Shakespeare Week – Sonnet Writing

This week is Shakespeare Week.

Shakespeare Week is a national, annual celebration, giving primary school aged children opportunities for enriching and enjoyable early experiences of Shakespeare. 

When I was at school living in Leicestershire, we weren’t far from Stratford on Avon, and when I was studying ‘O’ levels and ‘A’ levels, we went to see plays by the RSC theatre in Stratford. 

I remember seeing Macbeth (1967/8-ish which we studied for O level); The Winter’s Tale (1969, for A level). The cast was full of actors who are now well-known: Judie Dench; Barrie Ingham; Richard Pascoe; Roger Rees; John Hallam; Brenda Bruce. Directed by Trevor Nunn, it was an amazing experience and still today I have quite clear images in my head of some parts of that play. One particular device, which, at that age I’d never seen, was whilst one member of the cast had a soliloquy about what he imagined was happening between his wife and his friend, in the background, the two actors playing those parts, mimed in slow motion his imaginings. It was both cinematic and brilliant.

Later in life, I went to see, Much Ado about Nothing and The Taming of a Shrew, which had a memorable opening scene, where Jonathan Pryce rode a motorbike onto the stage.

For my celebration of the Bard’s week, I’ve decided to write sonnets.

I’ve written seven Sonnets with Shakespeare’s rhyming pattern; syllable and line count, but I haven’t used Iambic pentameter.

What is a Sonnet?

A sonnet is a poetic form, for which Shakespeare is particularly well known, having written 154 of them, published in 1609.

His style of sonnet has particular rules when writing.

  • The poem is made up of a strict rhyming pattern:

End of lines have to rhyme: ABAB; CDCD; EFEF; GG.

  • The whole poem has 14 lines, and each line contains 10 syllables.

The added difficulty of Shakespeare’s sonnets is they are written in Iambic Pentameter. That means that each line has a pattern of: a word unstressed, followed by a word stressed (in bold) ie:

ShallIcomparetheetosummers day?

Who are Shakespeare’s sonnets written to?

According to the British Library it seems that the first 126 are addressed to a young man. The first seventeen encouraging him to marry and have children, then after this they diversify in their subjects.

Sonnets, 127 to 152 seem to be written to the ‘Dark Lady’, although we don’t know who this is, and the final two sonnets focus on the god, Cupid.

The sonnets were printed as a sequence in 1609, but the dedication to Mr. W.H was by the printer, not Shakespeare, and we don’t know if he was even involved in printing his own poems.

Modern Poets take on the Sonnet

Many modern poets have freed themselves of the strict rules of the sonnet. However, when someone writes a fourteen-line poem, it can be accepted as a variation of the sonnet form.

I recently attended an online workshop for writing sonnets.  We were taught the strict rules, but by the end of the session, the poet leading the event, told us that basically if your poem looks like a rectangle on the page and has about fourteen lines, you can call it a sonnet.

Some modern poets’ versions are so loose, they only contain the ‘ghost’ of a sonnet within them.

Many modern poets have increasingly moved away from the Iambic pentameter, the idea of the, da-dum, da –dumrhythmic feel, which is often considered old-fashioned. 

A way to create a modern feeling is, rather than ending each line with the allotted ‘end rhyme’ word and feeling of a full stop, you overflow the meaning of the sentence into the next line.

Here in the first four lines of Shakespeare’s ‘Shall I compare there to a summer’s day?’ where there is no continuation of meaning of sentences between lines:

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.

Here is the first four lines of Nicholas Friedman’s ‘As Is’ a Shakespearean sonnet, with every rule used, (including Iambic Pentameter), however it appears more modern due to the language, and the continuation between sentences:

Just north of town, a quaint Sargasso Sea 

for bric-a-brac: the barn, itself antique,

spills over with a grab-bag panoply

of outworn stock revalued as “unique.”

   Here in the first four lines of Dorothea Tanning’s ‘All Hallows’ Eve’, she has her own rhyming pattern and syllable count, but the poem does have 14 lines. The two rhyme endings here, alternate throughout the rest of the poem.

Be perfect, make it otherwise.

Yesterday is torn in shreds.

Lightning’s thousand sulfur eyes

Rip apart the breathing beds.

Basically, now, it appears that a sonnet can be whatever you want it to be.  However, there is no taking away from the amazing feat of Shakespeare writing 154 of them!

I enjoy the challenge of writing to certain poetic forms, and at other times, I write free verse. In fact, that’s what I love about poetry – I have so many different choices in how I can compose each one.

If you would like to read my other sonnets in order they have appeared this week (starting Monday 15thMarch), they are:

Sonnet for Shakespeare

Sonnet for a Piscean from her love

Sonnet for Friends

Sonnet to Growing Old

Sonnet to Joyous Spring

Sonnet to Conrad/ Sonnet to Mushrooms

Sonnet to a Pork Pie

They can be found on my Lis McDermott Author FB page:

and also on my Lis McDermott Instagram page: