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.

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