What Is a Shakespearean Sonnet?

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  • Written By: Mark Wollacott
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  • Last Modified Date: 13 September 2019
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A Shakespearean sonnet is a variation of a sonnet poem popularized, but not invented, by William Shakespeare. The sonnet is a 14-line poem first translated into English by Thomas Wyatt in the early 16th century. By Shakespeare’s time, it came to have a distinct rhyming structure of three quatrains and a rhyming couplet for a finale. The Shakespearean sonnet, like many other types of sonnet, uses the iambic pentameter structure.

Petrarchan sonnets were the first to appear in English. The Shakespearean sonnet did away with the Petrarchan octave and sestet stanzas and melded the sonnet into one 14-line poem. The rhyming system also changed. The Petrarchan sonnet had a definite rhyming system as demonstrated like this: ‘bat-ten-men-hat, cat-hen-den-mat, hoop-fruit-reel, loop-chute-meal.” The Shakespearean sonnet, on the other hand, uses alternate rhyming and a rhyming couplet like this: hat-hen, bat-men, loop-chute, hoop-fruit, arm-rest, harm-lest, love-dove.”

There are 154 sonnets attributed to the poet and playwright William Shakespeare. The first 152 were first published in 1609 with a further two published in a separate publication. These appeared at a time when Shakespeare’s output appeared to be on the decline; four years later, in 1613, he would stop writing plays and poems.


The first 17 poems of the collection are known as the ‘procreation sonnets’ and are written to a young man urging him to marry and have children. The next 109 poems develop from this onto the theme of love. They conclude with 28 poems about a dark and treacherous lady including “Sonnet 130,” which demonstrates the Shakespearean sonnet in full:

“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 damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That 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.”

After Shakespeare wrote sonnets such as “130,” their popularity began to fade. They were replaced for a time by metaphysical poetry. Their value was reappraised and brought back into vogue by poets of the 18th century such as William Wordsworth. The sonnet remains popular in the modern period and has been used by poets such as Robert Frost and William Butler Yeats.


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Post 3

Shakespeare's Sonnet 130 sounds more like an anti-Petrarchan sonnet than a sonnet. Sonnets are usually about love, like unattainable love. I believe there was a short trend at some point where poets started to scold or rant about women instead of praising them. Sonnet 130 is not even scolding, it sounds like a strong dislike, all until the end when the poet says he loves her. It's surprising and strange. Isn't it?

Post 2

@stoneMason-- Shakespearean sonnet is a modification of the Petrarchan sonnet. Yes, it is based on it but they do not have the same structure as the article described.

You see, Petrarchan sonnet was founded by an Italian poet (Petrarch). And it soon began to be translated into English and written in English. But since the sonnet was more suitable for Italian, the English versions weren't as effective. In part, to resolve this issue, poets modified the Petrarchan sonnet into what came to be known as the Shakespearean sonnet.

It was modified and used before Shakespeare but it was really Shakespeare who popularized it.

Post 1

So a Shakespearean sonnet is a type of Petrarchan sonnet? I thought that these were two different types of sonnets.

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