Monday, 27 February 2012

Richard's Way of Wooing the Ladies | What's Wrong With The Women of Richard III?

The Earliest Surviving Portrait of Richard III (1520)
Strangely, for a man who claims that he “
cannot prove a lover,/To entertain these fair well-spoken days”, Richard III manages to talk his way into negotiations of marriage with two of the most unlikely women. How does he do it? And, more importantly, what were Anne and Elizabeth’s mother, Elizabeth, thinking?

It’s the same old story isn’t it? Boy brutally murders girl’s husband in battle, girl tells boy she hates him. Boy tells girl he only killed her husband, because she’s so incredibly beautiful. Girl says she’d rip her face off if that were true. Boy gives girl a knife and tells her to stab him in the heart. Girl can’t bring herself to and says ‘all right then, I’ll marry ya’!

Richard III, who, if Shakespeare is to be believed, was not exactly the most attractive rooster in the henhouse, is not an obvious ‘romantic hero’; he’s certainly no Heathcliff or Mr Rochester. So, how does he manage to get an acquiescence of marriage from a woman who hates him and a promise, from another woman who hates him, to convince her daughter that he loves her?

The Problem Parts of Richard III

Neither of these scenes (I.ii and IV.iv) sit comfortably with me and, I think, there are two reasons for that. Firstly, it offends my feminist sensibilities. That’s a knee-jerk reaction, though. I’m well aware of the fact that the world has changed and, therefore, the bargaining involved in a contract of marriage; the way women are mere pawns in this process (despite being distasteful) is a fact that must be acknowledged and accepted.

However, the second discomfort is not quite so easy to overlook and that is that Anne and Elizabeth cease to be believable characters to me. I can accept that women had to, essentially, make the best of their lot and didn’t have a lot of choice in…well, anything.

The problem is that these two women, as Shakespeare portrays them, are not lie-down-and-take-it kind of gals. They’re mouthy, intelligent, witty and are quite a match for Richard, who is no slouch in the intellect department (after all, smarts are an important facet of a good villain). Then, suddenly and for no obvious reason, there is a volte-face from both women. Why?

Richard III - Smooth Criminal

Anne Neville - wife of Edward of Westminster
and Richard III (I'm going to guess that's not
the most accurate of portraits)
You’ve got to hand it to a man who can kill a woman’s husband, then, while she is weeping over his bloody corpse, convince her that he did it because he loves her. Understandably, Anne’s first reaction is to tell him to shove off (Shakespeare puts it rather more eloquently), but, as Richard keeps talking, her anger begins to dissipate.

Now, there are a few reasons for her to have changed her mind.

  • She’s flattered by his honeyed words and believes that he loves her
  • She’s worried for her future - with no husband and no children, what’s to become of her?
  • She fears for her own life if she should refuse him
  • She thinks, ‘Oh well, I was supposed to marry him in the first place, might as well go ahead with it now’ (at the age of fourteen, Anne was betrothed to Richard, but her father, unhappy with what he was getting out of the deal, changed his mind and hooked her up with Edward, son of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou - although no mention of this former engagement is mentioned in the play)

Or there could be another reason entirely, and, no matter how many times I read or watch the scene, I can’t come to a conclusion. Incidentally, the video below is from one of the best adaptations of Richard III, in my opinion, Richard Loncraine’s 1995 version with Ian McKellen as Richard and Kristin Scott Thomas as Anne.

Playing The Devoted Uncle

Elizabeth Woodville - Wife of Edward IV
and Sister-in-Law of Richard III (when the
skinhead was fashionable the first time around)
It’s the same old story, boy hates sister-in-law, has her brothers beheaded. Fearing for her sons lives, sister-in-law tries to flee with the youngest. Boy prevents sister-in-law’s getaway and puts her sons (his nephews) in the tower. Boy besmirches his nephews reputation, branding them illegitimate and, once he’s wheedled his way onto the throne, has the pair smothered to death. Boy then goes to sister-in-law suggesting that he should marry her daughter (his niece). Sister-in-law tells boy to get lost. Boy tells sister-in-law that by having children with his niece he’ll be able to put right the deaths of his nephews. Sister-in-law, eventually, says ‘okay then’.

