home contact

Shakespearean Sonnet Basics: Iambic Pentameter and the English Sonnet Style

Shakespeare's sonnets are written predominantly in a meter called iambic pentameter, a rhyme scheme in which each sonnet line consists of ten syllables. The syllables are divided into five pairs called iambs or iambic feet. An iamb is a metrical unit made up of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. An example of an iamb would be good BYE. A line of iambic pentameter flows like this:

baBOOM / baBOOM / baBOOM / baBOOM / baBOOM.

Here are some examples from the sonnets:

When I / do COUNT / the CLOCK / that TELLS / the TIME (Sonnet 12)

When IN / dis GRACE / with FOR / tune AND / men’s EYES
I ALL / a LONE / be WEEP / my OUT/ cast STATE (Sonnet 29)

Shall I / com PARE/ thee TO / a SUM / mer's DAY?
Thou ART / more LOVE / ly AND / more TEM / per ATE (Sonnet 18)

Shakespeare's plays are also written primarily in iambic pentameter, but the lines are unrhymed and not grouped into stanzas. Unrhymed iambic pentameter is called blank verse. It should be noted that there are also many prose passages in Shakespeare’s plays and some lines of trochaic tetrameter, such as the Witches' speeches in Macbeth.

Sonnet Structure

There are fourteen lines in a Shakespearean sonnet. The first twelve lines are divided into three quatrains with four lines each. In the three quatrains the poet establishes a theme or problem and then resolves it in the final two lines, called the couplet. The rhyme scheme of the quatrains is abab cdcd efef. The couplet has the rhyme scheme gg. This sonnet structure is commonly called the English sonnet or the Shakespearean sonnet, to distinguish it from the Italian Petrarchan sonnet form which has two parts: a rhyming octave (abbaabba) and a rhyming sestet (cdcdcd). The Petrarchan sonnet style was extremely popular with Elizabethan sonneteers, much to Shakespeare's disdain (he mocks the conventional and excessive Petrarchan style in Sonnet 130).

Only three of Shakespeare's 154 sonnets do not conform to this structure: Sonnet 99, which has 15 lines; Sonnet 126, which has 12 lines; and Sonnet 145, which is written in iambic tetrameter.


How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Shakespearean Sonnet Basics: Iambic Pentameter and the English Sonnet Style. Shakespeare Online. 30 Aug. 2000. < >.

Even More...

 Queen Elizabeth: Shakespeare's Patron
 King James I of England: Shakespeare's Patron
 The Earl of Southampton: Shakespeare's Patron
 Going to a Play in Elizabethan London

 Shakespeare Glossary
 Shakespeare Quotations (by Play and Theme)
 Early Versions of Shakespeare's Plays
 Shakespeare's Edward III?

 Shakespeare's Audience in his Day
 Shakespeare's Trap Doors

 Shakespeare's Language
 Why Study Shakespeare?
 Portraits of Shakespeare
 Shakespeare's Contemporaries

More to Explore

 Introduction to Shakespeare's Sonnets
 How to Analyze a Shakespearean Sonnet
 Theories Regarding the Sonnets
 The Rules of Shakespearean Sonnets

 Shakespeare's Sonnets: Q & A
 Are Shakespeare's Sonnets Autobiographical?
 Petrarch's Influence on Shakespeare
 Themes in Shakespeare's Sonnets

 Shakespeare's Treatment of Love
 Shakespeare's Most Famous Love Quotes
 The Order of the Sonnets
 The Date of the Sonnets

 Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton
 Who was Mr. W. H.?
 Are the Sonnets Addressed to Two Persons?
 Who was The Rival Poet?


Sonnet Notes ... Sonnet 75 opens with a seemingly joyous and innocent tribute to the young friend who is vital to the poet's emotional well being. However, the poet quickly establishes the negative aspect of his dependence on his beloved, and the complimentary metaphor that the friend is food for his soul decays into ugly imagery of the poet alternating between starving and gorging himself on that food. The poet is disgusted and frightened by his dependence on the young friend. He is consumed by guilt over his passion. Words with implicit sexual meanings permeate the sonnet -- "enjoyer", "treasure", "pursuing", "possessing", "had" -- as do allusions to five of the seven "deadly" sins -- avarice (4), gluttony (9, 14), pride (5), lust (12), and envy (6). Read on...


 Shakespeare on Jealousy
 Shakespeare on Lawyers
 Shakespeare on Lust
 Shakespeare on Marriage

 Shakespeare in Old English?
 Shakespeare's Influence on Other Writers
 An Elizabethan Christmas
 Clothing in Elizabethan England

 Ben Jonson and the Decline of the Drama
 Publishing in Elizabethan England
 Shakespeare's Audience
 Religion in Shakespeare's England

 Alchemy and Astrology in Shakespeare's Day
 Entertainment in Elizabethan England
 London's First Public Playhouse
 Shakespeare Hits the Big Time