English 189-1 - Fall, 2014

Seminar in Literary Studies

    Topic: Shakespeare's Sonnets

Class Information

Instructor: Levin, Richard
CRN: 42531
Time: MW 2:40-4:00
Location: 308 Voorhies


    After briefly considering the background of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, we will spend the balance of the term on the sonnets themselves. Taken individually, these sonnets are very rich; taken together–they are 154 in all–they seem to lead to the imaginative core of Shakespeare’s works, even if they are not autobiographical in any strict sense. The sonnets show the speaker engaged in two relationships. One, with a young, well-born man, elicits from the speaker a strain of exalted affection. The other, with a woman he accuses of loose morals, calls forth an emotion that one critic describes as “cruder than love and finer than lust.” The speaker’s feelings become even more complicated when the mistress and the friend commence to have an affair with one another. The speaker must now examine the meaning of love, friendship, and betrayal. Reluctant to cast all blame on others, he examines how the love triangle reveals his own character, including his faults of character. He considers, moreover, his artistic and professional choices, for the friend is his literary patron, and when the friendship falters, the speaker explores the disadvantages of depending on patronage. By identifying pressing personal and career concerns in the “rag-and-bone shop” of Shakespeare’s heart, the sonnets shed light on the more objective structures found in the plays.

    To take this course, you need not have taken another Shakespeare class. However, in preparation for the class, you might want to read or reread The Merchant of Venice or King Henry IV, Part 1, two plays that were probably written at the same time that a group of key sonnets were. These plays have many echoes in these sonnets. King Henry IV, Part 1, in particular; helps the reader get oriented in the Sonnets. If you get a chance before the term begins, read the sonnets twice through, once with and once without reference to the notes of a well-annotated edition.


    Three short critical essays and brief e-mail commentary; a final examination in essay form. Students, in groups, will lead discussion of certain sonnets. First essay: 15%; 2nd and 3rd essays, 20% each; final examination, 25%; classwork, including e-mail, 20%


    The Sonnets (in the Pelican Shakespeare series, published by Penguin), Shakespeare, ed. by Stephen Orgel