William Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets that were published well into his expansive career in 1609. The meter, rhyme scheme and themes that characterize his sonnet style are both characteristic of the genre and uniquely his. Though he did not originate the formula, he made it famous and so appealing that it has been used and adapted by many other authors.
Italian poet Francesco Petrarch developed the current sonnet form in the 13th century. Writing more than 200 years before Shakespeare, Petrarch wrote sonnets at a time when few people could read or write -- let alone craft a sonnet. He also wrote through several cycles of the plague that carried away many of those closest to him, including the lady, Laura de Noves, to whom many of his sonnets are written.
Petrarch's devices, known as the Petrarchan conventions, included addressing a beautiful woman the poet could never have. Shakespeare is deeply influenced by Petrarch, but that doesn't mean he simply follows Petrarch's conventions. He also plays with them and twists them to his own uses. For example, some of his sonnets are addressed to a man and the later sonnets are addressed to his infamous "dark lady," who is something less than virtuous.
Strict structure of form and meter define the Shakespearean sonnet. The sonnet divides into two parts: the first eight lines are called the octave and the remaining six lines are the sestet. The rhyme scheme of the octave is a b a b c d c d. The rhyme scheme of the sestet is e f e f g g.
Shakespeare's sonnets are written in iambic pentameter, which means that every other syllable is accented, as in Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham. To get a feel for what iambic pentameter sounds like, try reading a section of Green Eggs and Ham aloud. In addition, Shakespeare's sonnets are characterized by a volta or turn in the subject matter that typically comes at the end of the octave or beginning of the sestet.
Shakespeare's sonnets are full of famous lines readers may not even know were penned by the Bard. For example, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day," is from Sonnet 18. "So true a fool is love" comes from Sonnet 57, and the line "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun" is from Sonnet 130.
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