Sonnet Structure

There are fourteen lines in a Shakespearean sonnet. The first twelve lines are divided into three quatrains with four lines each. In the three quatrains the poet establishes a theme or problem and then resolves it in the final two lines, called the couplet. The rhyme scheme of the quatrains is abab cdcd efef. The couplet has the rhyme scheme gg. This sonnet structure is commonly called the English sonnet or the Shakespearean sonnet, to distinguish it from the Italian Petrarchan sonnet form which has two parts: a rhyming octave (abbaabba) and a rhyming sestet (cdcdcd). The Petrarchan sonnet style was extremely popular with Elizabethan sonneteers, much to Shakespeare’s disdain (he mocks the conventional and excessive Petrarchan style in Sonnet 130).

Breaking it down further…..

Sonnet 130 follows the rhyme scheme ABABCDCDEFEFGG.

The first twelve lines rhyme in alternating pairs. They are devoted to the main idea of the poem, with the poet talking of his mistress in less than complimentary terms.

These lines list the different things that you can praise about somebody.

Sonnet 130 is, in my opinion, (JRM), one of Shakespeare’s most amusing.

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun; A

Coral is far more red than her lips’ red; B

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; A

If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head. B

I have seen roses damasked, red and white, C

But no such roses see I in her cheeks; D

And in some perfumes is there more delight C

Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks. D

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know E

That music hath a far more pleasing sound; F

I grant I never saw a goddess go; E

My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground. F

rhyming couplet finishes the sonnet.This final rhyming couplet creates a sense of conclusion, which emphasises the speaker’s affection for his mistress despite all the previous undermining of her beauty.

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare G

As any she belied with false compare. G

This final rhyming couplet contains a volta. In poetry, the volta is a rhetorical shift or dramatic change in thought and/or emotion. You could describe it as a ‘twist’.

So far the speaker has been criticising his mistress, but the final two lines show that he still thinks she is beautiful

Only three of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets do not conform to this structure: Sonnet 99, which has 15 lines; Sonnet 126, which has 12 lines; and Sonnet 145, which is written in iambic tetrameter.

Shakespeare’s sonnets are written predominantly in a meter called iambic pentameter, a rhyme scheme in which each sonnet line consists of ten syllables. The syllables are divided into five pairs called iambs or iambic feet. An iamb is a metrical unit made up of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. An example of an iamb would be good BYE. A line of iambic pentameter flows like this:

baBOOM / baBOOM / baBOOM / baBOOM / baBOOM.

Here are some examples from the sonnets:

When I / do COUNT / the CLOCK / that TELLS / the TIME (Sonnet 12)

When IN / dis GRACE / with FOR / tune AND / men’s EYES
I ALL / a LONE / be WEEP / my OUT/ cast STATE (Sonnet 29)

Shall I / com PARE/ thee TO / a SUM / mer’s DAY?
Thou ART / more LOVE / ly AND / more TEM / per ATE (Sonnet 18)

Shakespeare’s plays are also written primarily in iambic pentameter, but the lines are unrhymed and not grouped into stanzas. Unrhymed iambic pentameter is called blank verse. It should be noted that there are also many prose passages in Shakespeare’s plays and some lines of trochaic tetrameter, such as the Witches’ speeches in Macbeth.