The Macbeth Sonnets

This lesson at the Folger took me by surprise when I saw it flash by my alerts.  The idea is to take one of several sonnets (71, 144, 147, 148) and analyze them from the point of view of Macbeth or Lady Macbeth.

Interesting idea.  Here’s Sonnet 71 for those who don’t feel like following the links:

1. No longer mourn for me when I am dead

2. Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell

3. Give warning to the world that I am fled

4. From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell:

5. Nay, if you read this line, remember not

6. The hand that writ it, for I love you so,

7. That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,

8. If thinking on me then should make you woe.

9. O! if, I say, you look upon this verse,

10. When I perhaps compounded am with clay,

11. Do not so much as my poor name rehearse;

12. But let your love even with my life decay;

13. Lest the wise world should look into your moan,

14. And mock you with me after I am gone.

Am I supposed to say that this is Lady Macbeth’s suicide note to her husband?  Is that the idea?  Master of Verona beat me to it a long time ago :).

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6 thoughts on “The Macbeth Sonnets

  1. Wow, has this high school teacher found an intriguing way of taking The Sonnets out of context! Many sonnets can certainly be charming enough on their own as individual poems that can be used to suit a particular context, and Sonnet 71 is the best example of what one might imagine as a correspondence between the Macbeths, at least until you get to the couplet. But how can one explain that? Is it abject self-deprecation? (Hardly fits either character.) Or is it actually a complaint about the other’s haughty superiority? (Again, doesn’t fit the Macbeths, though it does the Sonnet characters.)
    The Dark Lady sonnets are another matter. They just don’t work at all. One has to pull individual words out and twist them to fit the context of Macbeth and completely ignore other aspects of the poems to get anywhere. For example, in Sonnnet 144, Lady Macbeth is presumably the “female evil” who “corrupts” Macbeth to be a “devil.” But is she a “woman color’d ill”? And who is the “man right fair” who is his “better angel”? Himself?

  2. I wish I could say that this is the wackiest reading of the Sonnets I’ve heard of…

    I think the way to crown this exercise would be to have the students then read the same sonnets in a different context altogether, and see how the meaning changes when they bring a different perspective to the text. An interesting corrective to every fool who wants to “prove” a particular set of biographical facts about the author!

  3. I think it’s a nutty idea. It gives students a misguided idea of what the sonnets are about and teaches them to stretch material to fit a theory–a very dangerous lesson should any of them turn out to be budding literary critics!
    If you want them to have fun imagining what the characters might say to each other, you may as well have them play MadLibs.

  4. I think you’re missing the point. The point of this lesson is not to force a Macbethean perspective on the Sonnets but to have the students think creatively and critically. It’s an assessment of their knowledge of the characters in Macbeth and how well they can read the Sonnets themselves. I did this lesson this year with my seniors and they enjoyed it. I used the Sonnets as a pre-read to the text, having them analyze the Sonnets as sonnets, separate from the play and in understanding Shakespeare’s language. Then we read the play, and as a post-reading activity, we returned to the Sonnets and I had them compare and contrast the characters of either Macbeth or Lady Macbeth through the filter of the sonnets. It’s more of an exercise in Shakespearean language and assessing their knowledge of character than making them think the Sonnets are directly linked to the play. Give the students a bit of credit; they’re not as naive as one may think.


    1. Great constructive comment. Way above the ‘it’s nuts’ approach so condescendingly described by other readers.

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