Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Shakespeare’s sonnets (and plays) have somehow come to be considered
impenetrable. They aren’t, of course. With a little bit of effort and patience,
the modern reader/spectator can get a great deal of pleasure from words
written four centuries ago - proof both of Shakespeare’s genius and of the
genius of the English language itself.

Here are some useful things to know:

Sonnet:fourteen-line poem

Shakespearean (or English) sonnet:3 quatrains (each rhyming abab) and a

The quatrains present the problem/question (its different aspects), and the
couplet the answer or a comment.

Petrarchan (or Italian) sonnet:1 octave (rhyming abbaabba) and 1 sestet
(rhyming cdcdcd or cdecde)

The octave presents the problem/question, and the sestet the answer or

Shakespeare’s sonnets are written in iambic pentameter. An iamb is a two-
syllable foot, with the stress on the second syllable. “Pentameter” means
there are five of these feet to a line. So, to take his most famous line:

. /./. /. /. /.
To be or not to be, that is the question

(We don’t actually read the lines with that kind of stress. In fact, we read
them as if they were written in accentual verse:

. /. /. ./. . /.
To be or not to be, that is the question

But the iambic pentameter serves as the warp of the poem, with the woof (!)
being... all the rest.)