You want to know how to write a sonnet like one of Shakespeare’s? There is good news and bad news. The good news is that it’s very easy. The bad news is that your sonnet will never be as good as any of Shakespeare’s.
The reason is that every word of Shakespeare’s exactly fits the emotion it’s expressing. In fact, a word in Shakespeare actually becomes the emotion, and when he organises his words into phrases and sentences that applies even more strongly. When Macbeth says, ‘Oh full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife,’ you have a good example of that. Or, when staring at his blood-soaked hands after killing Duncan, he says ‘What hands are here! Ha – they pluck out mine eyes,’ all the emotion of the predicament he’s in is there.
In the sonnets, particularly, although they are only fourteen lines, there is a world of experience in each one because every item of expression has several layers of meaning, all interacting with all the other expression in the poem. Could you do that? Could anyone but Shakespeare? No.
But nevertheless, you are going to write your own sonnet.
1. Think of an idea. It must be just one single idea. It could be a feeling, like being in love. It could be some thought you’ve had about life, or about a person or about people in general. It could be about one of your favourite subjects – sport, music, movies, nature, a book you’ve read etc.
2. Your sonnet must rhyme. There must be three sets of four lines and one set of two lines.
A set of four lines is called a quatrain. They must follow this pattern. The first quatrain will rhyme like this: abab, for example, rain, space, pain, trace.
In the second quatrain you will use different words and it will rhyme like this: cdcd, for example, run, sky, sun, die.
In the third quatrain you will use different words again and it will rhyme like this: efef, for example, boy, man, joy, van.
You now have your three Shakespearean quatrains. That’s twelve lines. A sonnet always has fourteen lines. You need a final two and they are called a couplet. So far your sonnet has three quatrains. Once you have written them the sonnet needs a couplet. The rhyme pattern for that is gg. Again, words you haven’t used in the rhyming so far. An example is owl and fowl.
Your rhyme pattern will look like this: abab/ cdcd/efef/gg Simple, isn’t it?
3. Your sonnet must have a metrical pattern. It must be written in iambic pentameter. That means that you must use iambus.
Iambus is another word for a two syllable foot. The first syllable will normally be unstressed and the second stressed. For example, de/light, the sun, for/lorn, one day, re/lease. English is the perfect language for iambus because of the way our stressed and unstressed syllables work.
Every line of your sonnet must have five feet or iambi. Pentameter means five and iambic pentameter simply means five feet. Shakespeare uses iambic pentameter, not only in the sonnets, but also throughout his plays. Pick up any play and look at it. Choose almost any line: ‘But screw your courage to the sticking post’ (Lady Macbeth) Read it like this: /but screw/ your cour/age to /the stick/ing post/ Count the feet – there are five. And they are all unstressed followed by stressed syllables. Shakespeare uses iambic pentameter because it closely resembles the rhythm of everyday speech and he wants to imitate everyday speech in his plays.
Like Shakespeare you can also trot them out. Try it. If your friend also wants to write a sonnet you can practice talking to each other in iambic pentameter. It comes easily. ‘I wonder what my friends will think of this?’ ‘If I were you I’d watch out what I say.’ ‘He never ever told me what to do.’ ‘It’s easy when you think of it like that.’
You can see from the above sentences that iambic pentameter is natural to English speech. So the first thing to do is practice speaking in iambic pentameter. You’ll see how naturally it comes.
You now have to put the three things together – your idea, your rhyming words and your iambic pentameter.
Let’s look at a Shakespeare sonnet – Sonnet 18
/Shall I /compare /thee to /a Sum/mer’s day?/ a
/Thou art/ more love/ly and/ more temp/er/ate:/ b
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, a
And Summer’s lease hath all too short a date: b
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, c
And oft’ is his gold complexion dimm’d; d
And every fair from fair sometime declines, c
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d: d
But thy eternal Summer shall not fade e
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest; f
Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade, e
When in eternal lines to time thou growest: f
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, g
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. g
We’re going to look briefly at this sonnet. To help you, here is nosweatshakespeare’s translation of it into modern English.
Shall I compare you to a summer’s day? You are more lovely and more moderate: Harsh winds disturb the delicate buds of May, and summer doesn’t last long enough. Sometimes the sun is too hot, and its golden face is often dimmed by clouds. All beautiful things eventually become less beautiful, either by the experiences of life or by the passing of time. But your eternal beauty won’t fade, nor lose any of its quality. And you will never die, as you will live on in my enduring poetry. As long as there are people still alive to read poems this sonnet will live, and you will live in it.
The sonnet is about a single idea. Shakespeare is looking at a beautiful summer’s day which, in spite of its beauty, has limitations, and it eventually fades and dies. He’s comparing someone with that beautiful summer’s day but showing that person’s superiority to it. He works the idea through and presents the subject of the poem as having no limitations. Even eventual death won’t interfere with that because the subject will live forever in the poem, which Shakespeare suggests, will be read as long as there are people to read it.
Look at the first two quatrains again. The subject is introduced and we are told that he or she is more beautiful than a summer’s day. The defects of the summer’s day are outlined. Look at the third quatrain. It starts with the word ‘but.’ That marks a shift of emphasis. Now the subject’s eternal beauty is emphasised. Look at the couplet. It’s a summing up – an assurance that the subject’s beauty will last for as long as there are human beings on Earth.
The rhyme scheme is used to change emphasis. Each aspect of the poems’ idea is contained in its own section with its own rhyming word pattern.
Can you do it? Of course you can. Get your idea, decide what you want to say about it and begin structuring it as a sonnet. You know, now, what you have to do.
Things to think about
• Use as many visual images (word pictures) as you can
• Find the right words.
• Don’t deviate from the iambic pentameter or your sonnet won’t work. You can make slight variations in the stressing for the sake of varying the rhythm so that you don’t get too much of a dedum-dedum-dedum-dedum-dedum effect. For example: ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds.’ If you read it like this: /let me /not to /the mar/riage of /true minds/ it sounds unnatural, but it is still iambic pentameter. Shakespeare has used iambic pentameter but he’s varied the meter to create a different rhythm. So although it’s basic iambic pentameter we read it with the following stresses: Let me not to the marriage of true minds. It now sounds like natural speech. Notice how the first three words run into each other as though they’re one word letmenot. But he’s stuck rigidly to the required line structure. Do you think you can do that? Shakespeare makes these variations a lot in his plays and that’s why you can hear the language as real people speak it but feel the basic metre in your head.
Now you know how to write a sonnet, there’s no excuse: It’s time to start work on your own sonnet!