To write a Shakespearean sonnet, you need to know how it is constructed and then imitate its argumentative style, structure, and rhyme scheme.
I’m Tutor Phil, and in this tutorial, I’ll guide you step-by-step through writing a sonnet in Shakespearean style. We’ll first take a quick look at how a Shakespearean sonnet works and then methodically write our own.
Let’s do it.
Writing a Shakespearean sonnet is a 5-step process.
Step 1. Get a picture of a Shakespearean sonnet structure
Before you write your own sonnet, you need to know what to aim for. So, in this step, we’ll take a quick look at how a Shakespearean sonnet works.
A Shakespearean sonnet is argumentative
Every sonnet Shakespeare ever wrote contains an argument. The popular notion that poetry is all about beautiful images and intense feelings is simply not enough to write a sonnet.
In fact, poetry written before the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century is largely argumentative. This means that the poet is not just describing her feelings and clothes them in pretty images.
Poets of the old present a clear argument in every poem. Let’s look at Shakespeare’s sonnet 18 and identify its argument and how it is constructed.
In this Shakespeare’s most famous sonnet, the poet makes a very clear argument in the first two lines.
This particular sonnet works like a well-written college-level argumentative essay. The thesis (argument) is presented in the beginning.
Shakespeare states that he intends to compare “thee” to “a summer’s day” in line 1. And in the next line, he declares exactly how he intends to proceed with his evidence.
He tells the reader that “thee,” meaning “you,” are more lovely and more temperate than the summer. And Shakespeare structures the sonnet to reflect this argument.
As you can see, lines 3-8 are devoted to the summer, or to “a summer’s day.” And lines 9-14 are devoted to the second object of comparison, which is “thee” or “you,” to use modern language.
A sonnet usually contains a “turn” or a “shift”
In this sonnet, the “turn” takes place in line 9. It starts with the transitional word “But.” By doing so, Shakespeare makes it clear that this sonnet presents a contrast.
He’s done talking about the summer, and now he’ll talk about how “you” are superior to it.
Not all sonnets are constructed this way. Not all of them are comparative. Each has a structure of its own.
However, each Shakespearean sonnet presents an argument and has some kind of a “turn.”
In fact, the turn usually occurs in the couplet – the last two lines of a sonnet. In this sonnet, Shakespeare has two turns.
The first occurs in line 9. And the second is in the last two lines of the sonnet, where he explains why “you” are superior to the summer.
It is because while every summer eventually ends, “you” shall live for the duration of humanity, for “as long as men can breathe and eyes can see.”
A Shakespearean sonnet has a certain meter and rhyme scheme
A meter refers to how syllables are stressed in each line of poetry. Shakespeare’s sonnets are written in iambic pentameter.
Iambus simply means that the stress is on every other syllable starting with the second. For example, in the word “Today,” the stress is on the second syllable.
It’s not “today.” It’s “today.” “Today” is an iambic word.
And pentameter simply means that each line contains five of these iambic pairs. The root “pent” stems from Greek “pente,” which means “five.”
Here is a line of iambic pentameter:
“Today today today today today.”
Sonnet rhyme scheme
A Shakespearean sonnet has a definite rhyme scheme, which means that different lines of poetry rhyme with each other in a certain variation pattern. Let’s take a look:
Notice that in each quatrain (four lines of poetry), the first and the third lines rhyme with each other. So do the second and the fourth lines.
Each quatrain has different rhyming words or syllables. In other words, the rhyming syllables do not repeat from quatrain to quatrain. Each quatrain has its own rhyme.
For example, if “day” is one of the rhyming words and syllables in the first quatrain, then something that rhymes with “day” will not be used in the next four lines of poetry.
And finally, the two lines in the couplet (last two lines) must also rhyme and have a rhyming syllable that is different from the rhymes in the quatrains.
Guess what! We’re done with an overview of how a Shakespearean sonnet works. You now know the main moving parts and how they interact with each other.
If you like sonnet 18 and want to get a deeper understanding of it, I highly recommend my in-depth analysis of this sonnet.
Now, you’re ready to start writing your own Shakespearean sonnet.
