Shakespeare’s sonnets are at once the most argued-over lyrics in the English language and vivid documents in the history of sexuality, race, and gender. As a sequence, they form one of the strangest love stories ever told: an aging, melancholic poet courts a beautiful young man first by begging him to have a child and second by flattering him against the competing advances of rival poet; the speaker then abruptly turns his attention to a “dark lady” whom he finds alternately repellent and alluring, a love triangle forms, everyone has sex, and the sequence closes in a heap of self-loathing. The speaker may or may not be Shakespeare. The Sonnets may or may not have been released in an unauthorized edition. Publishers 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 ten weeks of winter quarter. Our overarching goal will be to practice what the literary critic Reuben Brower famously called “reading in slow motion,” immersing ourselves in the temporality of lyric—of literary history, of a single book—against the increasingly malignant nowness of our cultural moment. Each session we will spend time fine-tuning our close reading skills, assessing the narrative (or lack thereof), and learning to live with a very old book in all its cosmic weirdness. Ultimately we will work toward a rich, contextualized understanding of the sonnet both in its original Petrarchan and Shakespeare variations in the Renaissance and in its enduring use as the paradigmatic lyric form in contemporary literature.