Jeffry C. Davis: How to Explicate a Shakespearean Sonnet

Need help with the Bard's sonnets? Here are ten steps to aid in your analysis and understanding of them.


Step 1

Read the poem carefully and think about it. Write an initial response (one paragraph). Tell what you think it means based upon your cursory reading.

Step 2

List words from the poem that need closer examination. Oftentimes poems play with the multiple denotative and connotative meanings a word can have. Therefore, look up words you think you already know. Provide a thorough definition for each word, using a college edition dictionary that gives a complete rendering of each word's meaning.

Step 3

Analyze the persona of the poem, as well as the person to whom the poem is addressed. What can you determine about the two? How is each described? What about the relationship between them? How would you characterize it?

Step 4

Scan the poem for images and symbols; try to see if they relate to a larger thematic portrait; what significance do these images and symbols have?

Step 5

Are there any metaphors or similes? What elements do they connect?

Step 6

How would you describe the tone of the poem? Is the author's attitude toward the subject humorous, ironic, sarcastic, somber...? How is this conveyed?

Step 7

What is the sequential structure of the poem? Is it narrative, descriptive, expository, or dramatic? Also, what does each quatrain focus upon? The couplet?

Step 8

What is the poem's meter, rhyme, and form?

Step 9

In a complete sentence, state what you think is the theme of the sonnet. Are there any other possible thematic statements that might also be appropriate? If so, list them.

Step 10

Write your interpretation of the poem. Your thesis will assert what you believe is the theme of the sonnet? Support your view with the material generated from the steps above; be sure to refer to the bold terms. A three-part approach may work well: an introduction which clearly states the theme; a body which carefully explains the poem in relation to the theme; a conclusion which brings some final considerations of the poem to the reader. The best response will carefully interpret the poem, being clear, precise, and persuasive.

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