Shakespeare’s sonnets are little one-act plays.
I learned this one year when I was teaching drama to grades 9-12 and I discovered Will and Whimsy, Sixteen Dramatically Illustrated Sonnets of Shakespeare by Alan Haehnel. The short comic/poignant skits in the collection are an excellent way for middle school and high school students to be exposed to the Bard’s 154 poems.
Consequently, when I began the study of sonnets with my Advanced Placement English Literature students, I thought they might benefit from a similar technique. In addition, I considered that this could be an opportunity for them to write a narrative as required by the Common Core State Standards:
Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.
“Imagine a character in each sonnet is talking to you,” I explained, “you need to synthesize the ideas from the poem, and write that character’s story.”
Then, I handed out copies of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29:
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
On the bottom of the page I restated one simple direction, “Write the narrative.”
The results were unexpected. While my students are good at analyzing poems, I was unaware that a number of them are born storytellers. In their retellings, they captured the spirit, and sometimes the exact language, of the poem. They found ways to expand on the isolation and alienation of the speaker and incorporate the shift in the speaker’s attitude from despair to one of acceptance.
For example, Melissa used a pivotal moment in the lives of high school students…asking someone to go to the prom:
After weeks of preparation and endless nerves the day has come to ask her to come to prom with me!
I wrote her a poem listing all the things I liked about her and read it to her under the starlight sky just at sunset.
I ended the poem with “thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings.”
My nerves ran through my body and I felt like I was going to pass out.
YES! SHE SAID YES!
I take her off to dinner and we planned for the night of prom. My dreams have come true! I am going to my senior prom with the girl of my dreams!
In contrast, Makayla began her narrative from the point of view of a frighteningly depressed teenager who observes others in a community park. The young girl’s attention is eventually drawn to one elderly couple, and their tenderness towards each other brings about an “epiphany,” a realization:
I inhale a summer thriving breathe and release the darkness out of my body. I turn to walk down the once sullen Earth path now as a gateway to sweet heaven’s gate. I take my phone out of the bag and dial my boyfriend’s number to make things right and explain myself to him. I pass the two elderly couple and smile.
In return I get a friendly, “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” and I respond, “Yes, yes ,it truly is, and I won’t beweep it again.”
As I near the running children, I pulled my bag off my shoulder and slipped it into a nearby trashcan. It’s time to change my state with kings.
Emma’s chose to use the point-of-view of an elderly woman suffering from Alzheimer’s in this poignant tale:
He doesn’t know that me is right underneath all of this forgotten memory. I’m right here, but I don’t know who I am. I bury my face in my wrinkled hands and trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries. I can’t change. Curse my fate.
When I look up he’s standing over me. “Your appointment is at four.”
I swear I didn’t know. When I searched his face for recognition, I knew that he did not see me. He doesn’t know who I am and neither do I. He doesn’t understand that I can’t control my fate. But I am not my forgotten memory, I am his wife. That much, I know.
Finally, Jen’s story was humorous, told from the perspective of a jilted bride:
I’m sitting alone on altar steps in my once-worn Vera Wang wedding dress that’s as deflated now as I feel. My supposed-to-be husband left me for some California-toned, bottle-blond chick bustier than Dolly Parton. (Curses her and her awesome figure. I swear she was created by Russian scientists.) I all alone beweep my outcast state….
….That son-of-a-bitch should not be in my thoughts right now. Well, maybe he should considering he was a 10 thousand dollar mistake. Dammit I looked good in that dress.
Sullen Earth, why me?
What started out as an educated guess for an assignment on my part has yielded great results. Moreover, my students have written narratives based on “this man’s art.”
“We loved writing these,” was their collective response.
Of course they did….hard to go wrong with Shakespeare as their mentor.