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What Is a Shakespearean Sonnet?
A Shakespearean sonnet is a variation on the Italian sonnet tradition. The form evolved in England during and around the time of the Elizabethan era. These sonnets are sometimes referred to as Elizabethan sonnets or English sonnets.
Although Shakespeare’s sonnets have prominently endured for centuries, he was hardly alone in his embrace of this poetic style. Many prominent English poets of the day, from John Donne to John Milton, also wrote sonnets.
Shakespearean sonnets feature the following elements:
- They are fourteen lines long.
- The fourteen lines are divided into four subgroups.
- The first three subgroups have four lines each, which makes them “quatrains,” with the second and fourth lines of each group containing rhyming words.
- The sonnet then concludes with a two-line subgroup, and these two lines rhyme with each other.
- There are typically ten syllables per line, which are phrased in iambic pentameter.
When Did Sonnets Originate?
Shakespeare was not the first English poet of sonnets. In fact, English poets were writing sonnets for nearly a century before Shakespeare. The Italian sonnet form was introduced to English culture by Sir Thomas Wyatt sometime in the early sixteenth century. His contemporary, Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, was also an author of sonnets and a translator of existing Italian hallmarks of the genre.
The Italian sonnets were termed Petrarchan sonnets, named for Francesco Petrarch, a lyrical poet of fourteenth-century Italy. Although Petrarch did not invent the Italian sonnet, he is considered the perfecter of the form. The commonly credited originator of the sonnet is Giacomo da Lentini, who composed poetry in the literary Sicilian dialect in the thirteenth century. (Learn more about Petrarchan sonnets here.)
Shakespeare’s relationship to the English sonnet is analogous to Petrarch’s relationship to the Italian sonnet. Much like Petrarch, Shakespeare did not originate the poetic form that bears his name. However, his evident mastery of the form prompted literary historians to name the entire subgenre after him.
What Is the Structure of a Shakespearean Sonnet?
Sonnets already contained fourteen lines before Shakespeare adapted the form. However, the Shakespearean form is easily characterized by its structure, meter, and rhyme scheme.
A rhyme scheme is the rhyming sequence or arrangement of sounds at the end of each line of poetry. It is typically represented by using letters to demonstrate which lines rhyme with which.
Roses are red—A
Violets are blue—B
Sugar is sweet—C
And so are you—B
A Shakespearean sonnet employs the following rhyme scheme across its fourteen lines—which, again, are broken up into three quatrains plus a two-line coda:
ABAB CDCD EFEF GG
The ABAB CDCD rhyme scheme manifests in this excerpt from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 14”:
Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck;—A
And yet methinks I have astronomy,—B
But not to tell of good or evil luck,—A
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons' quality;—B
Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell,—C
Pointing to each his thunder, rain and wind,—D
Or say with princes if it shall go well,—C
By oft predict that I in heaven find:—D
Note that some of these rhymes are “soft”—such as “wind” rhyming with “find.”
What Is Iambic Pentameter?
Each of the fourteen lines of a Shakespearean sonnet is written in “iambic pentameter.” This means a line contains five iambs—two syllable pairs in which the second syllable is emphasized.
As an example, consider the opening line of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130”:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun
With proper iambic emphasis, the line would be read aloud in the following way:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun
Shakespeare was such a master of iambic pentameter that he even seamlessly inserted it into dramatic action. Consider Juliet’s line in Romeo and Juliet:
“But, soft! / What light / through yon / der win / dow breaks?”
Much of Shakespeare’s theatrical writing featured non-rhyming lines of iambic pentameter. This style of poetry is called “blank verse.” While blank verse contains the same poetic rhythm as sonnets, it does not feature the sonnet’s rhyme scheme.
Learn how to write iambic pentameter with David Mamet here.
What Is the Difference Between a Shakespearean Sonnet and a Petrarchan Sonnet?
The primary difference between a Shakespearean sonnet and a Petrarchan sonnet is the way the poem’s fourteen lines are grouped. The Petrarchan sonnet divides its lines between an octave (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines). Learn more about the various types of sonnets and the differences between them in our complete guide here.
2 Examples of Shakespearean Sonnets
Shakespeare composed 154 sonnets during his lifetime. Their themes were typically romantic, but they contained no shortage of philosophical reflection.
Here are two of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets.
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
Want more poetry? Learn how to read and write poetry with US Poet Laureate Billy Collins here.