over the course of the term. Each session we will spend some time fine-tuning our close reading skills with individual selections. We will then work toward a rich, contextual understanding of both the sonnet form and its Shakespearean variation using classic models from the Renaissance (Petrarch, John Donne), adaptations by later poets (John Keats, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Rita Dove), theories of love and discourse (Foucault, Barthes), and related works by Shakespeare that pushed back against the tradition (Love’s Labor’s Lost, The Rape of Lucrece, Romeo and Juliet). Evaluation will be based on two special projects and a seminar paper. This class will count toward the pre-1900 requirement for the English major.
>> Full syllabus here.