An introduction to the structure of Shakespeare’s sonnets and how they vary from other sonnet forms.
The sonnet is a poetic form which had existed in European literature for some centuries prior to Shakespeare adopting his own version. Early forms of the sonnet were mostly used in Italy and the structure tended to become one of 14 lines, with a rhyming scheme of abab abab cdcdcd. There were some variations of this basic form: for example, the two groups of four lines at the beginning (‘quatrains’) could be rhymed as abba abba and the six lines at the end (‘sestet’) could be rhymed cde cde. This is also known as the Petrarchan sonnet.
The purpose of the poem was, most commonly, to be a short song which would, therefore, be sung aloud by a singer probably accompanying herself or himself on musical instrument, for example a lute or similar plucked instrument. The two quatrains would pose a question or describe a problem of some sort and the subsequent sestet would do something to provide a resolution – matters of love and intimacy were commonly explored in these poems. The consistent structure and the two-stage progression of lyrics will remind some readers of Blues songs, especially early Blues songs based on 12 bar progressions. Successful artistic forms often persist or evolve throughout history.
Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets which are collected together as a group. In doing so, he changed both the structure of the poetic form and the nature or meaning of what a sonnet should be. In common with most pre-modern English poets, Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter: that is ten feet (syllables, roughly) arranged in an unstressed-stressed pattern repeated four times (i.e. ten feet in all) in each line. Different languages prefer different meters depending to some extent on the repetition of stresses in normal speech and the meaning, if any, of stress or tone contained within a word or syllable. A small number of Shakespeare’s sonnets diverge from this pattern.
Shakespeare’s rhyming scheme was abab cdcd efef gg. In other words, his sonnets consisted of three quatrains with a concluding couplet of two lines. This different form also suggests a difference in meaning. The three quatrains indicate a progression in an argument or narrative and the final couplet suggests a means of concluding or summarizing the matter of the poem. Modern readers will perhaps think of three quatrains as representing an early from of the Hegelian dialectic (i.e. thesis-antithesis-synthesis) and, indeed, some sonnets can be read in that way. In any case, the structure is distinctive and has helped to distinguish the British sonnet from Romance sonnets since then.