Shakespeare's Sonnets by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare's Sonnets book cover
Start Your Free Trial

What happens in Shakespeare's Sonnets?

Shakespeare's Sonnets were first collected in book form in 1609. Among the most famous of the 154 sonnets is Sonnet 18, which includes the line, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"

  • With three exceptions, all of Shakespeare's sonnets follow traditional Elizabethan sonnet structure: three stanzas with ABAB rhyme schemes, followed by a couplet with an AA rhyme scheme.

  • Many of the sonnets explore the theme of love, including one of the most famous poems, Sonnet 18, in which the speaker compares his love to a summer's day.

  • Shakespeare modifies the octet-sextet pattern of the Petrarchan sonnet to include three stanzas of four lines, allowing him to develop his themes in a subtler way.

Download Shakespeare's Sonnets Study Guide

Subscribe Now


We do not know when Shakespeare composed his sonnets, though it is possible that he wrote them over a period of several years, beginning, perhaps, in 1592 or 1593. Some of them were being circulated in manuscript form among his friends as early as 1598, and in 1599 two of them—138 and 144—were published in The Passionate Pilgrim, a collection of verses by several authors. The sonnets as we know them were certainly completed no later than 1609, the year they were published by Thomas Thorpe under the title Shake-speares Sonnets. Most scholars believe that Thorpe acquired the manuscript on which he based his edition from someone other than the author. Few believe that Shakespeare supervised the publication of this manuscript, for the text is riddled with errors. Nevertheless, Thorpe's 1609 edition is the basis for all modern texts of the sonnets.

With only a few exceptions—Sonnets 99, 126, and 145—Shakespeare's verses follow the established English form of the sonnet. Each is a fourteen-line poem in iambic pentameter, comprising four sections: three quatrains, or groups of four lines, followed by a couplet of two lines. Traditionally, a different—though related—idea is expressed in each quatrain, and the argument or theme of the poem is summarized or generalized in the concluding couplet. It should be noted that many of Shakespeare's couplets do not have this conventional effect. Shakespeare did, however, employ the traditional English sonnet rhyme-scheme: abab, cdcd, efef, gg.

Shakespeare's 154 sonnets, taken together, are frequently described as a sequence, and this is generally divided into two sections. Sonnets 1-126 focus on a young man and the speaker's friendship with him, and Sonnets 127-52 focus on the speaker's relationship with a woman. However, in only a few of the poems in the first group is it clear that the person being addressed is a male. And most of the poems in the sequence as a whole are not direct addresses to another person. The two concluding sonnets, 153 and 154, are free translations or adaptations of classical verses about Cupid; some critics believe they serve a specific purpose—though they disagree about what this may be—but many others view them as perfunctory.

The English sonnet sequence reached the...

(The entire section is 996 words.)