Step 2. Come up with an argument
You can present any argument you want. Just note that Shakespeare’s sonnets are lyric poems, which means they are essentially about love.
Each sonnet is weaved around the theme of love in one way or another. In sonnet 18, the argument is about beauty, mildness, and longevity. But it is essentially a proclamation of love.
So, you can argue whatever you want, but if you’re writing a Shakespearean sonnet, let the theme be “love” in some form.
In this tutorial I’ll use a Shakespearean sonnet I wrote back in college as an undergrad. Yes, it was kind of inspired by a young lady, but it was a very fleeting thing.
Nevertheless, my momentary infatuation produced a nice sonnet 🙂
How to form an argument
Your argument in a sonnet should be more specific than a simple “I love you.” That would be too general and too obvious for a sonnet.
See, if you hide this argument in a more specific kind of a statement, now you’re arguing like Shakespeare.
In sonnet 18, Shakespeare doesn’t have to say bluntly that he is in love with “you,” the object of the sonnet.
All he has to do is to draw a beautiful comparison between the summer and the subject, and it becomes clear that the poet is in love. Because why would he otherwise be making such an argument?
Your argument can be that:
- Your life is no longer the same
- You are having a hard time finding words to express yourself
- The object of your affection has the most amazing quality
- Anything else you can think of pertaining to love
You get the point. None of these arguments bluntly states that you’re in love. It only implies that.
Our sample argument
When I became inspired to write a sonnet, the following idea came to me: I’ll complain about the loss of the quality of life.
Well, it didn’t really come in this boring, mundane form. But if I could summarize the idea, that would be it. Let me phrase it a little better:
“I lament that I’ve lost my quality of life because of ‘you’.”
Now, if you remember, we need a “turn.” It should be some kind of an explanation, the way Shakespeare does in lines 13-14.
Or, it could be a reversal, the way he does in line 9.
Here’s what I came up with (together with the first part of the argument):
“I lament that I’ve lost my quality of life because of ‘you’. However, I actually don’t mind the loss as long as I have you.”
Now, let me make something absolutely clear. The way this argument came to me was not in the form of a couple of clear but boring sentences.
You see, the creative process is mysterious. Who knows what really happens in a poet’s psyche when it’s overtaken by inspiration!
But I can recall that I intended to make this sort of an argument. I really wanted my sonnet to have a nice, surprising reversal.
We have our main argument in its most general but complete form, and we’re ready for the next step.
Step 3. Structure your sonnet
In this step, you want to decide how you will structure the presentation of your argument.
In sonnet 18, Shakespeare states the main argument in the first two lines, does a reversal mid-sonnet, and concludes with an explanation in the couplet.
There are many ways to skin a cat.
You can have a reversal in the middle or at the end. You don’t even have to have a reversal but can have an explanation or a revelation, also mid-sonnet or at the end.
You are the poet, so it’s up to you.
Here is how I chose to structure my sonnet:
I decided that the first three quatrains will be devoted to my complaint about the loss of the quality of life.
And the couplet would contain the reversal. This is the main structure.
Then, each quatrain can describe the loss of a particular part of my quality of life. Here’s the breakdown:
In the first four lines, I’ll talk about the loss of sleep.
In the second quatrain, I’ll discuss the loss of my mind.
And in the third quatrain, I’ll lament the loss of my soul or essence.
Now, you may say that the loss of my soul has nothing to do with the quality of life. And that’s true. It would not be perfectly accurate.
But it’s a significant loss. In the first two quatrains, I lost the abilities to do.
In the final quatrain, I lost the ability to be. That’s a serious loss 🙂 So, let’s keep it.
Again, your sonnet doesn’t have to be structured like this. We’re just using this organization as an example.
Just pick a structure you like and stick to it.
Step 4. Write all the lines
Now that we know exactly how a Shakespearean sonnet works, we have our argument, and we know our structure, we’re ready to write the first draft of the sonnet.
Don’t worry if you can’t quite find the words that rhyme and are meaningful.
Don’t worry if you struggle to put elegant sentences together.
Just start writing and don’t stop until you have all 14 lines. Try to make sure that you write in iambic pentameter right off the bat. It’s really not hard at all.