This is possibly even more disturbing than the wooing of Anne, in part because Richard’s attempting to gain permission to marry his niece from the girl’s mother, which to us would be absolutely outrageous - but there were many incestuous relationships within the aristocracy and monarchy.

Mostly, however, it’s because Elizabeth has, arguably, more reason to hate Richard than Anne had. She is also well aware of what Richard is capable of. If we suspend or disbelief and say Anne is convinced by Richard’s ‘innocent act’, Shakespeare can’t possible expect us to believe that Elizabeth would do the same.

She, more than anyone, knows exactly how ruthless he is, so why on Earth would she acquiesce to her daughter marrying him - especially since she has a strong suspicion (as have we) that he killed Anne. Well, there are a few possibilities.

  • She may have felt that her life was in danger if she refused
  • She might have felt that her and her daughter’s lives were in danger if she refused
  • Given the denounced state of her marriage, she may have been concerned over young Elizabeth’s future - if Richard doesn’t marry her, who will?
  • She might have been playing for time, hoping that the rebellion would be successful before any marriage contract could be fulfilled

Again, just like Anne, I can’t reach a decision. Perhaps it is a combination of all of these things, perhaps it is none of them.

Nevertheless, I tend to be of the conviction that it is less Richard’s smooth-talkin’ style and more pragmatism that led both women to say “yes” to him. Their characters, before that bizarre change of heart, forces me to stick with this theory. Richard has, undoubtedly, got the gift of the gab….but, surely, he’s not quite that gifted?

Sunday, 19 February 2012

How Many Plays Did Shakespeare Write?

When Did Shakespeare Write His Plays?
Between Gazing Thoughtfully to
The Right, Apparently
If you believe he wrote anything at all, which I do (see here for more on that), it’s still impossible to know with absolute certainty how much Shakespeare wrote.

Shakespeare began to be noted as one of the hip, young things of the London theatre scene sometime in the early 1590s.

Interestingly, from about 1585 until his plays started to be performed in London, no one knows where Shakespeare was or what he was doing - another argument used in the case against him by the anti-Stratfordians.

However, it is possible that during these ‘lost years’ William Shakespeare was a relatively unknown actor and jobbing playwright. It was, of course, when his plays started to make a splash that he became hot property.

How Many Plays Did Shakespeare Write?

There’s no way of knowing exactly how many plays Shakespeare wrote, it’s unknown how many works he penned in collaboration with other playwrights and, more importantly, it is impossible to be sure whether some plays simply didn’t survive the centuries - and it’s certain that there are at least some plays that have been lost: Love’s Labour’s Won and The History of Cardenio are just two examples that Shakespeare scholars know of.

And when it comes to collaborations, we can be pretty certain that a few of those existed, too. The Noble Kinsman, written with John Fletcher, for example.

However, if we disregard the one collaboration and the two lost plays that are known, there are 37 plays attributed, either solely or predominantly, to William Shakespeare.

Tragedies, Histories and Comedies

What Did Shakespeare Write?: The
Cover of The First Folio, 1623

Each of Shakespeare’s plays was pigeonholed, when published in the first folio of 1623, in one of three genres: tragedy, comedy or history. In truth, these labels are, arguably, as good as useless.

For example, Richard III is categorised as a history play, but conforms to many of the conventions of tragedy. Vice versa, Julius Caesar is labelled tragedy, but is, without doubt a history.

And it gets even more sticky when you start to look at the comedies, that aren’t really comedies.

Although, it should be pointed out that ‘comedy’ didn’t always mean what we use it to mean. Many so-called comedies didn’t have a laugh-out-loud moment in ’em. They did, however, usually end on a ‘happy note’, often with the marriage of one or more young couples.

