A Shakespearean sonnet is one of the best-known sonnet forms. Along with the Petrarchan sonnet it is the most popular to this day. It is sometimes referred to as “Elizabethan” or “English” but since Shakespeare used to with so much success in his 154 sonnets published after his death it has become synonymous with his name.
Structure of a Shakespearean Sonnet
The Shakespearean sonnet is fourteen-lines long, as are all traditional sonnets. These fourteen lines are usually seen together in one stanza of text but throughout time poets have chosen to break the structure up into stanzas. These are generally created with the basic form of the sonnet in mind. Even if the poem is contained within one stanza of text, for the purpose of analyses or simply in order to come to a better understanding of what the poet is saying, it can be separated into three quatrains, or sets of four lines. These make up the bulk of the poem. They are then followed by a concluding couplet or set of two rhyming lines.
Rhyme Scheme and Meter of a Shakespearean Sonnet
The poem follows a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The difference between the three quatrains and the couplet is clear.
Additionally, as is the case in Petrarchan sonnets, this sonnet form uses iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains five sets of two beats. The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM.
Like all aspects of sonnets, poets have taken liberties with the meter and rhyme scheme. Even Shakespeare was not above changing things (adding a syllable, using an incomplete rhyme) every once in a while, although it was rare.
Examples of Shakespearean Sonnets
Example #1 Astrophil and Stella 1 by Sir Philip Sidney
This series of poems was composed in the 1580s and contains 108 sonnet and eleven songs. The title of this sonnet, which is used (with changing numbers) for all the sonnets, refers to the two key characters of the sonnets. The first, Astrophil, or Astrophel, is the lover of the stars and “Stella” is the star that he loves. These two characters were perhaps based on Sidney’s personal relationship with Lady Penelope Deveraux.
This first poem of the 108 Astrophil and Stella sonnets is written in the form of a Shakespearean or Elizabethan sonnet. Take a look at the first lines:
Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she (dear She) might take some pleasure of my pain:
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,
The rhyme scheme of ABAB is immediately evident, signalling to the reader that this poem is going to follow a specific pattern. That is proven out by the next lines that rhyme CDCDEFEFGG, the same rhyme scheme as an Elizabethan sonnet. Although not all of Sidney’s poems made use of this pattern, Sonnet 1 is a good example of his utilizing this form. The poem also makes use of themes that were common to the Shakespearean sonnet, love, creation, and dedication.
Example #2 Sonnet 10: For shame deny that thou bear’st love to any by William Shakespeare
This sonnet is number ten of 154 sonnets that Shakespeare wrote during his lifetime. It belongs, as do the vast majority of the sonnets, to the Fair Youth sequence. This poem, and 125 others, were dedicated and directed to a young man. This person’s identity remains unknown to this day, although some scholars have made educated guesses. Whoever he was, he was young and beautiful and inspired the poet to some of his best work. This poem is written in the traditional form for which Shakespeare has become known and which is synonymous with his name. Take a look at the first two quatrains:
For shame deny that thou bear’st love to any,
Who for thy self art so unprovident.
Grant, if thou wilt, thou art beloved of many,
But that thou none lov’st is most evident:
For thou art so possessed with murderous hate,
That ‘gainst thy self thou stick’st not to conspire,
Seeking that beauteous roof to ruinate
Which to repair should be thy chief desire.
This poem is quite direct. It accuses the Fair Youth of murder because he is unwilling to have children. He’s, therefore, killing his own youth and the only chance he has of renewing his youth within a new body. This sonnet belongs to a series of sonnets that promote procreation. It also follows the rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEFEFGG and uses iambic pentameter.