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Shakespeare's Sonnets

by William Shakespeare

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What distinguishes Petrarchan sonnets from Shakespearean sonnets?

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In Italian, a "sonnet" means a small song devoted to a solo or single idea. Though invented in Sicily sometime in the 1220s, the Italian sonnet was perfected by Frances Petrarch in the fourteenth century. Sir Thomas Wyatt brought the Petrarchan sonnet to England via translation in the sixteenth century and then reinvented the Italian form in English. Because Shakespeare mastered the English sonnet, the two terms are now loosely interchangeable.

What Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets (and indeed all sonnet forms) have in common is that the entire poem is structured as an extended metaphor. The sonnet builds up the central idea of the poem using different figures of speech. Often these metaphors and similes are strong and jarring which lends a sonnet its dramatic power. Since the sonnet originated in the court, it is particularly well-suited for expressions of love, both worldly and divine. The other concept common to both Petrarchan and Shakespearean forms is the twist in the central idea which occurs somewhere toward the end of the sonnet. The twist is a fresh take on the poem's conceit, often overturning it. Having looked at the similarities between the two forms, now let's move on to the differences.

A sonnet consists of 14 lines written in iambic pentameter. Typically, the Petrarchan sonnet is divided into two sections, with the first 8 lines (octave) following the rhyme scheme A-B-B-A-A-B-B-A and the next six lines (sextet) following either of the rhyme scheme C-D-C-D-C-D, C-D-E-E-D-E, or a close variant.

In the Petrarchan sonnet, the twist we spoke about earlier, the volta ("turn" in Italian), occurs around the ninth line and brings a freshness to the poem's central hypothesis. To illustrate this with an example, here's a twentieth-century version of the Petrarchan sonnet written by Edna St. Vincent Millay:

1. I, being born a woman and distressed (A)
2. By all the needs and notions of my kind, (B)
3. Am urged by your propinquity to find (B)
4. Your person fair, and feel a certain zest (A)
5. To bear your body's weight upon my breast: (A)
6. So subtly is the fume of life designed, (B)
7. To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind, (B)
8. And leave me once again undone, possessed. (A)
9. Think not for this, however, the poor treason (C)
10. Of my stout blood against my staggering brain, (D)
11. I shall remember you with love, or season (C)
12. My scorn with pity, —let me make it plain: (D)
13. I find this frenzy insufficient reason (C)
14. For conversation when we meet again (D)

Note the particular rhyme scheme of the sonnet as well as the volta (which begins with "Think not this..."). Through the turn, the woman's voice is making the bold point that the man may possess her body but never her brain and spirit. Thus she upturns the idea of her powerlessness put forward in the first line: "I, being born a woman and distressed."

The Shakespearean sonnet follows the Petrarchan tradition of the turn, but in form, it deviates significantly from its Italian counterpart. This no doubt has to do with the fact that it is far easier to rhyme in Italian than in English. In the Shakespearean sonnet, the 14 lines are divided into three quatrains (4-line stanzas) and an ending couplet. Significantly, the couplet was not used by Petrarch in his sonnets. The turn in the Shakespearean sonnet typically occurs around line 12 line and is amplified in the final couplet. The rhyme scheme usually is: A-B-A-B, C-D-C-D, E-F-E-F, and G-G.

We can see the deviation from the Petrarchan form in the following sonnet by Shakespeare (130), which incidentally is one of the most famous in his sonnet series:

1. My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun; (A)
2. Coral is far more red than her lips' red; (B)
3. If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; (A)
4. If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head. (B)
5. I have seen roses damasked, red and white, (C)
6. But no such roses see I in her cheeks; (D)
7. And in some perfumes is there more delight (C)
8. Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks. (D)
9. I love to hear her speak, yet well I know (E)
10. That music hath a far more pleasing sound; (F)
11. I grant I never saw a goddess go; (E)
12. My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground. (F)
13. And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare (G)
14. As any she belied with false compare. (G)

Note the ending couplet typical to the English form, as well as the startling images: "If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head." The turn here occurs after line 10, in the final couplet, when the poet claims that, despite all his beloved's human traits, his love for her is "rare" or precious—beyond any fake comparisons.

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The Italian, or Petrarchan, Sonnet is written in iambic pentameter. The sonnet consists of fourteen lines, separated into an eight line stanza and a six line stanza. The first stanza (with eight lines) is called an octave and follows the following rhyme pattern:

a b b a a b b a.

