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Shakespeare's Sonnets

by William Shakespeare

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Please explain Shakespeare as a sonneteer.

Some scholars think Shakespeare believed that his future reputation would rest on his sonnets, not his plays. Shakespeare reinvented the Petrarchan sonnet form by transforming it into three quatrains followed by a couplet. He also enjoyed parodying courtly sonnet cliches in his own verses, helping to keep the sonnet form fresh and alive.

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In writing sonnets, Shakespeare was continuing a trend that had been established in Italy by Petrarch in the fourteenth century and which had become extremely popular in England in the sixteenth century, particularly among courtly circles. A particularly stylized form of poem, sonnets must adhere to a particular meter, rhythm, and rhyme scheme and comprise fourteen lines. The Petrarchan sonnet, however, diverges in its rhyme scheme from the English sonnet form used by Shakespeare. Contrary to what is often stated, this form was not developed by Shakespeare; he was simply imitating a sonnet form that had been popularized already by Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey.

Where Shakespeare may have been following a trend in terms of his form, however, he was certainly setting a trend in other ways. Firstly, the sonnet form was mostly practiced by noblemen, such as Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard. Shakespeare was the son of a glovemaker and did not come from their class. Similarly, the content of his sonnets diverges from that of the traditional courtly love poem, normally rhapsodizing about an idealized love object.
For example, Wyatt praised Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII's queen, by comparing her to a pure and elusive hind, which was typical. Shakespeare's sonnets do occupy themselves with many of the typical subjects, including love, death, and the passage of time. However, the love objects he chooses are remarkable in that one of them, the great and idealized beauty, is a man. The other is a woman whom Shakespeare addresses in ways that often turn sonnet convention on its head: "my mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun." Far from being a snowy-white virgin, Shakespeare's sonnets to the so-called Dark Lady emphasize the earthiness and humanity of his mistress, whose identity has been much disputed. Shakespeare takes the elevated, courtly sonnet form and uses it to discuss earthy subjects, such as uncomplicated sex and the urgency he feels for his beloved young man to procreate and thus become, in that way, immortal.
Shakespeare's sonnets, unlike his poems, were deliberately grouped together and published by Shakespeare himself in 1609. They were dedicated to a Mr. W. H., who has sparked the imagination of generations of scholars who were all seeking his true identity. It is often believed that he was both the author's patron and the subject of the "fair youth" sonnets, but his identity has never been revealed as such.
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Sonnets were a popular form of stylized courtly poetry in the late Renaissance period during which Shakespeare was writing. Some critics have argued that Shakespeare, ironically, believed his future reputation would rest on his sonnets, a form considered high art, rather than his plays, which were then considered a lower, more popular art form and written to make money. He took great care with the publication of his sonnets while not bothering about publishing his plays, which often first appeared in pirated form.

Shakespeare took the Petrarchan sonnet, the basis for all sonnet writing, and made it his own. While the...

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Petrarchan sonnet consists of two parts, an eight line opening followed by a six line "turn" in which the poet reflects on his first eight lines (these are often put together as one long stanza), the Shakespearean sonnet consists of three quatrains followed by acouplet in which the poet is able to deliver his "punch" or message.

Not only did Shakespeare reinvent the sonnet form to become a better vehicle for what he wanted to say, but he also poked fun at the conventional and cliched love language of most courtly sonnets. For example, while it was conventional to compare the beloved's eyes to the sun and her lips to coral, Shakespeare turns this idea on its head in sonnet 130 when he boldly and humorously declares that

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
However, in this sonnet's final couplet, he states that he finds himself deeply in love despite his girlfriend not adhering to false and exaggerated beauty conventions. His clear-eyed approach to language helped keep the sonnet form fresh and alive.
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A sonnet is a form of a poem which specifically has fourteen lines and a structured form. It was popularized in Italy where it originates; hence the Italian or Petrachan sonnet, named after Petrarch due to his expert and extensive use of this form. The Elizabethan or Shakespearean sonnet is so named because it was formed and became distinct from the Italian sonnet during the Elizabethan era and Shakespeare was its most prolific and famous user in writing about love. Shakespearean or Elizabethan sonnets are divided into three quatrains (four lines each) and a rhyming couplet at the end with a recognizable rhythm created by the rhyme scheme and the five stressed syllables per line (iambic pentameter).

In making use of the form of the sonnet himself, Shakespeare is credited with having penned 154 sonnets, with almost all of them following the Shakespearean format. Each sonnet largely presents an idea in each of the four line stanzas and the rhyming couplet completes the picture.

The apparent sequence which Shakespeare's sonnets follow has been the subject of much discussion and debate among critics but the first 126 sonnets are addressed to a young man although most of the time this is not explicitly expressed and the latter section is about Shakespeare's relationship with a woman with only the last two sonnets being adaptations of classical verse. There is no known autobiographical element to these sonnets although some critics have gone to great pains to find a connection other than his instinctive ability to create beauty and question the definitions of it from his surroundings.  

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Shakespeare was such an amazing sonneteer that there is actually a type of sonnet today that we refer to as a "Shakespearean Sonnet"!  Even though Shakespeare isn't the inventor of the Shakespearean sonnet, he was certainly the master of this kind of poem.  Quite simply, a Shakespearean sonnet contains fourteen lines of iambic pentameter.  It has three quatrains (four lines each) and a final rhyming couplet (of two lines).  Therefore, the rhyme scheme is always abab cdcd efef gg.  Most often a problem is presented in the first 12 lines or so with a solution following by the end of the poem.

During the Elizabethan period, writing groups of sonnets with similar themes (called a "sonnet sequence") became very popular.  Shakespeare wrote the best of these sonnet sequences, in my opinion.  His contained a full 154 sonnets.  They focus on a handsome young man, a rival poet, and sometimes even a "dark lady."  These subjects often cause scholars to disagree upon the truth behind Shakespeare's life and sexuality. 

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