How to Write a Shakespearean Sonnet

When most people think of sonnets, only one name comes to mind: William Shakespeare. As we’ve seen in this series, although the sonnet form he used is the most well-known in the main, it is certainly not the only form. After mentioning it in the two previous tutorials in this series, we set our sights on the Shakespearean sonnet.

The History of the Shakespearean Sonnet

Unlike the Spenserian sonnet, which was named for its creator, the Shakespearean form gets its name from the man who made it indelibly famous. It was originally created by Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, as a riff on the Italian sonnet, the rhyming scheme of which is not easy to replicate in English.

As a bit of irony, the Shakespearean sonnet is also known as the English sonnet, a name which – if you remember our discussion about Spenser’s goals – should rightfully go to the style crafted by the Faerie Queene author. However, calling this form “English” is a nod toward Howard’s goal of making sonnets easier to write in that language, and has no relation to Spenser’s national literature campaign.

Parts of a Shakespearean Sonnet

Like the Spenserian, the Shakespearean sonnet is composed of three quatrains and a couplet. Each quatrain explores a different idea, and the ideas – when taken as a whole – form a cohesive unit.

The rhyming pattern here is much more forgiving than in the previous forms, however, being: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. This scheme requires the writer to invent fewer rhyme-sets, allowing for more flexibility.

As in the Italian sonnet, the volta often comes at the ninth line, at the beginning of the third quatrain. This is not a hard and fast rule, however, as many Shakespearean sonnets place the turn at the beginning of the couplet. As always, the part of the poem that falls after the volta is an answer to the problem explored in the early lines.

An Example of a Shakespearean Sonnet

The following is William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 141.” You may remember it as the teacher’s rap in 10 Things I Hate About You. Notice how each quatrain develops an idea, and how each begins and ends clearly. The volta comes in the ninth line, but take note of the indented couplet, which is a sentence unto itself.

In faith, I do not love thee with mine eyes,
For they in thee a thousand errors note;
But ’tis my heart that loves what they despise,
Who, in spite of view, is pleased to dote;
Nor are mine ears with thy tongue’s tune delighted,
Nor tender feeling, to base choices prone,
Nor taste, nor smell, desire to be invited
To any sensual feast with thee alone:
But my five wits nor my five senses can
Dissuade one foolish heart from serving thee,
Who leaves unswayed the likeness of a man,
Thy proud heart’s slave and vassal wretch to be.
Only my plague thus far I count my gain,
That she that makes me sin awards me pain.

This is the last in my series of sonnet tutorials. What kind of writing how-to guides would you like to see next? Let me know in the comments.