Let’s write our first draft:
I hate the day when I first saw your eyes. You took away my sleep, my sleep you took. And now, I have to look into the skies To find the stars that like your eyes they look. I curse the day which robbed me of my days. You took away my only thinking mind. No meaning have the sun’s life-giving rays Since I saw yours; for fairer I won’t find. I hate that moment when you took my soul. You took away my only soul from me. For whether it be day or night, I know That without you it’s hard for me to be. I do complain, but secretly I pray That you take all and then forever stay.
This is not a bad start, if I only say so myself. Of course, the language needs some work.
But we have a solid draft that includes:
- Fourteen lines of poetry
- The argument stated clearly
- The overall structure as we designed it
- The turn (the reversal)
- Each line written in iambic pentameter
- The rhyming that kind of works
Step 5. Write the final draft, choosing more expressive words
You can write more than two drafts, of course. You can keep improving your sonnet until you’re happy with it.
But if you need to submit or publish it, you have a deadline. This means that at some point you must simply stop rewriting and be content with the draft you have.
That said, let’s edit our first draft so that the final product could emerge.
Yes, by writing the final draft, I really mean editing the previous draft and rewriting some of its parts.
Let me point out some of the lines that I’m really not happy with.
What needs improvement
“I hate the day when I first saw your eyes.”
I don’t really like the word “hate.” Besides, I see an opportunity in the word “curse” and think I should use it throughout so I could take advantage of it in the reversal.
“You took away my sleep, my sleep you took.”
Yes, this line rhymes with “look” later in the quatrain. But it’s just blatantly repetitive.
“And now, I have to look into the skies To find the stars that like your eyes they look.”
The last line here is just plain awkward. Also, it is not clear why I “have to” look into the skies. Perhaps I don’t have to but simply choose to.
“I curse the day which robbed me of my days.”
The “day” here is repetitive not only in view of the “days” in the same line but also against the first line: “I hate the day…”
“I hate that moment when you took my soul. You took away my only soul from me.”
In these two lines, I’m not happy about the word “hate” again. The word “took” is used twice. Also, “soul” doesn’t rhyme perfectly with “know” in the third line of this quatrain.
Now that we know what should be improved, let’s write out the final draft of the sonnet.
I curse the day when first I saw your eyes. You took away my sleep, my nightly rest. And now, in wake, I search the starry skies For distant lights that yours resemble best. I curse that hour which robbed me of my days. You took away my reason and my mind. No meaning bear the sun’s life-giving rays Since I saw yours; for fairer I won’t find. I curse the moment when my soul did go. You took away my only soul from me. For whether it be day or night, I know That without you I simply cannot be. I curse out loud, but secretly I pray That you take all and then forever stay.
Key improvements made
We replaced the word “hate” with the word “curse” in every quatrain and used it in the couplet.
Now, the word “curse” acts as a unifying, connecting element that helps pull the argument together.
The main argument has become:
“I curse the losses that you caused. But I only curse them on the surface. In reality, I don’t mind the losses if you stay with me.”
We took out almost all the repetitive words and phrases.
I say “almost” because some repetition is intentional. For example, these lines are kind of redundant:
“I curse the moment when my soul did go. You took away my only soul from me.”
It’s okay to use redundancy this way for the sake of an emphasis. It sounds like the most significant loss. So, I lament it twice. And it’s okay.
We made the meaning more precise.
I didn’t really want to say that I “have” to look into the skies. So, I changed the meaning to imply that I simply choose to search the starry skies.
We used more powerful verbs.
We changed “look into the skies” into “search the starry skies.”
To look is more general than to search. Searching is looking with a specific intention. So, the verb “search” is more powerful.
We changed “No meaning have the sun’s life-giving rays” into:
“No meaning bear the sun’s life-giving rays”
Such verbs as “to be” and “to have” are known as auxiliary or “helping” verbs. They are rather weak.
It usually makes sense to replace them with something more powerful.
When we replaced “have” with “bear,” we made our sentence stronger because to have is very general and common. But to bear is more specific and therefore more valuable.
And we’re done!
I hope this was helpful. Now go write your own brilliant Shakespearean sonnet!