The second stanza (consisting of six lines) is called a sestet and follows one of the following rhyme patterns:

c d c d c d c d e c d e c d e c e d c d c e d c

c d d c d c.

The final two lines cannot end in a couplet (given the couplet was never used in Italy or by Petrarch).

The change in both rhyme pattern and subject matter takes place by the creation of two distinct stanzas (the octave and the sestet). The change in rhyme and subject happen at the volta, the ninth line of the poem (the first line of the second stanza).

The Shakespearean Sonnet, or English Sonnet, is very different from the Petrarchan Sonnet. While the Shakespearean Sonnet consists of fourteen lines (like the Petrarchan Sonnet), the lines are divided into stanzas very differently.

This sonnet is composed using three quatrains (three stanzas consisting of four lines each) and a concluding couplet (a two line stanza). The rhyme scheme of this sonnet is alternating, throughout the quatrains, and ends in a rhyming couplet. Therefore, the rhyme scheme of the Shakespearean Sonnet is as follows:

a b a b

c d c d

e f e f

g g

Both the Petrarchan and Shakespearean Sonnets have a place where the subject changes, but in the Shakespearean Sonnet it is not called the volta, instead, it is called the turn. The turn takes place at the same point (line 9) as the Petrarchan Sonnet. Sometimes though, the turn may not happen until the couplet.

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What are the similarities and differences in form and content between the Shakespearean Sonnet and the Petrarchan Sonnet?

Both the Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets consist of fourteen lines and are written in iambic pentameter.  This means that each line, generally speaking, will have five (penta-) feet, with each foot consisting of one unaccented syllable followed by one accented syllable: this means that each line will typically have ten syllables.  The foot name is an iamb (this is where we get the word iambic), and each iamb has two syllables: one unaccented followed by one accented syllable.  

The Petrarchan sonnet is divided into an eight line octave (rhyme scheme: abbaabba) followed by a six line sestet (with a rhyme scheme that is more open: cdcdcd, cdecde, cdeedc—really, any combination of "c"s and "d"s and maybe "e"s is acceptable).  Then, there is usually some division of content between the octave and sestet.  The octave might pose a question that the sestet answers.  The octave might present a problem that the sestet solves.  The octave could present an issue from one angle, and then the sestet takes a different angle on the issue.

The Shakespearean sonnet is divided into three four line groups called quatrains (rhyming ababcdcdefef), followed by a rhyming couplet.  Each quatrain might present an example, and the couplet could present whatever ties the examples together.  Each quatrain might ask a question with the couplet providing the one answer to them all.  Generally, the couplet contains some key information that we need in order to understand the importance of the quatrains.

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What are the similarities and differences in form and content between the Shakespearean Sonnet and the Petrarchan Sonnet?

The Italian term sonetto simply means a short or little song. The fourteen-line sonnet form with which later became known as the "Italian" or "Petrarchan" sonnet appears to have first been regularized in the work of Guittone of Arezzo, a thirteenth century Italian poet. Petrarch (1304 – 1374) employed the form in his 366-sonnet sequence, Rime Sparse, a collection of poems on the subject of his love for a woman named Laura. Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503 – 1542) and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517 - 1547) translated Petrarch's sonnets into English and are generally regarded as the founders of the English sonnet tradition. Wyatt, in particular, used the Petrarchan sonnet form extensively in his own poetic works as well as his translations. Although Surrey and other poets of his period wrote English sonnets, due to the fame and influence of Shakespeare's work, the English sonnet is frequently called a "Shakespearean" sonnet.

Both forms are fourteen lines long and normally written in iambic pentameter in English. They differ in both rhyme scheme and structure.

The Italian sonnet consists of an eight-line octave followed by a six-line sestet. The octave is rhymed as two closed quatrains, ABBAABBA. The sestet has a more flexible rhyme scheme, using two or three rhyme sounds, with common possibilities being CDECDE or CDCDCD. Its main structural feature is a "turn" or shift of focus between the octave and sestet.

The Shakespearean sonnet consists of three open quatrains followed by a couplet, i.e. its rhyme scheme is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. In a typical English or Shakespearean sonnet, each quatrain has an individual theme, and then there is a break before the couplet, which can then either summarize the sonnet or work as a sort of surprise ending. Sometimes there is a minor turn after the second quatrain as well, but this is not an essential feature of the form.

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