You can write a Shakespearean sonnet! Yes, you. But what is a Shakespearean sonnet, you might ask? Can you learn how to write a Shakespearean sonnet today?
Chances are your high school English class is a distant memory. So let’s take a quick look at the facts. After all, you need to know what you’re working with before you can do it well.
We will look at some history and structure before getting down to the how-tos of Shakespearean sonnet writing. Keep reading and before long you’ll be ready to write your own Shakespearean sonnet.
What is a Sonnet?
At its core, a sonnet is 14 lines of poetry. It is written in iambic pentameter. That means that every second syllable is stressed, or emphasized — with there being 10 syllables in each line. Remember that definition; we’ll come back to it in a little bit.
The word “sonnet” comes from the Italian and means “little song.” That’s because, when read aloud, a sonnet flows like a song. And yes, you guessed it. Sonnets originated in Italy. Which leads us to some history.
How the Sonnet Came to Shakespeare
The Italian, or Petrarchan sonnet arrived in England during the 16th century. It was particularly popular among the upper classes of English society. Nobles enjoyed dabbling in poetry, and the sonnet was a popular way of romanticizing a loved one.
While the Petrarchan sonnet was divided into two parts, with a turning point or “volta” occurring 8 lines into the sonnet, the English modified this form.
While Shakespeare didn’t create this style, most of his sonnets were written using the English sonnet form. Shakespeare’s sonnets became so popular that the English form is now remembered as the Shakespearean sonnet. By dividing the first 12 lines into three rhyming sections, and then concluding with a pithy or deep two-verse rhymed couplet, Shakespeare and others took more time to explore subjects.
In a typical Shakespearean sonnet, the first twelve lines of poetry will explore the subject in different ways. Then the last two lines sum it up, either seriously or lightly. Shakespeare particularly enjoyed using the last rhyming couplet in a sonnet to add a humorous twist at the end of a serious poem, or to go from light-hearted to sober.
Now that you know where the Shakespearean sonnet originated, and a little of its history, let’s focus on organization, or how to write a Shakespearean sonnet.
Creating the Structure of a Shakespearean Sonnet
In the spirit of our 3×3 Writing Process, we are going to take some time analyzing and understanding the components of a Shakespearean sonnet. To create a Shakespearean sonnet, you will need three things. You’ve read about them already, but we’re going to review them here.
Three Parts of a Shakespearean Sonnet
- 14 lines of iambic pentameter
- 3 quatrains, or groups of verses with an alternating rhyme scheme (ABAB, CDCD, EFEF)
- A rhyming couplet conclusion (GG)
Wait! you are wailing. I thought sonnets made sense. But what are all these news words?
Iambic pentameter is a form of poetic meter, or rhythm: a pattern of unstressed to stressed words. We can see this this pattern in the opening of Sonnet 116:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
As you can see, there are ten syllables in each line, with a stress laid on every other syllable.
Quatrain is the word for a grouping of four lines of verse with every other verse rhyming. You can see the color coded rhyming sequence in our graphic of Sonnet 116.
A rhyming couplet . . . yes, you guessed it. Two lines of verse, that rhyme. See, you are learning fast!
Ready to put this all together? Take a deep breath. Now, another.
There you go. That’s how a Shakespearean sonnet is organized. On the left you can see the three quatrains and then the rhyming couplet conclusion. On the right the rhyme sequences are color coded within each quatrain as well as the final couplet.
Some people have described sonnets, with all their rules, like a box. With their consistent 14 lines, they even look a little box-like in their printed final form. Yet if you want to learn how to be a better writer, learning these rules and working within them can be excellent practice.
Summing Up Sonnets
Aren’t sonnets a little bit, well, old-fashioned? No! If you write a sonnet, you are joining the ranks of many famous poets who followed Shakespeare: from Edna St. Vincent Millay to Wilfred Owen, Seamus Heaney to even T. S. Elliot, who tucked a sonnet in the midst of his Wasteland. Sonnets are a recurring poetic art form.
Why write a sonnet? Maybe you’re trying to write more. Maybe you read How to Develop a Daily Writing Habit and are taking the “trying different writing methods” to a whole new poetry level.
Remember how the saying goes? You have to know the rules before you can break them, let alone use them. Now that you’ve gotten this far, you now know the rules. You are now ready to…nope–not yet.
This is creative writing. Yes, it is more organic than writing a blog post. But you still need to focus; this will help you as you learn how to be a better writer. Take a piece of paper and start jotting down ideas.
Three Questions to Ask
What/or Who will your Shakespearean sonnet be about?
Sonnets tend to praise something. Shakespeare wrote about romantic love, but he also focused on friendship in his sonnets.
You could write a romantic sonnet. Or like Shakespeare, what if you do something new? You could write about a friend, a relative, even a pet.
What ideas will you include?
Shakespeare often reflected on mortality, but contrasted it with the lasting power of words and art. An example of this is the rhyming couplet that ends Sonnet 18:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Time and art and eternity, all in two lines; what ideas will you weave into your sonnet?
What word pictures can you use?
Shakespeare used the weather, seasons, and even navigation as examples to extol or explain his love. What is something you often compare things to? Be creative!
You are ready now. You know how to write a Shakespearean sonnet. Go for it! But if you run into a roadblock, that is absolutely normal.
Writing and Troubleshooting
You’ve put pen to paper and your sonnet is on the way. But maybe it’s not moving smoothly yet. We are here to help.
Four Quick Tips
- At first you might find the poetic rhythm of a sonnet difficult. Do yourself a favor and read some Shakespearean sonnets. Not only will reading inspire you, it will also help your mind get into iambic pentameter.
- If you’re trying to nail down iambic pentameter, use your fingers to sound out and count syllables. It’s an easy visual for how many more syllables you need, or if you have too many, or if you’ve just composed the perfect 10-syllable line!
- Can’t fit your thought into one line? Shakespeare couldn’t always, either. Look at Sonnet 118 again, and notice how some of his thoughts creep across lines; it’s not a matter of ending each line with a complete thought, but rather picking a word you can rhyme with later.
- Having trouble with rhyming? Have no fear! There are some amazing resources online; take a look at this free rhyming dictionary for some inspiration.
Don’t give up! Have fun. Press on. At the end of the day, after much counting on your fingers, and recounting, rewording, and rhyming…you will know how to write a Shakespearean sonnet and write a sonnet of your own.
Not everyone can say that!