What Is William Shakespeare Sonnets About?

Overview of William Shakespeare's Sonnets 

With Italian roots, the sonnet is the poetic form developed by the Italian poet Giacomo da Lentini. The word sonnet stems from the Italian term sonetto, which means little song. By the 1400s, the term sonnet represented a specific type of poem, one with fourteen lines that adheres to a particular rhyme scheme and precise structure. The standards that signify a sonnet have changed over time. Authors of sonnets have been referred to as sonneteers, and sometimes the term has been used mockingly. William Shakespeare is perhaps one of the most famous poets to write sonnets, who wrote 154 sonnets over the course of his career, not including the many sonnets found throughout his plays. A sonnet is referred to as an English, or Shakespearean sonnet, when it is made up of fourteen lines in the iambic pentameter pattern, where a stressed syllable follows an unstressed syllable five times. Within a Shakespearean sonnet, the rhyme scheme goes: a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g. The final two lines make up a rhyming couplet.

Customarily, English poets are found to use the iambic pentameter pattern when they write sonnets. However, not every English sonnet has a matching metrical structure. In Astrophel and Stella, written by Sir Philip Sidney, the first sonnet employs iambic hexameters with twelve syllables, although a few lines have an inverted first foot. The Alexandrine and the hendecasyllable, on the other hand, represent the most commonly used meters of the Romance languages.

The English sonnet was originally introduced in the early 1500s by the poet Thomas Wyatt, whose sonnets, and the sonnets of his peer the Earl of Surrey, were for the most part translations of the French Ronsard, the Italian Petrarch, and other poets. Although Wyatt is credited with introducing the sonnet to the English language, Surrey is responsible for giving the sonnet its rhyming meter, and for structuring the sonnet into quatrains of a style that now exemplifies a characteristic English sonnet. The sonnets of both Wyatt and Surrey were originally published in 1557 in Songes and Sonnetts by Richard Tottel, commonly referred to as Tottel’s Miscellany.

Yet, it was the sequence of Astrophel and Stella in 1591 by Sir Philip Sidney that initiated the English trend for the sonnet sequence. Over the next twenty years, authors including Michael Drayton, Edmund Spenser, Fulke Greville, Samuel Daniel, William Drummond of Hawthornden, and of course William Shakespeare, created sonnet sequences. Literature during this period is commonly credited to the Elizabethan Era, and referred to as Elizabethan sonnets. With the exception of Shakespeare’s sonnets, sonnets during this period were all fundamentally influenced by the tradition of Petrarch.  The Shakespearean form is named for the poet, not because Shakespeare was the first author to employ this form, but rather because he would become the most famous author to make use of the form. This form is made up of fourteen lines organized into three quatrains and one couplet. Within the third quatrain, an unanticipated turn in the poem’s theme or imagery is typically found – referred to as the volta.

However, with Shakespeare’s sonnets, the volta is generally found in the couplet, providing a summary of the sonnet’s message, or offering a novel perspective on the subject. In most cases, iambic pentameter is the meter, yet there can be some flexibility within the meter – for instance, a trochaic foot instead of an iamb may be found at the start of a line, or with an extra-syllable feminine rhyme ending a line. The typical rhyme scheme of this sonnet is the end-rhyming a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g.

An example of this form is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, which also includes a number of common inconsistencies to be expected for a contemporary reader of a 16th century sonnet:

[a] Let me not to the marriage of true minds
[b] Admit impediments. Love is not love
[a] Which alters when it alteration finds,
[b] Or bends with the remover to remove:
[c] O no! it is an ever-fixed* mark
[d] That looks on tempests and is never shaken;**
[c] It is the star to every wandering bark,
[d] Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.**
[e] Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
[f] Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
[e] Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
[f] But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
[g] If this be error and upon me proved,
[g] I never writ, nor no man ever loved.


* In ever-fixed, the fixed is pronounced fix-ed, as two syllables.

** An eleven-syllable alternative is used in these feminine-rhyme ending lines.

Another example of the Shakespearian form is John Keats’s When I have fears that I may cease to be

[a] When I have fears that I may cease to be
[b] Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
[a] Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
[b] Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
[c] When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
[d] Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
[c] And think that I may never live to trace
[d] Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
[e] And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
[f] That I shall never look upon thee more,
[e] Never have relish in the faery power
[f] Of unreflecting love—then on the shore
[g] Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
[g] Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.


In Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet, the prologue is a sonnet, as is the first conversation between Romeo and Juliet in Act I:

[a] If I profane with my unworthiest hand
[b] This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
[a] My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
[b] To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
[c] Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
[d] Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
[c] For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
[d] And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
[e] Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
[f] Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
[e] O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
[f] They pray — grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
[g] Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
[g] Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.


In the 1600s, authors began to employ the sonnet for other functions, as George Herbert and John Donne wrote religious sonnets, while John Milton used the sonnet in his writing of a meditative poem. The Petrarchan and Shakespearean rhyme schemes both remained popular during this era, as did a number of variations.

The trend for sonnets dissipated during the Restoration, and few sonnets were drafted between the late 1600s through the late 1700s. Yet, the sonnet made a comeback during the French Revolution. William Wordsworth wrote a great deal of sonnets, including “The world is too much with us,” and “Upon Westminster Bridge.” Wordsworth’s sonnets were fundamentally patterned on Milton’s sonnets. Also taking part in the sonnet trend were Keats and Shelley. Keats used more formal arrangements influenced somewhat by Shakespeare’s sonnets, while Shelley drastically revolutionized the sonnet, developing a unique rhyme scheme for his sonnet “Ozymandias.”

The sonnets written during the 1800s were largely unsuccessful, with the exception of those from Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In the late 19th century, the Confederation Poets from Canada, particularly Archibald Lampman, were renowned for their pastoral sonnets. Also writing during this period was Gerard Manley Hopkins, who authored a number of sonnets in sprung rhythm, including “The Windhover.” He also wrote a few variants, including “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire,” a 24-line caudate sonnet and the curtal sonnet “Pied Beauty.” By the late 1800s, the sonnet had transformed into a flexible, broad-spectrum form of poetry.

That adaptability was broadened even more in the 1900s, as many poets during the early Modernist period employed the sonnet frequently. These poets included E.E. Cummings, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Robert Frost. The “Anthem for Doomed Youth” was written by Wilfred Owen during this period. Making use of half rhymes, William Butler Yeats wrote “Leda and the Swan.” Also an author of sonnets, W.H. Auden significantly extended the variety of rhyme-schemes. Written by Auden in 1928, “The Secret Agent” was one of the original English unrhymed sonnets.

Another author of unrhymed sonnets was Robert Lowell, who wrote The Dolphin in 1973, which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. Sonnet variations, including unrhymed, half-rhymed and unmetrical sonnets became prevalent over the second half of the twentieth century. The genre includes sonnets from Geoffrey Hill’s “An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England,” and Glanmore Sonnets and Clearances by Seamus Heaney. In the last decade of the 20th century, the sonnet experienced somewhat of a formalist restoration, and a number of conventional sonnets were also written in the early 21stcentury.

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