Sonnet 29

Discussion questions and related resources for the poem "Sonnet 29" by William Shakespeare

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless¹ cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured² like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope³,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,
Haply⁴ I think on thee, and then my state⁵,
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.

¹ futile
² “having features”
³ breadth of knowledge or ability
⁴ by chance or by luck
⁵ situation; condition

Notes on Sonnets

The sonnet is an important traditional poetic form. The characteristics of sonnets include the following:

  • Iambic pentameter (each line has five pairs of unstressed and stressed syllables)
  • A length of fourteen lines
  • A definite rhyme scheme (for Shakespearean sonnets: abab cdcd efef gg)
  • A focus on classic themes such as love and mortality
  • Strong emotional content
  • Emphatic imagery and sharp contrasts
  • Distinct stages and shifts in tone
  • A final rhyming couplet that often sums up the theme of the poem

Questions for Discussion and Writing

1. What can we tell about the speaker in this sonnet? What is he saying about himself and his own mental state in the first eight lines? Specifically, consider the following details:

  • What does it mean to be “in disgrace with fortune” and “in disgrace with men’s eyes” (line 1)? Why does he “beweep [his] outcast state” (line 2) and “curse [his] fate” (line 4)?
  • What does it mean to “trouble heaven with [his] cries” (line 3), and in what way is heaven “deaf”?
  • What is he wishing for in lines 5-7? Who is he referring to with the pronoun him and the expressions “this man” and “that man”? What is he least contented with (line 8)?

2. In the next section of the poem (lines 9-12), the speaker’s mental state changes. What causes this change, and how does it affect the speaker’s tone? Discuss the figurative language he uses in describing his new state.

3. Who do the pronouns thee (line 10) and thy (line 13) refer to? Who is the speaker’s audience?

4. The last two lines sum up the speaker’s point. What do you think wealth (line 13) refers to? What does it mean that the speaker “scorns to change [his] state with kings” (line 14), and why?

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Questions © 2019 C. Brantley Collins, Jr.