Want to know how to write a sonnet like one of Shakespeare’s? There’s good news and bad news when writing sonnets. The good news is that it’s very easy to write a sonnet. The bad news is that your sonnet will unlikely ever be as good as any of Shakespeare’s… but that’s no reason not to try!
A sonnet expresses a single idea, but it is generally an idea that develops and expands, with multiple facets, leading to a conclusion – and all within a very specific rhyming scheme. In addition to this structure, all Shakespearean sonnets must have these two things in common:
1. All Shakespearean sonnets have 14 lines
2. All Shakespearean sonnets are written in iambic pentameter
The 14 lines of the sonnet consist of four divisions, known as ‘quatrains’. The first three of the four sonnet divisions/quatrains have the same rhyme scheme, whilst the fourth and last division/quatrain has a different rhyme scheme:
All Shakespearean sonnets follow this 14 line pattern and rhyming structure. So, now you have the basics, here are the three simple steps to have you writing your own sonnet in no time:
1. Think of an idea for your sonnet
Your sonnet must be about one single idea. It could be a feeling, like being in love. It could be some thought you’ve had about life, or about a person or about people in general. It could be about one of your favourite subjects – sport, music, movies, nature, a book you’ve read, etc.
2. Your sonnet must rhyme in a specific pattern
Your 14 line sonnet must be written in three sets of four lines and one set of two lines.
1. The first quatrain will have lines that end in a rhyme scheme like this: ABAB, for example, ‘day’, ‘temperate’, ‘may’, ‘date’.
2. The second quatrain will use different words to rhyme scheme like this: CDCD, for example, ‘shines’, ‘dimmed’, ‘declines’, ‘untrimmed’.
3. The third quatrain needs different words again, to rhyme scheme like this: EFEF, for example, ‘fade’, ‘lowest’, ‘shade’, ‘growest’.
4. You now have your three Shakespearean quatrains – that’s 12 lines. Remember that a Shakespearean sonnet always has 14 lines, so you need two final lines – called a couplet. The rhyme scheme for this is GG, using words you haven’t used in the rhyming so far, for example, ‘see’ and thee’.
The rhyme pattern of your 14 line sonnet should now look like this: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG
Simple, isn’t it?
Let’s look at a Shakespeare sonnet 18 to understand how the rhyming works, and how the message evolves:
A: Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?
B: Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
A: Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
B: And Summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
C: Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
D: And oft’ is his gold complexion dimm’d;
C: And every fair from fair sometime declines,
D: By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d:
E: But thy eternal Summer shall not fade
F: Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
E: Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
F: When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
G: So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
G: So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
The sonnet is about a single idea. Shakespeare is looking at a beautiful summer’s day which, in spite of its beauty, has limitations, and it eventually fades and dies. He’s comparing someone with that beautiful summer’s day but showing that person’s superiority to it. He works the idea through and presents the subject of the poem as having no limitations. Even eventual death won’t interfere with that because the subject will live forever in the poem, which Shakespeare suggests, will be read as long as there are people to read it.
The rhyme scheme is used to change emphasis. Each aspect of the poems’ idea is contained in its own section with its own rhyming word pattern.
Look at the first two quatrains again. The subject is introduced and we are told that he or she is more beautiful than a summer’s day. The defects of the summer’s day are outlined.
Look at the third quatrain. It starts with the word ‘but.’ That marks a shift of emphasis. Now the subject’s eternal beauty is emphasised.
Look at the couplet. It’s a summing up – an assurance that the subject’s beauty will last for as long as there are human beings on Earth. A rhyming couplet in English poetry is always very powerful, and in a sonnet, this couplet sums up and rounds off the poem. It can be used to put emphasis on the main idea, or to undermine it, or to offer a humorous perspective. And in Shakespeare it is quite frequently very personal, in some cases amounting to a personal statement.
3. Your sonnet must have a metrical pattern
The third step in this ‘how to write a sonnet’ guide is to write your sonnet in iambic pentameter. That means that you must use iambus.
Iambus is another word for a two-syllable foot. The first syllable will normally be unstressed and the second stressed. For example, de/light, the sun, for/lorn, one day, re/lease. English is a perfect language for iambus because of the way the stressed and unstressed syllables work.
Every line of your sonnet must have five feet (so 10 syllables). Pentameter means five and iambic pentameter simply means five feet. Shakespeare uses iambic pentameter, not only in the sonnets but also throughout his plays.
Pick up any Shakespeare play and look at it. Choose almost any line, here’s one from Lady Macbeth:
‘But screw your courage to the sticking post’
Read it like this:
But screw/ your cour/age to/ the stick/ing post
Count the feet – there are five. And they are all unstressed followed by stressed syllables.
Shakespeare uses iambic pentameter because it closely resembles the rhythm of everyday speech and he wants to imitate everyday speech in his plays.
Like Shakespeare you can also trot them out. Try it. If your friend also wants to write a sonnet you can practice talking to each other in iambic pentameter. It comes easily. ‘I wonder what my friends will think of this?’ ‘If I were you I’d watch out what I say.’ ‘He never ever told me what to do.’ ‘It’s easy when you think of it like that.’
You can see from the above sentences that iambic pentameter occurs naturally to English speech. So the first thing to do is practice speaking in iambic pentameter. You’ll see how naturally it comes.
You now have to put the three things together – your idea, your rhyming words and your iambic pentameter.
Things to think about
• Use as many visual images (word pictures) as you can.
• Find the right words.
• Don’t deviate from the iambic pentameter or your sonnet won’t work. You can make slight variations in the stressing for the sake of varying the rhythm so that you don’t get too much of a ‘dedum-dedum-dedum-dedum-dedum’ effect.
For example Shakespeare’s sonnet 116 has the opening line ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds.’ If you read it like this:
Let me/ not to/ the mar/riage of/ true minds
it sounds unnatural, but it is still iambic pentameter. Shakespeare has used iambic pentameter but he’s varied the meter to create a different rhythm. So although it’s basic iambic pentameter we read it with the stresses that come from natural speech. Notice how the first three words run into each other as though they’re one word: letmenot.
The iambic pentameter can be slightly flexible, but you must stick rigidly to the required line structure for your sonnet. Shakespeare makes these types of variations a lot in his plays, and that’s why you can hear the language as real people speak it but feel the basic meter in your head.
Now you know how to write a sonnet, there’s no excuse: It’s time to start work on your own sonnet! Good luck, and let us know how you get on with writing your own sonnet in the comments below.