Shakespeare’s sonnets, a collection of 154 poems, diverge from traditional sonnets in several key ways, particularly in terms of structure, themes, and their approach to the sonnet form.
Structure: The most notable difference is in the structure. Traditional sonnets, often called Petrarchan or Italian sonnets, are divided into two parts: an octave (the first eight lines) and a sestet (the last six lines). The octave usually sets up a problem or theme, using a rhyme scheme of ABBAABBA, and the sestet resolves it with a scheme like CDECDE or CDCDCD. Shakespearean sonnets, on the other hand, consist of three quatrains (four-line stanzas) followed by a rhymed couplet, with a simpler rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. This structure allows for a shift in theme or argument with each quatrain, culminating in a summarizing or surprising twist in the final couplet.
Themes: While Petrarchan sonnets were heavily focused on unrequited love and idealized beauty, often with a tone of melancholy, Shakespeare’s sonnets explore a broader range of themes. These include the nature of time, the transient nature of beauty, the power of poetry to immortalize, complex emotions and moral dilemmas in relationships, and even political undertones. Shakespeare’s treatment of these themes is often more direct and earthy than the idealized approach of traditional sonnets.
Language and Imagery: Shakespeare’s sonnets are renowned for their rich language and vivid imagery. He often employs complex metaphors and a level of wordplay that was groundbreaking for his time. This is in contrast to the more straightforward and often more elegiac tone of Petrarchan sonnets.
Subject Matter: Shakespeare’s sonnets also stand out for their treatment of the subject matter. While Petrarchan sonnets often focus on the poet’s love for an unattainable woman, Shakespeare’s sonnets cover a wider range, including homoerotic love (as seen in his early sonnets, which are addressed to a young man), a realistic portrayal of a dark lady, and reflections on the poet’s own state of being.
Influence and Legacy: Finally, the influence and legacy of Shakespeare’s sonnets differ from traditional sonnets. While Petrarchan sonnets heavily influenced Renaissance literature across Europe, Shakespeare’s sonnets have had a more lasting and widespread impact on both English literature and the sonnet form itself, inspiring countless poets and writers in subsequent centuries.
In summary, Shakespeare’s sonnets differ from traditional sonnets in their structural flexibility, thematic variety, rich and innovative language, diverse subject matter, and enduring influence on the literary world.