How to Write a Shakespearean Sonnet
By Divya Chaudhuri
Though as a general rule, the sonnet is defined as having 14 lines and an iambic pentameter meter, there's a significant difference between the two most common forms of the sonnet: the Shakespearean (aka English) and Petrarchan (aka Italian) sonnets. This article will explain how to stay true to the spirit of the Shakespearean form.
Method 1: Writing a Shakespearean Sonnet
The Shakespearean sonnet is a good place to start if you’re a novice sonneteer because it has the most regular and straightforward rhyme scheme and structure.
- Use the Shakespearean rhyme scheme.
- The pattern is: ABABCDCDEFEFGG
- (These letters represent the sound that appears at the end of each line.)
- So, following this pattern of alternating rhymes, we find that the last words of the first and third lines must rhyme; the second and fourth; the fifth and seventh; the sixth and eighth; and so on, ending in a final rhyming couplet.
- Write your lines in iambic pentameter.
- “Pentameter” derives from the Greek word pente (meaning five), and thus has five poetic "feet." Each foot is a unit of two syllables; thus, there are ten syllables in a line of pentameter.
- “Iambic” means that each foot is an “iamb.” Iambs are comprised of an unstressed, followed by a stressed syllable, resulting in a “ta-TUM” rhythm. The word “hel-LO” is an example of an iambic foot.
- So a line of iambic pentameter is a line of five iambic feet, resulting in a 10-syllable rhythm of ta-TUM ta-TUM ta-TUM ta-TUM ta-TUM.
- An example of a line of iambic pentameter is “Shall I / comPARE/ thee TO / a SUM / mer's DAY?” (from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18”)
- Vary your meter from time to time.
Follow the Shakespearean sonnet's stanzaic structure.
- Although the majority of the lines in a Shakespearean sonnet should be written in iambic pentameter, the rhythm can get plodding and predictable if you use it exclusively. By varying the stress pattern slightly at key moments, you can break up the pattern and make the poem more aurally interesting for the reader, and also use the variation to draw attention to key phrases in your poem.
- For example, the third line of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18” begins with a spondee, meaning two stressed syllables in a row: TUM-TUM
- After two lines of perfect iambic pentameter, he wrote: “ROUGH WINDS / do SHAKE / the DAR / ling BUDS / of MAY”
- This both breaks up the rhythm for a little variation and draws attention to the roughness of the rough winds being described.
Develop your stanzas thoughtfully.
- A Shakespearean sonnet is composed of three heroic quatrains and a heroic couplet.
- A heroic quatrain is a group of four lines of iambic pentameter in an ABAB rhyme scheme.
- A heroic couplet is a group of two lines of iambic pentameter in an AA rhyme scheme.
- In a Shakespearean sonnet, the three heroic quatrains are the “ABAB CDCD EFEF” portion of the rhyme scheme
- The heroic couplet is the “GG” closing.
- You can separate these stanzas with blank lines, or leave them all together in an unbroken poem, but the sonnet should move as a function of these discrete stanzas.
Choose your subject matter carefully.
- Although your poem should have a single focus, each stanza of the sonnet should develop the idea further.
- Think of each quatrain as a little thought bubble, like a paragraph, in which you explore an element of the subject of your poem.
- Each quatrain should build toward the final couplet, where you will have a turn, or a volta.
- The turn, which occurs in the 13th line of the Shakespearean sonnet, offers a resolution or insight into to the problem developed in the first three quatrains.
- It may help to examine an example, such as Shakespeare’s "Sonnet 30."
- Quatrain 1 introduces the situation: Sometimes, when I think about the past, I regret the things and people I’ve lost. This quatrain uses legal terminology to get the point across: sessions and summons.
- Quatrain 2 begins with the transition word “Then,” suggesting that it is connected to Quatrain 1, but moving on to a further development of the idea: when I'm in a nostalgic mood like that, I can cry freely about friends who have passed away or been otherwise lost to me. In this quatrain, he uses the language of commerce to develop the idea: cancelled woe and expenses.
- Quatrain 3 begins again with the transition word “Then,” and further develops the idea using the language of commerce (accounts, payment): Not only do I cry, but I cry heavily, as though I’ve never mourned this loss before.
- The closing couplet marks a turn with the word “But,” which suggests that this is not a continuation (like “Then”), but a new thought. There is no resolution to the problem of mourning here, but there is insight into grief and loss: to think of your memory is wonderful enough to make me feel as though I never lost anything. Again, this couplet continues the imagery of commerce (losses).
Write your Shakespearean sonnet.
- Although you can write a Shakespearean sonnet about anything, they are traditionally love poems; you might keep this in mind if you want to write a purely traditional sonnet.
- Note too that because of the top-heavy stanzaic structure of the Shakespearean sonnet, the form does not lend itself well to highly complex or abstract subjects. The turn and resolution must come quickly, in the final two lines, so choose a subject that can be easily resolved with a witty closing couplet.
- If you have a more contemplative subject, a Petrarchan sonnet may lend itself better to what you want to say.
- Remember to follow the rhyme scheme, to write in iambic pentameter while inserting metrical variation from time to time, and to develop the subject matter through each of the three heroic quatrains, before offering a turn and resolution/insight in the closing heroic couplet.
- Use a rhyming dictionary if you have trouble finding rhymes for the ends of your lines
Note: This article appears as part of a college assignment in ITP104 at the University of Southern California.