Modern scholarship divides the sonnets into two main groups: the fair lord sonnets (1-126) and the dark lady sonnets (127-154). Do you agree with this division?
A: An answer to this question may wish to focus on the fair lord sonnets, as they offer more room for creativity. It is also worth questioning whether any subdivisions might be identified within the aforementioned divisions? Finally, what do these sorts of divisions mean for the scholar? Do they simplify too much, or are they useful tools for analysis?
Choose one of the three recurring characters in the sonnets - the fair lord, the rival poet, or the dark lady - and argue the case for his or her real-world identity. Adopt a candidate who has already been proposed, assessing the evidence for yourself - or posit a new possibility.
A: This question demands careful historical research, coupled with close literary analysis. Techniques of comparative literature will come in handy; for example, when weighing the validity of the Christopher Marlowe claim, it behooves the student to not only study Marlowe's life and place in history, but his work as well - and the ways in which Shakespeare's writing might draw from, comment on, or question his.
Discuss the conflict between Platonic love and carnal lust captured in the figures of the fair lord and the dark lady, respectively.
A: "Love" is a multifaceted term, and Shakespeare explores it in all its permutations in his sonnets: love as friendship, love as family, love as devotion, love as affection, love as lust, love as sex. How does the poet express his love for the fair lord differently from how he expresses his love for the dark lady? And does he value one kind of love over another?
The rival poet enters the scene to stir things up with the narrator's fair lord. How would you characterize the poet's reaction to the thought of losing his fair lord to another?
A: A close analysis of the text on hand is crucial for this essay. The student should pick a reaction - jealousy, perhaps, or disdain - and support it with specific textual evidence. Perhaps the reaction suggests a broader emotion or mentality: pride (wounded in this case), greed (thwarted), helplessness...
Critics are divided over whether Shakespeare's sonnets really do contain expressions of homoerotic desire. What do you think?
A: There is of course no right answer here, but any argument must again pay close heed to the particulars of the text. Is the narrator's love for the fair lord purely one of friendship, or is it in fact something else? A consideration of what exactly homoeroticism meant and constituted in Shakespeare's day - how it might be expressed in so repressive a society, how it might be tacitly acknowledged - is likewise necessary.
Frequently throughout the sonnets the poet criticizes himself for his inadequacy. Find at least three examples of such self-criticism, and interrelate them in the context of the sonnets as a whole.
A: The rival poet certainly inspires feelings of inadequacy, but there are other instances to look for as well. More important, what does such self-criticism mean? Can it be read as autobiographical - truly personal, even confessional, writing? Or is Shakespeare simply adopting a guise? (Of course there can be no definitive answer to that, only speculation...)
Discuss the theme of unfaithfulness in Shakespeare's sonnets.
A: Specific questions to consider here are: Who is being unfaithful to whom? How can one characterize the narrator's reaction to his learning of his loves' infidelity? And how is infidelity portrayed? As an incurable sin - or as something to be understood?
Several of the sonnets are rife with financial imagery. Find as many examples of this imagery as you can, and try to account for their distribution within the sonnets.
A: Ask yourself: what does the poet wish to achieve by describing the sonnets' characters and events with the language of money and finance? Consider Shakespeare's time: the modern notion of economics is slowly taking shape, more and more sophisticated forms of trade are emerging, and a "philosophy" of money is not far away...
The color black is used frequently in the dark lady sonnets to characterize the woman's dark identity. What other instances of color symbolism appear in the sonnets? Find at least three examples of color symbolism and explain them.
A: Shakespeare's language is markedly tactile, imbued with specific imagery; thus, color (as well as sound, smell, feel) plays a major role in his poetry. Any colors may do in this essay, but in every case the student should use specific passages to support his or her claims.
Sonnets 153 and 154 are often said not to fit in with the overall sequence. It has also been suggested that they are in fact two drafts of the same sonnet due to their similarity in content and form. Do you agree with these statements? Support your hypothesis by attempting to explain why Shakespeare may have written these sonnets in the first place.
A: As with earlier questions, the student must consider both the text at hand and the historical context to fashion a fully realized argument.