That said, there are some comedies that have such dubiously tragic content, that even a supposedly happy ending, isn’t quite comfortable. The Merchant of Venice, Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well have ambiguous shifts between very dark subject matter and content that is intended to be humorous.

These three plays, along with Timon of Athens, The Winter’s Tale and Troilus and Cressida, have been labelled Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’, because, although no play fits neatly into one category, these six are even trickier to define. More on problem plays to come in a future post.

When Were Shakespeare’s Plays Written?

It will, by now, probably come as no great surprise to learn that no one can be sure exactly when Shakespeare’s plays were written. After all, if it’s unclear how many he wrote or where he was for almost a decade, it would be a little ambitious to try and put a precise date on all his plays.

However, the few performance records that exist, details that are known of Shakespeare’s career and his theatre company make it possible to give a rough guide to the chronology of his plays.

1590-2Love’s Labour’s LostHenry VI Parts 1,2,3
1592-4The Comedy of Errors

The Two Gentlemen of Verona
1593-4Richard IIITitus Andronicus
1594-6A Midsummer Night's Dream

The Merchant of Venice
King John

Richard II
1594-7The Taming of The ShrewRomeo and Juliet
1597-8Henry IV Parts 1,2
1598-9Henry VJulius Caesar
1597-1600The Merry Wives of Windsor
1598-1600Much Ado About Nothing
1599-1600As You Like It
1599-1601Twelfth Night or What You Will
1600-04All’s Well That Ends Well
1601-3Troilus and Cressida
1603-4Measure for Measure
1605-6King Lear

1607-8PericlesAntony and Cleopatra

Timon of Athens
1610-11The Winter’s Tale
1611-12The Tempest
1612-13Henry VIII

Whatever you may think of him, you've got to admit, he was a prolific little playwright!

If you'd like to learn more about Shakespeare's life, career and plays, check out What's It All About, Shakespeare's first ebook An Introduction to The Bard of Avon.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Who Are Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroes? | Men More Sinned Against Than Sinning

Shakespeare’s tragedies are among the most popular and frequently performed plays in the world, making his tragic heroes some of the most recognised characters.

Shakespeare Gives Us Some of
The Finest Examples of Tragic Heroes
King Lear’s claim that he is “
a man more sinn’d against than sinning” can be debated. After all, his ferocious temper and bad judgement are what lead him to running around the stormy British countryside in the nude. And the same can be said of most Shakespearean tragic heroes - not that they run around nude, but that they are, at least in part, responsible for their own downfalls. Whether they are, in fact, more sinned against than sinning really rather depends upon your point of view.

What’s a Tragic Hero?

However, a traditional, and by that I mean Aristotelian, view of tragic heroes is that they are, without doubt, more sinned against. Aristotle believed that tragic heroes had to be essentially ‘good’ guys. Not saintly, because then an audience would not be able to relate to him. But, he certainly couldn’t be a ‘baddie’, because a tragic hero is never deserving of his fate. If he were, we wouldn’t feel sorry for him.

And in this mix of not too good, and not too bad, there is the tragic flaw or hamartia, as Aristotle would call it. This innate character trait is the chink in a tragic hero’s armour, his Achilles heel; it is what makes his fall from grace inevitable.

Hamartia, which is now used to refer to any tragic flaw, is a little problematic if used in the way Aristotle intended it to be used, however, because, for Aristotle, it meant a flaw which caused an accidental or unforseen act of horror. Let’s use Aristotle’s favourite tragic hero and poster boy, as an example: Oedipus never intends to kill his father and marry his mother, those are completely unforseen events that occur due to his tragic flaw, which is hubris.

How Are Shakespeare’s Tragic Boys Different?

When it comes to some of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, it’s difficult to define their hideous deeds as accidental. Macbeth, for example, doesn’t say, “oops my ambition killed Duncan.” And for Othello, Desdemona’s death cannot be described as an unforseen consequence of his smothering her. Although, I suppose you could argue that he mistakenly thought he was murdering an unfaithful hussy - so that’s where the ‘accident’ comes in.

