Updated: Jan 5, 2021
This is Part 2 in my series on how to memorize Shakespeare. In my first post, I went through Important Tips for Memorizing Shakespeare. In this post, we move on to sonnets.
Why memorize a Shakespeare sonnet? You may have had to do this as an assignment for an English class at some point. For actors who are just getting started with Shakespearean text, sonnets are a good place to start to get more acquainted with the language and structure of Shakespeare's poetry before moving on to his dramatic plays. Studying sonnets is a great bridge.
So here is my step-by-step guide to memorizing a Shakespeare sonnet in the most efficient way I know how.
Step 1: Read the sonnet aloud a few times.
When you read the sonnet aloud, slow down a bit. Try to get a general sense of the poem. Get acquainted with it. What does it seem to be about? What are the feelings it evokes? How do things move and shift? What's the general texture of the language? In this step, just get familiar with the poem. You don't need to work every detail out at this step (that will come later.) You're just getting a feel for it. Think of it like meeting a person for the first time.
Step 2: Look up any words you don't know.
You might not recognize all of the words in the sonnet. Some words Shakespeare uses are no longer in common usage, or they mean something different now than they used to. Look up any words you don't know. A great resource for this is www.shakespeareswords.com.
Step 3: Identify the through-line of the poem.
What story is being told and how is it being told? What journey is the poem taking us on? For example, let's take 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, Featured like him, like him with friends possessed, Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope, With what I most enjoy contented least; Yet in these thoughts my self 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 remembered such wealth brings That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
The journey of the poem is one of downward descent into a pit of self-pity and despair. But it pivots at the third quatrain with the line "Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising." It turns upwards. It's like a face turning to the sun again. With this hopeful feeling, the poem soars gloriously up towards the heavens! It arrives at the end with a sense of pure love and joy.
Step 4: Come up with a summary of the poem in your own words.
This ensures you have a complete grasp of the poem. It makes sure you understand it as a whole. We might summarize Sonnet 29 in this way: When I am down on my luck and in despair, I become filled with self-loathing and envy of other people. But while I’m like this, if I happen to think of you and your love, I’m revived and become blissfully happy. I remember just how rich my life is because of you.
Step 5: Recognize the sonnet's structure and divide it into its constituent sections.
Shakespeare sonnets follow a distinct structure. Each one has 14 lines made up of four sections: 3 quatrains and an ending couplet. Each quatrain is a section consisting of four lines where the first and third line rhyme and the second and fourth line rhyme. So the rhyme scheme of a sonnet is as follows: ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG.
Divide the sonnet up into its three quatrains and the couplet. So for sonnet 29, you would divide it up into these chunks:
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, Featured like him, like him with friends possessed, Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope, With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts my self 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 remembered such wealth brings That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
Step 6: Memorize each section of the poem by itself.
Start with the first quatrain and work on that one section on its own. Then move onto the next quatrain and so on. Because of the rhyme scheme, each section exists as its own distinct unit, so for now don't mix sections as you're practicing.
How to go about memorizing each section:
Listen for the rhyme - Rhyme is the biggest help to you when memorizing poetry because rhymes are easier to remember. Why is that? Your ear has a natural affinity for rhyme. The opening line naturally invites the rhyming line to complete it. They're like magnets, or pairs of shoes. They just go together. It's the same with music; the mind naturally looks for resolution. The rhyme is that resolution.
Listen for the metrical rhythm - Shakespearean sonnets are generally written in iambic pentameter (see my previous post for an explanation of iambic pentameter), though usually with a little variation here and there. If you know how and would like to, you could scan the poem. But that isn't absolutely necessary. It's more important to read aloud and listen and get a feel for the rhythm. Rhythm and rhyme help to imprint the text in your mind.
Flesh out the images - Shakespeare's poetry uses rich, vivid imagery. Images are memorable, so use them! As you read the poem, where does your imagination go? What pictures come to mind? Really indulge them and flesh them out. Use multiple senses. The more vivid those pictures are for you, the easier they will be to remember.
Savor the words - Shakespeare uses the sounds of words to contribute to the overall meaning of the text. The language has a texture. To tap into this, speak the words and really savor them. Emphasize the vowels and consonants and notice what they contribute to the poetry. How do they sounds and feel in your mouth and body?
Test yourself - Try to speak a whole section from memory without looking at the page.
Work on the words that give you difficulty - Is there a word or two you keep missing? Repeat the word several times, noticing the sound and feel. Then repeat the line it is in several times. Meditate upon the word. Think of the various associations that arise with that word. What images pop up? What are some of the contexts in which you would come across that word? Make the word stand out in some way visually on the page you are reading from. Highlight it or write it really big in all caps. (This is called the Isolation Effect by the way.)
Step 7: Space out your practice. (i.e. Use spaced repetition)
When you feel confident you have a section memorized, set it aside and don't return to it for a little while. Spend more time on the sections you know the least. Revisit sections in spaced intervals according to how well you know them. Check out this post which explains the spacing effect in more detail. If you are short on time, and need to memorize the sonnet more quickly, use shorter intervals. For example, you could review the sections you know the least with 10 minute break intervals between each repetition. For sections you know better, use 20 or 30 minute break intervals.
When you feel confident you've memorized all sections of the poem, revisit the poem as a whole, beginning to end, in spaced intervals. Make your break intervals successively longer. Here is an example of how you might space your repetitions:
1st repetition: Right after learning
2nd repetition: After 15-20 minutes
3rd repetition: After 6-8 hours
4th repetition: After 24 hours
Again, you have to use your best judgement about how long your intervals will be based on when you need this memorized. If your test/deadline is very soon, make your intervals shorter.
And there you have it! You should now have the sonnet solidly memorized.