The Art of Writing  a Shakespearean Sonnet


A facsimile of the original printing of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18William Shakespeare, one of the most renowned of all English writers lived during the second half of the sixteenth century.  He was a famous poet and play-writer and was instrumental in creating the form of poetry called the Sonnet. Between the years 1592 to 1598, Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets. Essentially there were three themes that he concentrated on, and they were;

  • The shortness of life
  • The transience of beauty, and
  • Physical desire

While these main elements have been the themes for Shakespeare's sonnets, a lot of modification has taken place in the course of the centuries to encompass even nature and natural elements. Some notable points that are seen in a sonnet are alliteration, strong imagery and the clever use of metaphors. However, there are some basic features which encompass the science and art of Shakespeare's sonnet; the outline for which is given in this guide.  





Line format 

Every sonnet is made up of 14 lines.  They follow the simple distinction of verse formation such as three quatrains (4 lines each) and a couplet (2 line verse).  

Thus, there are three verses of 4 lines each and a concluding verse of 2 lines. 

Some sonnets follow the pattern of 12 lines followed by a couplet, while some are written with an 8 + 6 line pattern.  


Syllable count in iambic pentameter 

Each line in a sonnet is consistent.  It is composed of 10 syllables each in iambic pentameter, which is, daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM. eg.  When forty winters shall besiege thy brow (Shakespeare, Sonnet 2)

An IAMB is a combination of two syllables; one unstressed and one stressed (daDUM). 



Scansion is the technique of stressing syllables of words the way they are normally spoken. For eg, words like 'winter' are stressed as WIN-ter,  or 'besiege' stressed as be-SIEGE.

Hence according to the above mentioned example, [When forty winters shall besiege thy brow (Shakespeare, Sonnet 2)], the line would sound like; 

daDUM, daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM

When FOR-ty WIN-ters SHALL be-SEIGE thy BROW

Note: The five stressed syllables fall on the DUM part of the iambic pentameter.  


End rhymes 

Sonnets follow a particular rhyme scheme which is so evident in almost all sonnets. The end rhymes (full rhymes or half rhymes) follow the pattern ABAB CDCD EFEF GG  for the 14 lines of the poem.   



Volta is a twist in the sonnet, usually seen in the 9th line or the 13th.  It is characterized by the words 'but', 'yet' or 'and yet'. Variations of it are now in use. A volta is used to emphasize the similarities and differences in the setting or elements of the imagery.  



Tips & Warning:

  • Follow the techniques of scansion for a sonnet to be complete.
  • A sonnet is made up of 14 lines and hence has to keep to this structure.
  • A sonnet has 10 syllables each line, no less. Unless able to excel in this form, do not attempt to add an 11th syllable which is the unstressed, silent syllable at the end.


Image Credit: Sonnet 18 at Wikimedia Commons