Characteristics of a Shakespearean Sonnet


Sonnet, a fourteen-line poem, was introduced in Italy by Petrarch during the 14th Century. He used it as love poetry having rhyming verses in it.

Later, it was adopted in England, France, Spain and Germany during the 16th and 17th Centuries. Sonnet, a lyric poem, revolves around the themes of courtly love affairs, sexual intimacies, politics and religious beliefs.

Although many poets tried their hands on the sonnet, Donne, Milton, Spenser, Shakespeare, Keats and Wordsworth’s sonnets leave an everlasting impression on the minds and hearts of the readers. Sonnet is divided into two main types on the basis of its rhyming scheme including:

(1) The Italian or Petrarchan Sonnet: It comprises of an octave containing eight lines and a sestet of six lines. The rhyming scheme of an octave is abbaabba while sestet rhymes as cdecde or cdcdcd.

(2) The English or Shakespearean Sonnet: It comprises of three quatrains followed by a couplet in the end. The rhyming scheme of this sonnet is ababcdcdefefgg.


The sonnets composed by Shakespeare became the most popular genre in English literature widely read and acknowledged by the readers across the globe. Shakespeare had composed around 154 sonnets during the years 1592-1598.

The sonnets of Shakespeare were published by Thomas Thorpe in 1609. Shakespeare’s sonnets comprise three quatrains and a final couplet with a regular rhyming scheme of ababcdcdefefgg.

Each quatrain in Shakespearean sonnet revolves around a different image or idea to express the main theme of the sonnet. Shakespeare’s sonnets can be divided into two broad categories owing to their themes and subject matters.

His earlier sonnets (from 1 to 126) are written about a young man whom the poet loves and admires with all his heart.

The first seventeen sonnets of this category are composed to convince the young man to marry and have children in order to lead a happy and satisfied life while the remaining sonnets are written by Shakespeare to narrate the power of pure love and poetry in defeating and destroying death?

Shakespeare’s final sonnets (from 127 to 154) address a promiscuous lady known as the ‘dark lady.’

These sonnets describe the sinful obsession of the poet and the young man with the temptress. Unlike his earlier sonnets, the tone and mood of these sonnets are depressing and distressing dealing with the uncontrollable desires and sinful acts.

Look in thy glass, and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should form another;
Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest,
Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.
For where is she so fair whose unear'd womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?
Or who is he so fond will be the tomb
Of his self-love, to stop posterity?


Although Shakespeare has established his reputation as a playwright, his sonnets are regarded as one of the most beautifully composed poems in the history of English Literature.

Revolving around the themes of unrequited love, ill desires and sensuous acts, Shakespearean sonnet remains successful in leaving its mark on the minds and hearts of its readers.

Written in a simple language, Shakespeare’s sonnets are widely read and appreciated by the readers of English poetry even in the modern era long after the death of the great poet.