A Shakespearean sonnet expresses a single idea, but it is generally an idea that develops and expands, with multiple facets, leading to a conclusion – and all within a very specific rhyming scheme.
The sonnet structure consists of four divisions, always making up fourteen lines. The first three of the four sonnet divisions have the same rhyming scheme, whilst the fourth and last division has a different rhyming scheme:
- The Shakespearean sonnet begins with a four line quatrain – four lines that end with alternate rhyming words, in this pattern: ABAB
- The second quatrain has the same rhyme scheme but with different rhyming words so it follows this pattern: CDCD
- The third quatrain also has the same rhyme scheme, but again with different rhyming words: EFEF
- The final two lines is a rhyming couplet: GG
Let’s take sonnet 73 as an example to understand how the rhyming structure of sonnets works:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold A
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang B
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, A
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. B
In me thou seest the twilight of such day C
As after sunset fadeth in the west, D
Which by and by black night doth take away, C
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest. D
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire E
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie, F
As the death-bed whereon it must expire E
Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by. F
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong, G
To love that well which thou must leave ere long. G
A rhyming couplet in English poetry is always very powerful and in the sonnets it sums up and rounds off the poem. It can be used to put emphasis on the main idea, or to undermine it, or to offer a humorous perspective. And in Shakespeare it can quite frequently be very personal, in some cases amounting to a personal statement.
All Shakespearean sonnets follow this fouteen line pattern and rhyming structure. Interesting in learning more about Shakespearean sonnets? Now you know the rhyming structure, what about taking a deep dive into iambic pentameter, the driving force of the rhythym in Shakespeare’s sonnets?