Shakespearean Sonnet Examples With Simple Explanations

Shakespearean sonnet examples can help you understand this ancient and beautiful poetic form. Get inspired by looking at sonnets written by Shakespeare as well as sonnets by other authors in the classic form he made famous. You’ll also gain a better understanding of the “rules” of this type of poetry. Also called English sonnets, these represent one of the classic poetic forms.

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Shakespearean Sonnet Definition: A Simple Explanation

A Shakespearean sonnet, such as the example below, has specific guidelines for its form. The number of lines, the rhyme scheme, the rhythm, and even the content fit together perfectly to make this type of poem.

Sonnet 13: A Poem With 14 Lines

A Shakespearean sonnet has 14 lines, arranged in a specific pattern or rhyme scheme. You can see this in Sonnet 13.

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;

Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;

If hair be wires, black wires grow on her head.

I have seen roses, damasked red and white,

But no such roses see I in her cheeks;

And in some perfumes there is more delight

Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know

That music hath a far more pleasing sound;

I grant I never saw a goddess go;

My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare

As any she belies with false compare.

Shakespearean Sonnet Rhyme Scheme

One distinctive feature of Shakespearean sonnets is their rhyme scheme. The first twelve lines are divided into quatrains - each composed of four lines. They have a rhyme scheme of ABAB, CDCD, EFEF. The final two lines are a couplet and have the rhyme scheme GG. You can see the pattern with the last words of each line in the Shakespearean sonnet example noted above:

  • A - sun
  • B - red
  • A - dun
  • B - head
  • C - white
  • D - cheeks
  • C - delight
  • D - reeks
  • E - know
  • F - sound
  • E - go
  • F - ground
  • G - rare
  • G - compare

Shakespearean Sonnet Meter or Rhythm

A Shakespearean sonnet also has a prescribed rhythm. In poetry, a pattern of rhythm is called meter. The meter of a Shakespearean sonnet is iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter is a pattern of unstressed, then stressed syllables in a set of five for each line. This means each line has 10 syllables, five stressed stressed and five unstressed. You can see how this works in the example, where every stressed syllable is bolded:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;

Coral is far more red than her lips’ red….

Meaning in the Shakespearean Sonnet Form

In many cases, the Shakespearean sonnet form also affects the content of a poem. The three quatrains that make up the first 12 lines explore a common theme. Then in the final couplet, the true meaning of the poem is revealed. Not every Shakespearean sonnet lets the form control the meaning in this way, but many do.

For example, in Sonnet 13, the first 12 lines are making ordinary and even unfavorable comparisons about the beauty of the speaker’s mistress. Her eyes are not as bright as the sun. Her lips are not as red as coral. Her hair is wiry. Her cheeks are not rosy. Her breath is not as lovely as perfume and may even have an unpleasant odor. It’s almost an insulting poem until you get to the final two lines:

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare

As any she belies with false compare.

This couplet, the last two lines of the poem, reveals the entire point of the sonnet: The speaker does not need to exaggerate the beauty of his mistress to love her deeply. He loves her for who she really is.

More Shakespearean Sonnet Examples by Shakespeare

Shakespeare wasn’t the only one to write this type of sonnet, but he is famous for it. In an eight-year period between 1593 and 1601, he wrote 154 sonnets - all in this iconic form with the same rhyme scheme and meter. Most of the sonnets deal with the theme of love, and it’s likely poets of the period considered the sonnet the perfect poetic form to explore love. Here are some more Shakespearean sonnet examples with simple explanations of each one.

Sonnet 18

Sonnet 18 is one of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets. It deals with the themes of beauty and love but also of the timelessness of art. Some people believe that Shakespeare wrote this sonnet for a man, but no one is sure. What is certain is that the speaker compares the subject to a beautiful summer’s day, acknowledging that even the most perfect day will fade. However, in the final couplet, the real meaning is revealed: Writing about the beauty of the subject makes that beauty immortal.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm'd;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;

Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Sonnet 73

Another famous Shakespearean sonnet is Sonnet 73. In this poem, Shakespeare explores the theme of mortality as it relates to love. Using beautiful imagery of the changing seasons and ending daylight, he reveals that the speaker is aged. However, in the final couplet, the speaker talks directly to his lover about how his advanced age makes the remaining time they have together more precious.

That time of year thou mayst in me behold

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou seest the twilight of such day

As after sunset fadeth in the west,

Which by and by black night doth take away,

Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.

In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire

That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,

As the death-bed whereon it must expire

Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by.

This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Shakespearean Sonnet Examples Not by Shakespeare

Although Shakespeare made the form famous, he isn’t the only one to write Shakespearean or English sonnets. This beautiful poetic form has been popular with writers for centuries. Here are some examples of Shakespearean sonnets not written by Shakespeare. You’ll recognize the traditional 14 lines, sonnet rhyme scheme, and iambic pentameter.

When I Have Fears by John Keats

John Keats, despite being one of the most famous English poets, lived a very short life. He died at age 25 after battling tuberculosis for years. He was only able to write for about six years of his life, but he remains a beloved poet for his sensual imagery and beautiful use of language. His sonnet, When I Have Fears, deals directly with the writer’s fear of dying early and not having time to fall in love and become known for his writing. This sonnet is broken into two stanzas, but it still fits in the Shakespearean sonnet form.

When I have fears that I may cease to be

Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,

Before high-piled books, in charact’ry,

Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;

When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,

Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,

And think that I may never live to trace

Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;

And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,

That I shall never look upon thee more,

Never have relish in the faery power

Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore

Of the wide world I stand alone, and think

Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

America by Claude McCay

A more contemporary Shakespearean sonnet is America by Claude McCay. Written in 1921, the poem explores the themes of the American dream in the context of being a African American in Harlem, New York. In the final couplet, the speaker expresses longing about the American dream with the sense that it is slipping away.

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,

And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,

Stealing my breath of life, I will confess

I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.

Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,

Giving me strength erect against her hate,

Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.

Yet, as a rebel fronts a king in state,

I stand within her walls with not a shred

Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.

Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,

And see her might and granite wonders there,

Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,

Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

Learn About More Sonnet Types

Shakespearean sonnets are just one type of sonnet. Check out other sonnet examples to see different sonnet forms and learn about what makes them special.

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