Shakespearean Sonnet

A sonnet is a form of poetry that has existed for centuries, and the Shakespearean sonnet is a famous example. Devised by the poet and playwright William Shakespeare, this type of sonnet has a distinctive structure and rhyme scheme that separates it from the Petrarchan sonnet and the Spenserian sonnet.

Shakespearean Sonnet Shakespearean Sonnet

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Contents
Table of contents

    Shakespearean Sonnet: Definition

    The history of the Shakespearean Sonnet

    The Shakespearean sonnet (sometimes called the English sonnet) is a form of sonnet created in England. It was invented by the poet and playwright William Shakespeare who adapted it from the Petrarchan sonnet. Shakespeare popularised this form and wrote 154 Shakespearean sonnets in his lifetime, many of which were published in 1609.

    Out of Shakespeare's 154 sonnets, 126 are dedicated to 'Mr W. H'. There has been a lot of speculation surrounding who Mr W. H. is, with some academics arguing that it was a typo and others interpreting the dedication as evidence for Shakespeare's attraction to men. The other 28 sonnets are dedicated to another unknown figure, a mysterious 'dark lady' who is the subject of these poems.

    Shakespearean sonnets have been popular since the Elizabethan period, with poets such as John Donne and John Milton composing poems in this form. They are one of the most famous types of sonnet and are used frequently in modern poetry.

    Shakespearean Sonnet Examples

    As Shakespeare wrote 154 Shakespearean sonnets, there are a lot of available examples written in this form. Some of the most famous Shakespearean sonnets include 'Sonnet 18', 'Sonnet 27', and 'Sonnet 116'.

    Examples of Shakespearean sonnets not written by Shakespeare include 'America' by Claude McKay (1921) and John Keats' 'When I Have Fears' (1848).

    Form of Shakespearean Sonnets

    Structure of Shakespearean Sonnets

    A key way to spot a Shakespearean sonnet is to look at the structure of the poem, as this is different to other types of sonnets. The stanzas of a Shakespearean sonnet are divided into three quatrains (stanzas with four lines), followed by one rhyming couplet (two lines). The poem below shows what this looks like:

    Let me not to the marriage of true minds

    Admit impediments. Love is not love

    Which alters when it alteration finds,

    Or bends with the remover to remove.

    O no! it is an ever-fixed mark

    That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

    It is the star to every wand'ring bark,

    Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.

    Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

    Within his bending sickle's compass come;

    Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

    But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

    If this be error and upon me prov'd,

    I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd.

    (William Shakespeare, ‘Sonnet 116’, 1609)

    Shakespearean Sonnet Meter

    The Shakespearean sonnet uses iambic pentameter, which is the meter typically used in sonnets.

    Iambic Pentameter is a type of meter that consists of five metrical feet per line. Each metrical foot contains one unstressed syllable and one stressed syllable.

    The iambic pentameter in the final rhyming couple of 'Sonnet 116' is marked in the following example:

    'If this | be err | or and | upon | me prov'd,

    I nev | er writ, | nor no | man ev | er lov'd.'

    The syllables in plain text are unstressed, while the syllables in bold are stressed. Together, an unstressed syllable and a stressed syllable create one metrical foot. In sonnets, there will be five of these feet in each line. Try counting how many metrical feet are in each of the lines shown in the example.

    Top tip: if you are unsure how to find iambic pentameter in a poem, remember that it follows the same rhythm as your heart!

    Shakespearean sonnets have also used an iambic trimeter. This is when a line is made of three metrical feet rather than five, while also following the iambic pattern of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Because of this, even though iambic trimeter follows the same rhythm as iambic pentameter, a line of iambic trimeter will be shorter.

    Shakespearean Sonnet Rhyme Scheme

    The Shakespearean sonnet has its own signature rhyme scheme that makes it easy to spot amongst other types of sonnets.

    The rhyme scheme of the Shakespearean sonnet is ABAB-CDCD-EFEF-GG. In Shakespearean sonnets, it is typical that each stanza will have its own rhyme scheme, because each stanza discusses separate emotions or ideas.

    'Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks E

    Within his bending sickle's compass come; F

    Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, E

    But bears it out even to the edge of doom.' F

    The final stanza of a Shakespearean sonnet consists of two lines that rhyme together, written in iambic pentameter. This is known as a heroic couplet (two lines written in iambic pentameter that rhyme). These are used in Shakespearean sonnets as they provide a concluding idea that resolves the poem.

    'If this be error and upon me prov'd,

    I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd.'

    Shakespearean sonnets also use a volta (a climax or turn), which can be located either before the heroic couplet (the 12th line) or at the start of the heroic couplet (the 13th line).

    Themes of Shakespearean Sonnets

    Shakespearean sonnets are mostly about love; however, they can also be about anything! Shakespeare himself wrote sonnets about politics, such as 'Sonnet 124' (1609). The Shakespearean sonnet often touches on themes such as love, humanity, politics or death, but the themes will vary depending on the poet.

    Petrarchan vs Shakespearean vs Spenserian Sonnet

    Sonnets follow a strict structure, and while they will have the same three characteristics (being fourteen lines long with a strict rhyme scheme and written in iambic pentameter), different types of sonnets will follow different rules. Use the table below to remember the key differences between Petrarchan sonnets, Shakespearean sonnets, and Spenserian sonnets.

    Petrarchan

    Shakespearean

    Spenserian

    Lines

    14

    14

    14

    Stanza structure

    One Octave

    One Sestet

    Three Quatrains

    One Couplet

    Three QuatrainsOne Couplet

    Metre

    Iambic

    Iambic

    Iambic

    Rhyme scheme

    ABBA-ABBA-CDE-CDE

    ABAB-CDCD-EFEF-GG

    ABAB-BCBC-CDCD-EE

    Volta

    Yes

    Yes

    Yes

    Shakespearean Sonnet - Key takeaways

    • Shakespearean sonnets were created by William Shakespeare in the 16th century.
    • Shakespearean sonnets consist of three quatrains and one couplet.
    • Shakespearean sonnets are written in iambic pentameter.
    • There is an ABAB-CDCD-EFEF-GG rhyme scheme.
    • Shakespearean sonnets use a volta in the 12th or 13th line.
    • Shakespearean sonnets are typically love poems but they can be about any theme.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Shakespearean Sonnet

    What is a Shakespearean sonnet?  

     A Shakespearean sonnet is a poem that consists of fourteen lines divided into three quatrains and one heroic couplet. The lines will be written in iambic pentameter and there will be a strict rhyme scheme of ABAB-CDCD-EFEF-GG. 

    What are the main features of Shakespearean sonnets? 

    The main features of the Shakespearean sonnet are that it has three quatrains and one heroic couplet and that it is written in iambic pentameter with an ABAB-CDCD-EFEF-GG rhyme scheme.  

    What is Shakespeare's most famous sonnet? 

    Shakespeare's most famous sonnets include 'Sonnet 18' and 'Sonnet 116'. 

    Why are Shakespearean sonnets popular? 

    The Shakespearean sonnet was made popular by William Shakespeare, who wrote 154 sonnets in his lifetime. The success and influence of Shakespeare led this form of poetry to become more popular. 

    Why are Shakespearean sonnets important? 

    Shakespearean sonnets are important as they are one of the three main forms of the sonnet. They are very popular and have been used frequently throughout English literature since the 16th century. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is another name for the Shakespearean sonnet? 

    Who created the Shakespearean sonnet?

    When was the Shakespearean sonnet created? 

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