The term Shakespearean couplet derives its name from the works of William Shakespeare, a famous English writer who composed several well-known works during the 16th and 17th centuries. While his plays are perhaps better known, Shakespeare also composed several poems called sonnets. These works — along with some of his plays — contained two-line rhyming observations known as couplets. Specific Shakespearean couplets found in the sonnets include rhymed couplets or heroic couplets. The writer's plays often contained a form called a capping couplet.
Sonnet couplets comprised the bulk of Shakespearean couplets. Shakespeare's sonnets contained fourteen lines. The first twelve lines introduced a problem or theme, usually related to love. Two separate lines at the poem's conclusion, normally rhyming and of the same length, are the couplet. Couplets found in sonnets provided an answer to the problem or question presented in the first portion of the poem, or they worked as a general commentary on the poem's theme.
When the final words in each line of a couplet have the same ending sound, the couplet is known as a rhymed couplet. Rhymed verse was common in Shakespeare’s works, and in Shakespearean couplets in particular. Consider Shakespeare's closing lines of his first sonnet: "Pity the world, or else this glutton be / To eat the world's due, by the grave and thee." A typical symbolic representation of this type of rhyme scheme is AA, indicating that two successive lines rhyme.
In Shakespearean couplets, a rhymed coupled may be further categorized as a heroic couplet. This form takes place when the lines of the couplet are written in iambic pentameter. Meters specifically reference the rhythm that lines of poetry create. The rhythm is built by combining different patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. Five pairs of one unstressed syllable and one stressed syllable — totaling ten syllables in a line — are what create an iambic pentameter.
Many parts of Shakespearean literature are written in blank verse, which is rhythmic poetry without a rhyme scheme. Shakespearean couplets known as capping couplets are sometimes paired with this technique, however. Blank verse was employed by Shakespeare in plays so that his characters would sound natural yet still somewhat refined. Many of the long monologues or dialogues often employed blank verse, and on occasion Shakespeare would end these speeches with a rhymed couplet to provide a contrast and a dramatic flair to the speech’s conclusion, such as in the historical play Henry V: "His jest will savor but of shallow wit / When thousands weep more than did laugh at it."