Features of Shakespearean Sonnets [Semester 6] BA English Notes

Shakespearean sonnets are a popular form of poetry that originated during the Elizabethan era. These sonnets, named after the famous playwright William Shakespeare, have distinct features that set them apart from other poetic forms. In this article, we will explore the key characteristics of Shakespearean sonnets, their structure, and the poetic devices Shakespeare employs to create his timeless works.

Introduction: Shakespearean Sonnets

Shakespearean sonnets are a poetic form that gained popularity during the Renaissance, particularly in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. They are known for their lyrical beauty, emotional depth, and profound exploration of themes. With his 154 sonnets, Shakespeare remains one of the most renowned writers of this poetic form.

Definition of a Shakespearean Sonnet

A Shakespearean sonnet is a 14-line poem written in iambic pentameter, divided into three quatrains and a final rhymed couplet. It follows a specific rhyme scheme, usually abab cdcd efef gg. Each quatrain presents a separate but related idea or argument, and the couplet provides a concluding statement or resolution.

Sonnet Structure

Three Quatrains and a Couplet

The structure of a Shakespearean sonnet consists of three quatrains, each comprising four lines, followed by a rhymed couplet. This structure allows the poet to present a progression of ideas or emotions throughout the poem. The quatrains build upon each other, leading to a turning point or revelation in the final couplet.

Rhyme Scheme

Shakespearean sonnets follow a strict rhyme scheme. In each quatrain, the first and third lines rhyme, as do the second and fourth lines. The couplet at the end of the sonnet is rhymed independently. This rhyme scheme provides a musical quality to the sonnet and contributes to its overall rhythm and flow.

Iambic Pentameter

Definition and Example

Iambic pentameter is a metrical pattern commonly used in Shakespearean sonnets. It consists of five pairs of unstressed and stressed syllables, resulting in ten syllables per line. This rhythm mimics the natural patterns of English speech and creates a musicality in the sonnet’s delivery.

Example: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

Importance in Shakespearean Sonnets

Iambic pentameter is crucial to the structure and flow of Shakespearean sonnets. It provides a consistent rhythm that enhances the emotional impact of the words. The regularity of the meter allows the poet to create tension, emphasize certain words or phrases, and convey a sense of harmony in the composition.

Volta or Turn

Significance of the Volta

A volta, also known as the “turn,” is a pivotal moment in a Shakespearean sonnet where there is a shift in tone, perspective, or argument. It typically occurs between the last line of the third quatrain and the first line of the couplet. The volta brings new insight, a change of direction, or a resolution to the ideas presented earlier in the poem.

Example of a Volta in a Shakespearean Sonnet

In Sonnet 18, Shakespeare writes, “But thy eternal summer shall not fade.” Here, the volta shifts from describing the beloved’s beauty to emphasizing its eternal nature. It introduces a profound change in the poem’s direction and offers a new perspective on the subject matter.

Use of Poetic Devices

Shakespearean sonnets employ various poetic devices to enhance their imagery, create vivid descriptions, and convey complex emotions. Some commonly used devices include:

Simile and Metaphor

Similes and metaphors are figures of speech that compare two different things or ideas. Shakespeare skillfully incorporates them into his sonnets to create striking and memorable imagery. For example, in Sonnet 130, he compares his mistress to the summer’s day, highlighting her unique qualities by contrasting her with traditional ideals of beauty.


Personification is a device where human characteristics are attributed to inanimate objects or abstract concepts. Shakespeare often personifies concepts like love, time, or nature in his sonnets, endowing them with human qualities. This technique adds depth and emotional resonance to his poetry.


Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of neighbouring words. It creates a musical quality and emphasizes certain phrases or ideas. Shakespeare employs alliteration to enhance his sonnets’ rhythm and sound patterns, drawing the reader’s attention to specific lines or images.


Imagery refers to using vivid and descriptive language to create mental pictures. Shakespeare’s sonnets are rich in imagery, evoking sensory experiences and stimulating the reader’s imagination. He paints a vivid picture of the themes and emotions explored in his poems through carefully chosen words and phrases.

Themes in Shakespearean Sonnets

Shakespearean sonnets touch upon many themes, often exploring the complexities of human emotions and experiences. Some recurring themes in his sonnets include:

Love and Beauty

Both romantic and platonic love is a central theme in Shakespearean sonnets. The poet delves into the nature of love, its joys, challenges, and its transformative power. Beauty, too, is a recurring motif, with the beloved often portrayed as the epitome of beauty and perfection.

Time and Mortality

The transient nature of time and the inevitability of mortality are themes that Shakespeare frequently contemplates in his sonnets. He reflects upon the passage of time, the decay of beauty, and the legacy that remains after death. These meditations on mortality give his sonnets a profound and timeless quality.


Nature serves as a source of inspiration and metaphor in Shakespearean sonnets. The beauty and cycles of nature are often juxtaposed with the human experience, illuminating universal truths and drawing parallels between the natural world and the complexities of human emotions.

Influence and Legacy

Shakespearean sonnets have profoundly influenced English literature and continue to be celebrated for their artistry and depth. They have inspired countless poets and writers, and their themes and techniques remain relevant even in contemporary works. The universal nature of Shakespeare’s sonnets ensures their enduring legacy as timeless pieces of poetic brilliance.

Conclusion Shakespearean Sonnets

Shakespearean sonnets captivate readers with their beauty, emotional depth, and exploration of human experiences. Through their distinctive structure, use of poetic devices, and profound themes, they continue to resonate with audiences across generations. As we appreciate the features of Shakespearean sonnets, we can gain a deeper understanding of the power of poetry to express the complexities of the human condition.

FAQs Shakespearean Sonnets

  1. What is the difference between a Shakespearean sonnet and other sonnet forms?
    While there are other sonnet forms like the Petrarchan sonnet, the Shakespearean sonnet follows a distinct structure with three quatrains, a couplet, and a specific rhyme scheme.
  2. What is the purpose of the volta in a Shakespearean sonnet?
    The volta in a Shakespearean sonnet introduces a shift in tone, perspective, or argument, adding depth and complexity to the poem.
  3. Are all Shakespearean sonnets about love?
    No, although love is a prevalent theme, Shakespearean sonnets also explore themes of time, mortality, nature, and other aspects of the human experience.
  4. How have Shakespeare’s sonnets influenced contemporary poetry?
    Shakespeare’s sonnets have inspired countless poets, and their themes and techniques continue to influence contemporary poetry, allowing for an ongoing dialogue between the past and present.
  5. Where can I read more of Shakespeare’s sonnets?
    Shakespeare’s sonnets are widely available in collections and online. They offer a glimpse into the timeless brilliance of one of the greatest poets in literary history.

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