Anyway, without further ado, let’s look at Shakespeare’s tragic heroes; who they are, what they do and why they’re ‘tragic’.

Anthony Hopkins as The Fatally Flawed Titus (1999) 
Titus: Titus Andronicus was Shakespeare first tragedy (at least the first one we know of). Titus begins the play as a well-respected and recently victorious general in the Roman army.

Hamartia -Lack of interpersonal skills and a distinct lack of sympathy.

Titus makes two catastrophic errors at the beginning of the play, both caused by the character flaws above: First, he refuses to become emperor (even though the people want him to take the crown) and then he kills Tamora’s sons as a sacrifice. What follows is a cycle of revenge and one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest plays.

Romeo: The romantic hero of Romeo and Juliet is a young man with a bright future at the beginning of the play.

Hamartia - An impetuous nature, which leads to rash action

In almost everything he does, including falling in love, Romeo is a jump-straight-in kind of guy. His inability to be able to test the water level leads him to fall head over heels for Juliet, murder Tybalt and then commit suicide.

Caesar: Julius Caesar is unusual among his fellow tragic heroes, because he is murdered at the start of act three, meaning he spends very little time on stage. Although, Caesar is the play’s ‘official’ tragic hero, it could be argued that Anthony and Brutus are also tragic heroes.

Hamartia - Hubris

Whether Caesar is ambitious, as the conspirators claim, is a subject that could be debated. However, it cannot be denied that he has great pride, which he masks with false humility in turning down the crown, and is demonstrated in his unwillingness to listen to the warnings of the soothsayer and his wife, Calpurnia.

Sarah Bernhardt as The
Procrastinating Prince Hamlet (Circa 1880)
Hamlet: Perhaps the most famous example of a Shakespearean tragic hero, Hamlet is the young prince of Denmark whose uncle has killed his father, married his mother and usurped the throne.

Hamartia - Indecisiveness and procrastination

In an attempt to avenge his father’s murder, Hamlet feigns madness. However, when he has the opportunity to kill his uncle, Claudius, he falters. In fact, he spends huge swathes of the play soliloquising about his indecision; “to be or not to be” being just one example. When he does act, he gets it wrong by accidentally killing Polonius. In the end, the play culminates in a bloodbath; the deaths of eight of its dramatis personae.

Othello: Despite rampant racism in Venice, Othello has risen to the rank of general and has won the heart of Desdemona, who elopes with him

Hamartia - Blind trust in the wrong person

For me, it’s far too simplistic to say that Othello’s fatal flaw is jealousy, partly because jealousy springs from other things, such as low self-esteem (which could be a result of the racism he’s faced, rather than an innate character trait). He simply places all his trust in the wrong man, a man with whom he fought with and, therefore, had to trust with his life - so it’s an understandable mistake.

Lear: King Lear is among Shakespeare’s most complicated tragedies, partly because there are so many sub-plots, which support the main action between Lear and his daughters.

Hamartia - Misjudgement, fierce temper and blindness

To be more specific, he places appearance (shows of affection or “the name and all the additions to a king”) over genuine loyalty and reality. Whereas Gloucester is made literally blind, Lear is blind to his faults and the deception of his elder daughters.

As mentioned briefly above, how much of Lear’s downfall is his own doing can be debated. It would be fascinating to know more about the background of the characters, specifically the childhoods of the sisters - what kind of father has Lear been? Unfortunately, Shakespeare leaves this to our imaginations. However, it is something explored in the Japanese/French re-telling of King Lear, entitled Ran.

Edwin Forrest as The Regicidal Scotsman
Macbeth (Before 1872)
Macbeth: Yes, on the face of it, Macbeth might seem more of a villain than a hero, but the regicidal Scotsman is, indeed, one of Shakespeare’s finest tragic hero.

