Poetry Rivals 2016

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How to Write a Shakespearean Sonnet

Date Posted: 18-08-2014 11:32:13

We’re going to be looking at different poetry techniques and how to adopt them over the next few weeks and where better to start than with arguably the greatest writer of all time – William Shakespeare.


Between 1589 and 1613 Shakespeare wrote 38 plays consisting of tragedies, comedies and romances (sometimes referred to as tragicomedies). During this time he also wrote 154 sonnets. The sonnet was a popular form in Elizabethan England. Inspired by the Italian Petrarchan sonnets but adapted to include rhyming meter and quatrains, the form became known as the English or Elizabethan sonnet. However, with Shakespeare being the most famous of its practitioners and with his proliferation of the form, they are now often referred to as Shakespearean sonnets.


So, how to write a Shakespearean sonnet:


First, you need to get to grips with iambic pentameter. (Shakespeare was a big fan of iambic pentameter – he also used it in his plays but without the rhyming scheme.)


An iamb is a metrical unit, or foot, made up of one unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed syllable. For example: goodbye.  


A pentameter is a line of poetry that has five feet, or metrical units.


So iambic pentameter is a line of poetry made up of five iambs:
baboom baboom baboom baboom baboom


A sonnet uses iambic pentameter throughout, so each line should have 10 syllables.

It consists of 14 lines, broken down into 3 quatrains (stanzas with 4 lines) and a rhyming couplet.


The rhyming scheme is as follows:

abab cdcd efef gg


Here’s one of Shakespeare’s most famous examples:


Sonnet 18


Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? (a)
Thou art more lovely and more temperate: (b)
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, (a)
And summer's lease hath all too short a date; (b)
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, (c)
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd; (d)
And every fair from fair sometime declines, (c)
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd; (d)
But thy eternal summer shall not fade, (e)
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st; (f)
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade, (e)
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st: (f)
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, (g)
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. (g)


Here’s your Shakespearean Sonnet checklist:

  • 14 lines
  • 3 stanzas with 4 lines (quatrain)
  • 1 rhyming couplet to end
  • Each line is 10 syllables
  • Each pair of syllables is unstressed followed by stressed (iambic)
  • abab cdcd efef gg rhyming scheme


Now you just need something to write about ...


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