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Key terms & concepts



Sonnets are essentially small poems written in a specific form. The genre originates from Italy in the 13th century and besides Shakespeare, other prominent writers such as Dante Alighieri and John Milton have also written sonnets. Both Milton and Dante Alighieri's versions are however slightly different from Shakespeare's in terms of both form and content.

Shakespeare's sonnets

From the late 1590s to their publication in 1609, Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets. A few additional sonnets can be found in his plays such as the prologue in Romeo & Juliet. The sonnets deal with themes such as love, jealousy, immortality and beauty. The characteristics of Shakespeare's sonnets can be identified quite precisely as:

- 14 lines

- Strict rhyme scheme: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG

- Written in iambic pentameter (10 syllables in each line)

- Can be broken into quatrains = lines of four

- The final two lines are called a couplet and usually features the conclusion to the sonnet.

- Shakespeare experts sometimes divides the central themes of the sonnets into three main subjects: “the brevity of life”, “the transience of beauty” and “the trappings of desire”.

- The recipients of Shakespeare’s sonnets are typically also divided into three groups. A young, fair, bright man, a dark lady and a rival poet.

Iambic pentameter

This video is taken from The Complete Shakespeare Guide.

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