Hamartia: Ambition and hubris

When Macbeth is first met by the witches, he’s already ambitious. After he discovers that one of their prophecies has come true, he’s determined to get his backside on the Scottish throne. Of course, later, when the witches tell Macbeth that “
none of woman born shall harm Macbeth,” he begins to think he’s immortal. Ambition and hubris prove to be a rather nasty cocktail.

Antony: There are many who argue that Antony and Cleopatra isn’t really a tragedy per se, because both characters are passive participants in their downfalls. However, just because it’s not a traditional tragedy doesn’t make it any less interesting.

Hamartia - Worldliness

What do I mean by that? Simply, a love for the finer things in life; good food, wine, art, the pleasures of physical love and, more importantly, a desperation to cling on to those things no matter what the consequences. And, of course, although I’m referring specifically to Antony as a tragic hero, this equally applies to Cleopatra.

Timon: Timon of Athens is another difficult play to categorise definitively, because it often seems more like a philosophical work or political satire than a tragedy, but, of course, it is possible to be all of those things.

Hamartia - An excess of emotions

Whatever Timon feels, he feels strongly, whether that is joy, love for his friends, generosity, anger or hate. He wants to be loved as much as he loves others. However, they take advantage of him and his strong positive emotions are swiftly exchanged for negative ones.

Act V, Scene iii of Coriolanus Illustrated
by Gavin Hamilton (1803)
Coriolanus: Shakespeare’s last tragedy (that we know of) was Coriolanus, another Roman romp, which is an examination of the democratic system and the pitfalls of popular rule.

Hamartia - A lack of enlightened leadership

Just like Titus, Coriolanus is a great warrior, who has been incredibly successful on the battlefield. However, that success does not translate into wisdom in civil leadership.

Many would state that there is hubris involved in Coriolanus’ character and may even claim that this is his fatal flaw. While there is no doubt that Coriolanus has a great deal of pride, in my opinion, this does not have any effect upon his fall from grace.

But what do you think?

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The Writer We Know As William Shakespeare

Today, I’m handing blogging duties over to Warren King, from No Sweat Shakespeare, who has written an excellent guest post on the practicalities of Shakespeare’s writing career. How did he write so much?

Cover of Shakespeare's First Folio:
How Did William Shakespeare Write All of
Those Plays and Poems?
Modern writers have far better facilities for writing than those of past centuries - computers, for example, which have transformed the editing process. One will not find early drafts of prominent writers anymore, which is a pity if we want to make a serious study of an author’s creative processes. Before the invention of word processing, writers could file their drafts away: drafts of Keats’s odes, for example, are available in print, where we see some of the most famous lines in English poetry in their earlier forms, with different words, eventually changed to the words with which we are so familiar.  An
early typescript of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland has been published with crossings out, words, phrases and lines added and deleted, and with annotations by Ezra Pound, who advised Eliot all the way through the writing. Such documents are important to our understanding of those writers and their works.

As we writers sit at our computers we also have a world of information at our disposal, accessible with a couple of clicks of the mouse. In previous generations, research was a matter of acquiring the relevant books and then doing some hard reading.

Writers have different habits: some set a few hours aside every day for writing; others write when they feel like it; some write when the inspiration strikes them. Some writers sit at a desk, the same desk every day; others write wherever they are. Hemingway wrote standing up at an architect’s drawing board, and often sitting in cafes. Poets, particularly, can write anywhere, in any circumstances.

Most writers have full-time jobs and write in their spare time, even some whose names have endured. Anthony Trollope was a senior official in the Post Office all his adult life; Philip Larkin was famous long before he retired from his job as a librarian; John Mortimer was as famous as a barrister as he was as a writer.

Illustration of Shakespeare's Globe:
William Shakespeare Was a Bussinessman
as Well as a Writer
Shakespeare was a very busy man, with substantial commitments to several activities. He was an actor, play broker, impresario, theatre manager: he was also a regular commuter between London and Stratford, with various active interests in the community of his home town. We don’t know many hard facts about Shakespeare but we do know those things.

