Exploring Shakespeare’s Sonnets

To commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Young Poets Network is taking a closer look at some of his most famous poetic works – the sonnets. Explore the controversies surrounding this extraordinary collection of poems, and trace the legacy of Shakespeare’s sonnets right up to the present day. 

Image: Meg
Image: Meg

Shakespeare’s name may be synonymous with some of the world’s greatest dramatic works, but he also wrote a considerable amount of poetry – in addition to the 154 published sonnets, Shakespeare also produced the poems ‘Venus and Adonis’, ‘The Rape of Lucrece’, ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’, ‘The Passionate Pilgrim’, and ‘A Lover’s Complaint’. It’s thought Shakespeare first turned his attention seriously to poetry when plague hit London in the early 1590s and theatres were shut down to help prevent the spread of disease – poetry was a way of earning his keep!

Some background on the sonnet form

The sonnet was already a well-established poetic form in England when Shakespeare began writing his own. The word ‘sonnet’ itself comes from the Italian sonnetto, meaning ‘little song’. The Italian poet Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) is credited with originating the form, whose strict, fourteen-line structure he used to express his feelings for his beloved muse, Laura.

The popularity of the sonnet soon spread, and several Elizabethan poets, including Philip SidneyThomas Wyatt and Edmund Spenser, were quick to jump onto the sonnet bandwagon. Shakespeare was an acknowledged master of the form, to the extent that the English sonnet (whose structure differs from the Italian or ‘Petrarchan’ sonnet, above) is more often called a ‘Shakespearean sonnet’ in recognition of his influence.

The mechanics of a sonnet

A Shakespearean sonnet usually (but not always!) includes the following elements:

  • 14 lines in total
  • Three four-line stanzas (or quatrains) following the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef
  • Followed by one rhyming two-line stanza (or couplet) gg
  • The three quatrains lay out a problem question or situation
  • The rhyming couplet then answers or proposes a solution to the quatrains
  • The change in thought or argument between the quatrains and the final couplet is referred to as the volta, or turn.

This is opposed to the other main sonnet tradition – the Petrachan sonnet – which normally goes like this:

  • Also 14 lines in total
  • One eight-line stanza (or octave) following the rhyme scheme abba cdcd
  • Followed by one six-line stanza (sestet) with the rhyme scheme efef gg
  • The first stanza lays out a problem, question or situation
  • The second then answers or proposes a solution to the first
  • The volta happens at the start of the sestet – leaving more time to respond to the initial problem
The Chandos portrait of William Shakespeare, associated with John Taylor

Some of the phrases from Shakespeare’s sonnets are so well known that most people will immediately recognise them, even if they can’t put their finger on where they’re from! “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”; and “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”, for example, are probably the lines most likely to ring a few bells with even the most fanatical Shakespeare shunners.

154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets were published in total, and it’s thought that he composed most of these over a period of several years between 1592 and 1598, when he would have been in his early thirties. The sonnets first came to light in a folio published in 1609 by Thomas Thorpe – some people think Thorpe may have done this without Shakespeare’s permission…

This is only the first of many controversies which surround Shakespeare’s sonnets, and part of their continuing appeal is just how mystery-shrouded they remain. One of the most basic arguments about the poems revolves around who they’re about, and, following on from this, how they should be arranged and classified. Although there are various complex categories and sub-categories, the sonnets can generally be divided into two main groups


The ‘Fair Youth’ sonnets (1-126)

These sonnets all seem to be addressed to a young male friend of the speaker. In some of these sonnets the poet urges the youth to marry and have a family; elsewhere, the poet seems to view the youth variously as a friend, lover and rival. This ‘fair youth’ is never identified by name, but guesses abound as to who the man might be – particularly because the sonnets as a whole carry the mysterious dedication, “To […] Mr. W.H”.  Many stake their claim on Henry Wriothesely, 3rd Earl of Southampton, as the most likely candidate for the ‘fair youth’ – although even the most through Elizabethan detective-work has trouble connecting the two men in real life as intimately as the poems imply. What do you think?

