How to Analyze a Shakespearean Sonnet
Writing an essay on a Shakespearean sonnet can be quite a challenge. The following are a few tips to help you start the process:
1. Find the Theme
Although love is the overarching theme of the sonnets, there are three specific underlying themes: (1) the brevity of life, (2) the transience of beauty, and (3) the trappings of desire. The first two of these underlying themes are the focus of the early sonnets addressed to the young man (in particular Sonnets 1-17) where the poet argues that having children to carry on one's beauty is the only way to conquer the ravages of time. In the middle sonnets of the young man sequence the poet tries to immortalize the young man through his own poetry (the most famous examples being Sonnet 18 and Sonnet 55). In the late sonnets of the young man sequence there is a shift to pure love as the solution to mortality (as in Sonnet 116). When choosing a sonnet to analyze it is beneficial to explore the theme as it relates to the sonnets around it.
Sonnet 127 marks a shift to the third theme and the poet's intense sexual affair with a woman known as The Dark Lady. The mood of the sonnets in this sequence is dark and love as a sickness is a prominent motif (exemplified in Sonnet 147). Often students will be asked to choose one sonnet addressed to the young man and one addressed to his mistress and analyze the differences in tone, imagery, and theme. Comparing Sonnet 116, with the theme of ideal, healthy love, to Sonnet 147, with the theme of diseased love, would be a great choice.
For a complete guide to the theme of each group of sonnets, please see the article The Outline of the Themes in Shakespeare's Sonnets.
2. Examine the Literary Devices
Shakespeare likely did not write his sonnets with a conscious emphasis on literary devices, and early editors of the sonnets paid little attention to such devices (with the exception of metaphor and allusion). However, in the era of postmodern literary theory and close reading, much weight is given to the construction or deconstruction of the sonnets and Shakespeare's use of figures of speech such as alliteration, assonance,antithesis, enjambment, metonymy, synecdoche, oxymoron, personification, and internal rhyme. Much modern criticism1 also places heavy emphasis on the sexual puns and double entendres in the sonnets (blood warm (2.14) being both blood and semen, etc). For more on this please see the commentary for Sonnet 75.
For examples of Shakespeare's use of antithesis and synecdoche, please see the commentary for Sonnet 12 and Sonnet 116.
For examples of Shakespeare's use of metonymy, please see the commentary for Sonnet 59.
For an example of Shakespeare's use of partial alliteration, please see the commentary for Sonnet 30. Notice the attention to alliteration and assonance in Sonnet 55.
For examples of Shakespeare's use of personification and extended metaphor, please see the commentary for Sonnet 55, Sonnet 65, Sonnet 73, Sonnet 2, and Sonnet 59.
For an example of Shakespeare's use of an elaborate metaphor known as a conceit, please see Sonnet 46.
For an example of what many consider to be one of Shakespeare's rare failed metaphors, please see the commentary for Sonnet 47.
Once you have identified such literary devices you can explore both how they contribute to a greater understanding of the theme and how they serve to give the sonnet movement, intensity, and structure.
3. Find a Copy of the Oxford English Dictionary
Researching the history of words Shakespeare used is a sure way to gain a greater understanding of the sonnets and will sometimes lead to new and fascinating commentary. Words that today have a specific meaning, such as hideous (see Sonnet 12) or gaudy (see Sonnet 1) often could have multiple meanings as the rapidly-changing language of the time was still heavily influenced by Old French and Middle and Old English. The OED is available online by subscription, as are a couple of free etymological dictionaries.
Do not be afraid to develop your own thoughts on the sonnets. A persuasive argument, backed by ample evidence, is always the key to a powerful essay.