What we don’t know much about is Shakespeare the writer. All we have are his works. The authorship of those works is disputed, but there is no evidence for their having been written by someone else. We are left, though, with the puzzle of how a man with such a busy life, in times when everything one had to do was so much more time-consuming than it is today, managed to do all that writing. Take travel as an example of the things that took a lot of time. We can travel to Stratford from London in under two hours: it would have taken Shakespeare two or three days.

He set off for London in 1585, aged twenty-one, the year in which the twins, Judith and Hamnet, were born. It is thought that he worked as an actor and it’s clear that he quickly recognised the hunger for plays and the financial rewards for theatres that kept the supply of plays flowing, because he lost no time in jumping on that bandwagon: between 1589 and 1592, he wrote The Comedy of Errors, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, Richard III, The Taming of the Shrew and Titus Andronicus. During the following year, he produced Love’s Labours Lost and Two Gentlemen of Verona. Also in 1593, he started writing the sonnets. His son, Hamnet, died in 1596 and in 1597 he bought a large house, New House, in Stratford, and yet, during those two years there was no pause in his writing – he wrote The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Richard II. And so it went on until his retirement to Stratford in 1612.

Probably the most remarkable year of writing was 1608, the year in which his mother died. It was also the year in which his company, The King’s Men, started playing in The Blackfriars theatre. There would have been a huge demand for plays then and, although the precise chronology of Shakespeare’s plays is unclear, in 1608, he may have written All’s Well That Ends Well, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, Timon of Athens and Troilus and Cressida! That seems a clear response to the need to establish the new theatre in the face of fierce competition.

The Interior of Blackfriars Playhouse,
Shakespeare's Second Theatre
And so the unsolvable question of how he physically did all that arises. Even if the plays were humming in his head as he went about his daily life there is still the matter of actually putting them down on paper. Many of them show clear signs that he would have had to have done some reading in the Classics, in philosophy, geography and current affairs. And, as we have seen, he worked hard at the practical matter of theatre management and travelled regularly to Stratford. We can only speculate about how he did it all.

He had lodgings about an hour’s walk from the theatres, to which he would have gone home every day when the work of the theatre ended. After a hard day in the theatre he might have sat down and worked. It may be that he formulated a scene or two as he walked home and all it needed then was to get it down. We cannot say how much sleep he needed, but perhaps he worked till the early hours, slept briefly, then went off to work, sometimes with a new, badly needed script. He would have been working to deadlines because of the demand for new plays, so that would have been a strong incentive to get on with it. The more the plays kept coming the more money he would be making and, indeed, he retired a very rich man. He was a success as a writer and an equal success as a businessman.

Perhaps he wrote somewhere in the theatre as well. If everything was going smoothly and he wasn’t needed, who is to say that he didn’t spend hours writing on the spot?

His plays show that he had an intimate knowledge of pub life: perhaps he went to a tavern and sat in a corner writing. And all the travelling he did, perhaps hitching a ride on the back of a wagon, may have provided writing opportunities. Not everyone can write in such circumstances – an extremely bumpy ride – but we have testimony, for example, from Trollope – another prolific writer - about writing in the cabin of a small boat in a sea storm.

Shakespeare was a dedicated writer, and dedicated writers do not make excuses – they just get on with the writing. He would probably be very surprised if he could come back today to see that he is regarded as the greatest, most enduring, English writer in history, as that wouldn’t have been his aim. He would have seen himself as a hack, like all the other playwrights. Writing plays was just a craft, which is why the word ‘playwright’ is in the same class as ‘wheelwright’ – an artisan who made wheels. But he was a rare genius and, combined with being what today we call a ‘workoholic,’ he gave us the ‘Shakespeare’ that we know today.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

What is a Shakespearean Sonnet?

Because it’s called a ‘Shakespearean sonnet’, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was Shakespeare who invented that form of poetry. Nevertheless, you would've thunk wrong.

