Shakespeare, Sonnets

Sonnets of William Shakespeare

Apart from his dramatic work and two short epics, WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE wrote a sequence of 154 sonnets published by the stationer THOMAS THORPE in 1609. All of these poems centre around the theme of human relationships, like his famous Sonnet No. 18:

 Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date.
( … )

Features of the Sonnet

The sonnet is a lyrical form that can be traced back to the Italian Renaissance poet FRANCESCO PETRARCH (1304–1374). It is written in one stanza consisting of fourteen lines that rhyme in an intricate pattern. The English or Shakespearean sonnet differs sligthly from its model in form. For comparison, the table below places them side by side:Bild

  • The Italian sonnet consists of an octave with an embracing rhyme and a sestet with an alternating rhyme.
  • The Shakespearean sonnet falls into three quatrains with a rhyming couplet at the end. It has lines in iambic pentameters with an alternating rhyme.


The external structure corresponds to the line of argumentation developed in the sonnet. Usually each quatrain adds a new aspect to the overall line of thought, or the thesis of the first quatrain is complemented by its antithesis in the second or third one.
The final couplet, as a rule, differs in rhyme and rhythm from the preceding lines. It consists of a conclusion drawn from the arguments mentioned before and expresses the final emphasis, which the poem has gathered so far.

The sonnet seems to have been the most fashionable lyrical form in the late 16th century. It was a convention of the Elizabethan age to write sonnet sequences exploring the various aspects or the development of love. The first sonnets of SHAKEPEARE's sequence reflect the development of his relationship to a young man; the last series of poems is dedicated to a 'dark woman' the poet must have been in love with. SHAKESPEARE's sonnets are proof of his familiarity with human conflicts.

Recurrent Motifs in Sonnets of the Elizabethan Age

Recurrent motifs used in sonnets of the Elizabethan age are:

 the immortality motif: it tries to overcome time's destructiveness, e.g.
  But thy eternal summer shall not fade
(W. Shakespeare, Sonnet No. 18, line 9)
 the “carpe diem” motif or motif of transience: It underlines the shortness of youth and human life; e.g.
  I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste.

(W. Shakespeare, Sonnet No. 30, lines 3–4)

Other Writers of Sonnets

The form of the Italian sonnet has been successfully employed with slight alterations by a number of English poets, e.g.

  • EDMUND SPENSER (1552–99),
  • JOHN MILTON (1608–74),
  • WILLIAM WORDSWORTH (1770–1850),
  • JOHN KEATS (1795–1821),
  • ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING (1806–61; Sonnets from the Portuguese).

SHAKESPEARE himself was no strict observant of the sonnet form. Some of his sonnets have a different metre, and the main pause comes either after the eighth or after the twelfth line.


The theme of love, and the fashion in which PETRARCH presented it, was imitated by English poets of the Renaissance. Due to innumerable imitations, PETRARCH's figures of speech lost their literary quality and were reduced to worn-out clichés of idealized beauty (e.g. ebony brows, rose lips, eyes like stars or suns; moral beauty: chastity, angelic character). This imitation of PETRARCH's style is called Petrarchism.
SHAKESPEARE ridiculed Petrarchan clichés in his Sonnet No. 139, which describes his love whose beauty is far from ideal:

 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.
( … )

Another Poet's Comment

Finally the poet JOHN KEATS on SHAKESPEARE's Sonnets:
“One of the three books I have with me is Shakespeare's Poems: I never found so many beauties in the Sonnets - they seem to be full of fine things said unintentionally – in the intensity of working out conceits.”

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