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5 Unmistakable Characteristics of Shakespearean Sonnets

Characteristics of Shakespearean Sonnets
When one says 'sonnet', all we can think of is Shakespeare. What makes his sonnets so different from others? Penlighten explains the characteristics of Shakespearean sonnets with examples.
Rucha Phatak
Last Updated: May 14, 2018
Did You Know?
Shakespeare's 154 sonnets were first published in 1609 in a book form, titled SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS. The sonnets weren't printed before, and it was specifically mentioned on the front page of the book.
Sonnet, the most loved form of poetry, originated in Italy. Italian sonnets are known as Petrarchan sonnets after the most famous Italian sonneteer Petrarch. The form was soon adopted by English poets, who at first followed the Italian sonnet structure. These sonnets later came to known as English sonnets. Influenced by the Petrarchan tradition, these sonnets generally depict a poet's love for a particular woman.

It was William Shakespeare who broke the norm of typical English sonnets. He used his sonnets not just to express his love to a lady, but to make a parody of traditional sonnets, to comment on political events, to show the difference between the real and cliched beauty, to openly talk about sexual desires, etc. Though he wasn't the first sonnet writer, the form came to be known as Shakespearean sonnets because he popularized the form.
Characteristics of Shakespearean Sonnets
Rhyme scheme
The rhyme scheme for Shakespearean sonnets is different from the traditional Petrarchan and English sonnets. Shakespeare used the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg. That means, the ending sound of the first line matches with the third. In the same way, the ending sound of the second line matches with the fourth. Let us take an example.
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)
This sonnet carries the Shakespearean rhyme scheme very well. For example, the sound of the last word "day" in the first line, matches with the sound of the last word "May" in the third line. In this rhyme scheme, every alternate sound matches. The last two lines match in the sound of their last words.

An exception to the rhyme scheme can be found in one sonnet.
Sonnet 29
When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes, (a)
I all alone beweep my outcast state, (b)
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries, (a)
And look upon myself, and curse my fate, (b)
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope, (c)
Featur'd like him, like him with friends possess'd, (d)
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope, (c)
With what I most enjoy contented least; (d)
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising, (e)
Haply I think on thee, and then my state, (b)
Like to the lark at break of day arising (e)
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate; (b)
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings (f)
That then I scorn to change my state with kings. (f)
In this sonnet, the sound marked by (b) in the first quatrain is repeated in the third quatrain.
Like a traditional sonnet, the Shakespearean sonnet too, consists of 14 lines. These lines are constructed with three quatrains i.e. three stanzas of four lines each. These three quatrains have similar rhyme schemes. The last two lines in a fourteen-lined sonnet are called a couplet. Those two lines share a rhyme scheme, which is different from the quatrains.
Shakespeare used this structure to establish an idea, and then, twist it to surprise the readers. He would state and establish a particular idea in the three quatrains. However, he would use the couplet to take a totally different take on the established idea. Let us take an example of another sonnet structure.
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 first quatrain explains what true love is not. It says that true love is not something which will alter or bend. The second quatrain establishes the idea of true love further by stating what true love is. Shakespeare calls it an "ever-fixed mark". In the third quatrain, Shakespeare talks about what love is and isn't. All the examples that he gives in the three quatrains are easier to consent. However, in the last two lines, he challenges the readers. He states that if whatever he has written in the quatrains is false, he wouldn't have written it, and no man would have ever loved. The couplet truly takes the readers aback as they cannot counter this great poet.

The Shakespearean sonnet structure has a few exceptions as well. For example,
Sonnet 99
The forward violet thus did I chide:
Sweet thief, whence didst thou steal thy sweet that smells,
If not from my love's breath? The purple pride
Which on thy soft cheek for complexion dwells
In my love's veins thou hast too grossly dyed.

The lily I condemned for thy hand,
And buds of marjoram had stol'n thy hair:
The roses fearfully on thorns did stand,
One blushing shame, another white despair;

A third, nor red nor white, had stol'n of both
And to his robbery had annex'd thy breath;
But, for his theft, in pride of all his growth
A vengeful canker eat him up to death.

More flowers I noted, yet I none could see
But sweet or colour it had stol'n from thee.
Shakespeare has written 15 lines in the sonnet 99. He adds an additional line in the first quatrain with a rhyme scheme ababa. Here is another exception.
Sonnet 126
O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power
Dost hold Time's fickle glass, his sickle, hour;

Who hast by waning grown, and therein show'st
Thy lovers withering as thy sweet self grow'st;

If Nature, sovereign mistress over wrack,
As thou goest onwards, still will pluck thee back,

She keeps thee to this purpose, that her skill
May time disgrace and wretched minutes kill.

Yet fear her, O thou minion of her pleasure;
She may detain, but not still keep, her treasure:

Her audit, though delay'd, answer'd must be,
And her quietus is to render thee.

( )
( )
This sonnet does not contain quatrains at all. The sonnet is made of 6 couplets. The last two blank lines are marked with round brackets.
Shakespeare has written his sonnets predominantly in iambic pentameter, which was his favorite. In this meter, the syllables are divided into five pairs in each line. In one pair, an unstressed syllable is followed by one stressed syllable. For example,
Sonnet 29
When IN / dis GRACE / with FOR / tune AND / men's EYES
I ALL / a LONE / be WEEP / my OUT/ cast STATE

However, like always, there is an exception. Sonnet 145 has been written in iambic tetrameter.
Like traditional sonnets, Shakespeare does not limit himself to only praising a beautiful woman and expressing his love for her. He goes beyond that by adding more characters, which is usually referred to as the Fair Youth, the Rival Poet, and the Dark Lady. It is hard to guess if the characters are fictional or autobiographical. Though some have tried to identify these characters, no one can pinpoint the exact people who are the inspiration for these three characters.
Shakespeare does include a theme of romantic love in his sonnets. Moreover, we see a love triangle between the speaker, the fair youth, and the dark lady. Shakespeare depicts different shades of love from platonic to sexual in his sonnets. He mocks love as well, by describing it as pitiful. He mocks cliched beauty too. He mocks the way in which the previous poets described beauty.

Other than love, Shakespearean sonnets have themes like age, time, lust, obligations, politics, incompetence, gender roles, etc.

It is clear that a poet like Shakespeare will show his unmatched talent in poetry. Here are a few more sonnets for you to read.
Shakespearean Sonnets about Time
Sonnet 60
Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown'd,
Crooked eclipses 'gainst his glory fight,
And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth
And delves the parallels in beauty's brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature's truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow:
And yet to times in hope, my verse shall stand
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.
Sonnet 19
Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion's paws,
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger's jaws,
And burn the long-lived phoenix in her blood;
Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleet'st,
And do whate'er thou wilt, swift-footed Time,
To the wide world and all her fading sweets;
But I forbid thee one most heinous crime:
O, carve not with thy hours my love's fair brow,
Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen;
Him in thy course untainted do allow
For beauty's pattern to succeeding men.
Yet, do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong,
My love shall in my verse ever live young.
Shakespearean Sonnets about Love
Sonnet 147
My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease,
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
Th' uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
Past cure I am, now reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen's are,
At random from the truth vainly expressed:
For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.
Sonnet 43
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.