Why is it Called a Shakespearean Sonnet?

Shakespeare Didn't 'Invent' the Shakespearean Sonnet:
It Was Henry Howard (Earl of Surrey) Portrait From 1546
Officially, the Shakespearean sonnet is the ‘English sonnet’, which is a spin on Petrarchan sonnets.

The sonnet form was brought to England in the first half of the 16th century, and given its own individual stamp by a chap called Henry Howard, who was the Earl of Surrey. Now, it’s not just because ‘Howardan sonnet’ sounds strange that the form wasn’t named after him.

The truth is that Shakespeare, although he didn’t create that form of poetry (and didn’t start writing poems until several years after Howard invented the style), is considered the master of it.

So, what is a Shakespearean sonnet and how do these poems differ from the Petrarchan sonnets that came before?

The Form of a Shakespearean Sonnet

Essentially, a Shakespearean sonnet is 14 verses (or lines); divided into three quatrains (groups of four verses) and a final rhyming couplet.

One thing that does set Shakespeare apart from his peers is that the volta (a thematic shift or turn) occurs in the rhyming couplet. In other English sonnets, the volta is found within the third quatrain - in Petrarchan sonnets it is usually in verse 9.

How do you recognise a volta when you see one? Well, think of it as the “Yeah, but, let’s look at it another way.” moment of the poem. They are found in almost all sonnets and can be identified by the use of certain words, for example, ‘but’, if’,yet’ or ‘and yet’.

"If some suspect of ill mask’d not thy show…" (Sonnet 70)
"Yet eyes this cunning want to grace their art…" (Sonnet 24)

The meter in most of Shakespeare’s sonnets is iambic pentameter (with a little bit of flexibility, such as feminine endings and trochaic feet) and a rhyme scheme of abab, cdcd, efef, gg.

What’s iambic pentameter? The iamb is a group of two syllables an unstressed one followed by a stressed one. Pent, meaning five, indicates that each line has five of these iambs. To put it another way, iambic pentameter sounds like this:

De dum, de dum, de dum, de dum, de dum

Of course, our friend Shakespeare puts it rather more eloquently than that…

“How like a winter hath my absence been” (Sonnet 97)

What’s a trochaic foot? Known in the singular as a trochee, it’s the reverse of an iamb. In other words, it a group of two syllables one stressed and the second unstressed.

What’s a feminine ending? Quite simply, if a line of pentameter has a feminine ending, it has an additional unstressed syllable. So, it has a total of 11 rather than 10 beats. For example…

“Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing” (Sonnet 87)

What Makes Shakespeare’s Sonnets Different?

Title Page of Shakespeare Sonnet (1609)
Apart from the positioning of the volta, Shakespeare was a maverick in one or two other ways. The tradition of Petrarchan sonnets is that they were ‘love’ poems; romantic in nature, praising the beauty of the poet’s lover in an over-the-top manner.

Now, although with a cursory glance, it may seem that Shakespeare conforms to these conventions, he doesn’t. 126 of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets are addressed not to a female lover, but to a man: The ‘Fair Youth’, who was probably a patron of the poet and playwright.

Sonnet 127 to 152 are centred around a woman known as the ‘Dark Lady’, but even in these poems, Shakespeare is breaking with Petrarchan conventions. He writes about sex in Sonnet 129, seems to mock love in Sonnet 128 and parodies beauty in Sonnet 130.

All this has led some to wonder whether Shakespeare was having a laugh and merely lampooning Petrachan sonnets with his own. We’ll probably never know whether this was his intention, but, joke or not, one thing is for sure, Shakespeare’s sonnets proved inspirational for future poets, such as that other genius of the sonnet form Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

If you’d like to learn more about Shakespearean sonnets, take a look at What’s It All About, Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon.

Are you a fan of Shakespeare’s Sonnets? If so, which one is your favourite? Let me know in the comments below.