We encourage all of you to try your hand at Writing like Shakespeare by entering our annual sonnet writing contest. Here's a how-to of Shakespearean sonnets to get you started!
WHAT IS A SONNET?:
Let's start at the beginning. A Sonnet is a 14 line poem using a formal rhyme scheme.
For Shakespeare, the rhyme scheme was Three Quatrains and a Couplet: A-B-A-B C-D-C-D E-F-E-F G-G
Additionally, Shakespeare wrote in Iambic Pentameter. We'll look at this in a moment.
A Quatrain is a stanza of four lines with alternating rhymes. Let’s look at Quatrain One of Sonnet 18:
Line 1: Shall I compare thee to a summer's DAY?
Line 2: Thou art more lovely and more tempeRATE:
Line 3: Rough winds do shake the darling buds of MAY,
Line 4: And summer's lease hath all too short a DATE:
The first line rhymes with the third line. The second line rhymes with the fourth. This rhyme pattern is repeated two more times for Quatrains Two and Three (lines 8-12).
The final two lines (the Couplet) rhyme with each other:
Line 13: So long as men can breathe or eyes can SEE,
Line 14: So long lives this and this gives life to THEE.
The overall rhyme pattern, then, is as follows:
Now that we've looked at rhyming, let's move on to the meter.
What is it?
An iamb is metrical foot made up of one short (unstressed) syllable followed by one long (stressed) syllable.
Pentameter means five meters, or feet (penta = five). Iambic pentameter simply means that each line will contain five meters (pentameter), each of which will contain one iamb.
Let’s break line one down into meters, then. We know that each meter contains two syllables (make sure you don’t confuse syllable with word. Some words have multiple syllables).
Shall I/ compare/ thee to/ a summ/ er’s day?
Meter 1 Meter 2 Meter 3 Meter 4 Meter 5
Easy enough (when you’re not the one writing it). Now let’s take a look at the iambs.
Remember the rule for iambs is the first syllable is short (unstressed) and second syllable is long (stressed). When you listen to the line out loud, you’ll start to hear a pattern (da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM):
Shall I/ comPARE/ thee TO/ a SUMM/ er’s DAY?
da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM
Putting these two rules together, when you have finished a line, you should have ten syllables total that alternate between unstressed and stressed.
1. A sonnet is a 14 Line Poem.
2. Lines are broken into Three Quatrains and a Couplet.
- A Quatrain is Four Lines with an alternating rhyme pattern: ABAB.
- A Couplet is Two Lines that rhyme with each other.
3. Each Line is written in Iambic Pentameter:
- 5 Meters per line.
- 2 Iambs per meter. (two syllables unstressed to stressed "da-DUM")
- There are 10 Syllables total per line.
Clear as mud, right? Let's take a look at how it looks when we put it all together:
Line 01: Shall I / comPARE / thee TO / a SUMM / er's DAY?
Line 02: Thou ART / more LOVE / ly AND / more TEM / peRATE:
Line 03: Rough WINDS / do SHAKE / the DAR / ling BUDS / of MAY,
Line 04: And SUM / mer's LEASE / hath ALL / too SHORT / a DATE:
Line 05: SomeTIME / too HOT / the EYE / of HEA / ven SHINES,
Line 06: And OFT / en IS / his GOLD / comPLEX / ion DIMM'D;
Line 07: And EV / ery FAIR / from FAIR / someTIME / deCLINES,
Line 08: By CHANCE / or NA / ture's CHANG / ing COURSE / unTRIMM'D;
Line 09: But THY / etERN / al SUMM / er SHALL / not FADE
Line 10: Nor LOSE / posSESS / ion OF / that FAIR / thou OWEST;
Line 11: Nor SHALL / Death BRAG / thou WAN / der'st IN / his SHADE,
Line 12: When IN / eTER / nal LINES / to TIME / thou GROWEST:
Line 13: So LONG / as MEN / can BREATHE / or EYES / can SEE,
Line 14: So LONG / lives THIS / and THIS / gives LIFE / to THEE.
Practice, practice, practice. Don't worry if you don't get it "right" the first time. Most poems aren't finished in one sitting.
Write a story. Remember that you aren't merely writing 14 lines of rhymes in iambic pentameter. You want to guide the reader through a story. A quick formula to help you out is this:
- Quatrain ONE: Express the main theme and the main metaphor.
- Quatrain TWO: Expand both; be imaginative, provide an example perhaps.
- Quatrain THREE: Add a twist or a conflict, which may begin with a word like "but"; this is often in the ninth line. (“But thy eternal summer shall not fade”)
- COUPLET: Resolve the theme and leave the reader with a new way of looking at things, or a "discovery."
Have fun and be sure to check out Nebraska Shakespeare's sonnet contest!