Poetry By Heart Blog

Learning a sonnet? It’s (like) a piece of cake

7th March 2017

Alison Powell explains the similarities between cake eating and sonnet memorization to students.

You’ve probably heard your teachers going on about how wonderful the bard is. ‘William Shakespeare was a genius,’ they might say. ‘Look. He wrote 37 plays and 154 sonnets. Isn’t he amazing?’

And you might be thinking, ‘Big deal. Ed Sheeran has written at least 38 songs we know about, plus a heap he’s written for other people and he probably has a few more up his sleeve. What’s all the fuss?’

The trouble with this type of thinking is that it assumes a deep knowledge of something without proper experience of it. It’s a bit like saying you know what this cake tastes like, just by looking at the picture:

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Cake: Looks chocolate-y and good, but you can’t know how delicious it really is without taking a bite.

Perhaps you’re now thinking, ‘Yes, but I have read Shakespeare, actually. We did Romeo and Juliet/Macbeth/Othello in school last term.’

That’s great. But although reading a play in the classroom does give you a bit more of a flavour, it can be more like looking at a recipe and saying you’ve eaten the cake.

Amazing Chocolate Cake

  • 4 eggs
  • 175g self raising flour
  • 175g caster sugar
  • 175 g butter …

Again, you’re getting an idea of the cake, but you’re not getting the full experience of tasting it. You can think of a play as a recipe for actors. Until it’s brought to life on stage, it’s a bit flavourless and two-dimensional. You’ve come closer to understanding Shakespeare, but still haven’t had a proper bite.

There is, of course, only way to truly know how lovely the cake actually is. I can talk to you about it for hours. I can describe the fluffy light sponge that melts on your tongue and the gorgeously not-too-sweet cream that oozes from its centre. Until you’ve had a proper mouthful of it, though, you’re never going to appreciate the full-taste experience.

So how do you eat the works of Shakespeare?

The most effective way, I’d argue, is to perform a play or a poem by learning the words by heart. Shakespeare’s sonnets are just fourteen lines in length, so they’re a great place to start.

To learn a sonnet, you’ll have to spend some time with it, pinning it up on the walls of your interior world so that when you speak it aloud you have the chance to taste the words without looking at them on paper.

In the process of memorizing the lines you’ll come to understand how they roll together, to know the rhythm and the underlying metre. You’ll get to know the words and start to notice their layers of meaning. You’ll begin to feel the way the poem turns around line eight and appreciate the satisfaction of the final rhyming couplet.

The words might even start to feel like they’re your own.

This is a totally different experience to reading the words on the page. And, like eating cake, it’s not something anyone else can do for you. You have to try it yourself.

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Why is it worth it?

Without having a good mouthful of the actual cake, you’ll never know about the secret ingredients the chef has added to surprise you. Without learning a sonnet by heart and speaking it aloud, you’ll never get to know its truth.

So come and find out what the fuss is all about. Take a big bite of Shakespeare.

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