Sonnet 116

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

The ‘Dark Lady’ sonnets (127-154)

These sonnets address an elusive woman, whose dark hair, eyes and complexion spark passion, admiration, jealous and frustration in the speaker.  Again, the ‘Dark Lady’ is never named, but as with the ‘Fair Youth’ people have been quick to propose a real-life counterpart – this list includes Emilia Lanier, Lady Penelope Rich, and Mrs Florio. The Dark Lady alternately seems to anger and delight the speaker: sometimes she is “tyrannous” and “cruel”; elsewhere the speaker waxes lyrical about her beauty and his love for her.  


Sonnet 132

Thine eyes I love, and they, as pitying me,
Knowing thy heart torments me with disdain,
Have put on black and loving mourners be,
Looking with pretty ruth upon my pain.
And truly not the morning sun of heaven
Better becomes the grey cheeks of the east,
Nor that full star that ushers in the even,
Doth half that glory to the sober west,
As those two mourning eyes become thy face:
O! let it then as well beseem thy heart
To mourn for me since mourning doth thee grace,
And suit thy pity like in every part.
Then will I swear beauty herself is black,
And all they foul that thy complexion lack.

Contemporary sonnets

The popularity of the sonnet as the poetic form of choice for writers was fading even before Shakespeare’s death, though it periodically enjoyed, and still enjoys, resurgences in popularity – its use can be traced from Shakespeare through to John Donne, to Victorian poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, to contemporary poets including Don Paterson, whose latest collection, 40 Sonnets, won the 2015 Costa Poetry Award. 

Although it’s lost some of its dominance since its Elizabethan heyday, the sonnet has never fallen completely out of favour; in fact, it’s remained popular enough to coin its own verb – ‘to sonneteer’ (meaning, as you may have guessed, the writing of sonnets). Contemporary English-to English ‘translations’ of the sonnets, and blogs such as Pop Sonnets, which translate the latest hits into Shakespearean verse, are helping to keep the form current for a whole new generation of writers and readers. Now there’s really no excuse not to find out what Beyoncé sounds like in iambic pentameter.

Foyle Young Poet of the Year 2015 Jonathan Stone wrote a series of sonnets, including ‘“Break?”’, during his Arvon writing course for Foyle Award-winning poets:

“Oh, thanks.” You curl your fingers round the cue,
taking a nervous aim, and strike the white,
scatter the wedge of coloured balls – now you
and I will play together for the night.
We’ve work to do, no doubt, but nothing fun,
or not as much as this. I watch you play,
leg over. Bent. You pot another one,
but we can’t hear it rolling on its way
back to the others. Stuck. I slide my hand
into the pocket, you search the return.
We feel around. I flinch back from your hand.
We have more than the rules of pool to learn.
We could talk man-to-man – we could be clear
together. You and I play on in fear.

Jonathan says of his poem:

“‘Break?'” is about a moment of unspoken mutual attraction that you only realise you haven’t acted on by the time it’s too late to act on it. The sonnet suits it well, being a short form of fixed length with that ‘volta’ right before the end – you have that sense of compression, of it all happening too quickly to register, then a final realisation that it’s ending, then it stops. And you aren’t getting more than those fourteen lines, so it makes that brief moment seem retrospectively more important.

Image: Alexandre Duret-Lutz

Do you fancy going sonneteering? You can find even more inspiration in The Poetry Archive’s Shakespeare 400 Collection, a special series of recordings in which ten major poets, including Jackie Kay, Andrew Motion and Jo Shapcott, choose a favourite Shakespeare sonnet and respond to it with one of their own. Why not have a go at this yourself? We’d love to hear how you get on!

Likewise, if you’re doing anything special to commemorate the Shakespeare 400 anniversary, let us know about it on Twitter, Facebook or by dropping us a line at [email protected]

Visit the Shakespeare 400 website to find out more about commemoration events happening all over the UK.

Published April, 2016

5 thoughts on “Exploring Shakespeare’s Sonnets

    1. Hi Jade,

      Brilliant! Thanks for sending us the link, can’t wait to listen to this. Do keep us up to date with your wonderful poetic/ musical creations!

      Young Poets Network

  1. Hello,

    Some lovely resources here, although the type of sonnet described in the ‘mechanics of a sonnet’ section is a Petrarchan sonnet, not a Shakespearean sonnet.

    1. Hi there,

      Thanks for your comment. You are quite right – we’re not sure how that happened! We’ll fix that now, thanks very much for letting us know.

      Best wishes,

      Helen at Young Poets Network

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