Investigate the inner workings of the Shakespearean sonnet in this lesson.
Learn about its origins, its structure and its unique poetic power. Break down a Shakespearean sonnet by analyzing rhyme, meter and thematic elements.
‘Billy Shakespeare wrote a whole bunch of sonnets.
‘-LFO, ‘Summer Girls’Talk about an understatement! In his lifetime, William Shakespeare published 154 sonnets. This collection of sonnets (first printed in 1609) is celebrated as one of the greatest achievements in English poetry. However, it’s important to remember that Shakespeare did not invent the sonnet. In fact, the term ‘Shakespearean sonnet‘ refers to a specific poetic form, not just the sonnets that Shakespeare wrote.In the 1530s, Sir Thomas Wyatt began translating Italian sonnets into English, introducing the form to British poets. The Italian sonnet is still used today, although it is often considered difficult because of its tight rhyme scheme (abbaabba edecde or abbaabba cdcdcd). Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey and Wyatt’s friend, shaped the sonnet into the form Shakespeare would use, adding more rhymes and stanza divisions to the mix (abab cdcd efef gg).
Now let’s take a closer look at the structure of the Shakespearean sonnet. The Shakespearean sonnet is made of three quatrains (four-line stanzas) and one couplet (a two-line stanza). Traditionally, Shakespearean sonnets are in iambic pentameter. A line of iambic pentameter has five iambic ‘feet’ (a soft syllable followed by a stronger syllable).To show you how this structure works, I’ll give you a ‘cheat sheet’ for Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73. I’ve put the stronger syllables in italics, and I’ve marked the rhyme scheme in parentheses at the end of each line.That time of year thou mayst in me behold (a)When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang (b)Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, (a)Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
(b)In me thou see’st the twilight of such day (c)As after sunset fadeth in the west; (d)Which by and by black night doth take away, (c)Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest. (d)In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire, (e)That on the ashes of his youth doth lie, (f)As the death-bed, whereon it must expire, (e)Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by. (f)This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong, (g)To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.
(g)While Shakespeare hit all of the rhymes in the rhyme scheme perfectly, this sonnet isn’t always in perfect iambic pentameter. However, this isn’t sloppiness on Shakespeare’s part; rather, this is a technique called metrical substitution. An excellent example of metrical substitution occurs in the third line of the third stanza:As the death-bed, whereon it must expireHear how the first two ‘feet’ of the line (‘as the’ and ‘death-bed’) sound different than the last three (‘whereon,’ ‘it must‘ and ‘expire‘)? This is because the first two feet are trochaic (a strong syllable followed by a weak one) instead of iambic. By switching up the meter a bit, Shakespeare keeps the rhythm of the poem from becoming too repetitive. Also, because no one speaks in perfect iambic pentameter, using metrical substitution makes the poem’s voice sound more human.
Now that we’ve seen how a sonnet works, let’s discuss the characteristics of what a sonnet does. To make this easier, we’ll look at two ‘halves’ of a sonnet. Let’s begin with the first two stanzas of Sonnet 130: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 damasked, red and white,But no such roses see I in her cheeks;And in some perfumes is there more delightThan in the breath that from my mistress reeks.Kind of harsh, isn’t it? Instead of relying on the usual ‘poetic’ comparisons to praise his ‘mistress,’ the speaker is trying to be more realistic about his beloved’s appearance, even to the point of saying her breath ‘reeks.’ The first two stanzas exemplify what tends to happen in the first ‘half’ of a Shakespearean sonnet: the speaker introduces a question, problem or theme and then uses several examples to explain it.
In other words, Shakespeare is presenting the thesis, or main idea, of the poem. Now, here are the last two stanzas of the poem:I love to hear her speak, yet well I knowThat 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.As you can see, the tone changes in this last ‘half.’ The shift begins in the third stanza, where the comparisons begin to soften; the speaker even admits ‘I love to hear her speak.’ The final stanza transforms the entire meaning of the poem, declaring that the speaker’s mistress is more valuable than any ‘false compare’ for her beauty. This dramatic ‘turn’ is known as a volta, which literally means ‘turn’ in Italian. The volta is an essential characteristic of the Shakespearean sonnet, and it generally takes place in either the third stanza or the final couplet.
Let’s recap the most important elements of the Shakespearean sonnet. First, a Shakespearean sonnet is not simply a sonnet that Shakespeare wrote, it is a style of sonnet. Second, the Shakespearean sonnet has a specific rhyme scheme (abab cdcd efef gg), and is in iambic pentameter, although some metrical substitution is encouraged.
Finally, the first two stanzas present the thesis of the poem, and the last two stanzas present a volta that sheds new light on the thesis.
Once you have completed this lesson, you should be prepared to:
- Summarize the form of a Shakespearean sonnet, including the rhyme scheme
- Define quatrain, couplet, iambic pentameter, metrical substitution, thesis, and volta
- Discuss the characteristics of a Shakespearean sonnet