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Shakespeare's Sonnets

by William Shakespeare

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Find information on the rhyme, rhythm, themes, and structure in Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Shakespeare's sonnets follow set patterns in terms of rhyme, rhythm, themes, and structure, which has resulted in the creation of the term "Shakespearean sonnet."

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Shakespearean sonnets do indeed follow patterns in regards to rhyme, rhythm, themes, and structure. His 154 sonnets are so foundational to modern understanding of the sonnet that his pattern, which many others have since used, is known as the Shakespearean sonnet.

Firstly, Shakespearean sonnets follow a rhyme scheme of three quatrains followed by a couplet, which would appear like so: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. For example, "Sonnet 29" begins with the quatrain:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,

As is typical for Shakespeare's writing overall, his sonnets are written in iambic pentameter. Essentially, this means that there are ten syllables per line and those syllables alternate between unstressed and stressed. If using "Sonnet 29" as an example again, the second line emphasizes "all," "-lone," "-weep," "out-," and "state."

Although themes do vary between individual sonnets, Shakespeare's sonnets often focus on the elements of what Shakespeare considers to be "true love," which includes concepts such as eternality, looking beyond the physical, faithfulness, and comfort, even in the most difficult circumstances. In "Sonnet 29," the speaker says, "Haply I think on thee (his or her beloved)," (10) which communicates the idea that the loved calms any fears or troubles.

Structurally, one of the most important features of a sonnet is the volta, or, as it is sometimes called, the terza. This term literally means "the turn." While the first twelve lines of Shakespeare's sonnets describe a certain situation or communicate a certain mood, the volta creates a shift to summarize or expound on the main point of the poem. "Sonnet 29" accomplishes a complete shift in tone in the volta when the speaker claims, "For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings / That then I scorn to change my state with kings."

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