How does Shakespeare utilise the sonnet form to express emotion? Discuss with reference to at least three poems

Term Paper, 2004

14 Pages, Grade: 68 % (A-)




1 An outline of the contents of the Sonnets

2 Preliminary remarks about the sonnet: what it is, what it can achieve

3 Internal divisions in the original Italian sonnets

4 Internal divisions in Shakespeare’s Sonnets
4.1 Logical, formal, and phonetic patterns in Sonnet 29
4.2 Logical and syntactical patterns in Sonnet
4.3 Meter, rhyme scheme, and syntax – Shakespeare’s Sonnet 23 and Sidney’s Sonnet 71 compared



Appendix: Shakespeare’s Sonnets 4, 23, and 29; Sidney’s Sonnet from Astrophil and Stella


In “The Merchant of Venice”, Shakespeare states an attitude towards form and matter which can be considered not only as that of the character but also as his own: Those “that for a tricksy word defy the matter” are “fools” (Hubler 243). This can be read as a claim that form must be subordinated to substance (Hubler 241). Indeed, with regard to the sonnets, Shakespeare does not seem to be very inventive as far as the form is concerned. He adopts the rhyme scheme that Surrey established (abab – cdcd – efef – gg) (Spiller 158), draws on the highly passionate and rhetorical language formerly used by Sidney, and he employs some of Spenser’s phrasings in his own works (Prince 176 and 178).

Yet, there is something unique about Shakespeare’s poetry, something which is not purely derived from the substance but to a large extent from the structure. It is the conveyance of emotion with means that are part of the form. In a narrow sense, ‘form’ is “that in virtue of which the parts are related one to another” (Nowottny 111). This notion focuses on elements in terms of their formal (arrangement of the lines into stanzas), syntactical, logical, and phonetic relationship towards each other and is mainly concerned with movements produced by those elements (Booth, 175). In a wider sense, ‘form’ as the opposite of ‘contents’ also includes the use of imagery and other devices which form part of the poetic technique.

In the following essay, I will focus on the narrow concept of ‘form’ and explain why and how the sonnet provides a frame within which Shakespeare finds numerous tools to express emotion. After some outlining general remarks about the contents of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and the topics best suited for this kind of poetry, I will deal with Sonnets 29, 4, and 23, all of which belong to the category associated with the young man. I will also point out how Shakespeare’s use of the form differs from that of Sidney, exemplified through Sonnet 71 of the sequence Astrophil and Stella. I will conclude by saying that the form, even if Shakespeare did think it a vassal to the matter of the sonnet, is to a large extent responsible for the success that the poems have achieved in their attempt to convey the denseness of human emotion.

The form of the Shakespeare’s Sonnets as a purveyor of emotion

1 An outline of the contents of the Sonnets

It must be noted that the address ‘lord of my love’ in Sonnet 26 does not result in the fact that Shakespeare was gay, even if speculations have not ceased until today. Sonnets 1 to 126 are addressed to a young man, celebrating his beauty and urging him to marry, but he is described in rather feminine terms, which is one thing that leads Rowse to believe that Shakespeare was rather inclined towards the female sex (xxiv). A female description of a man was not suggestive during the Renaissance as it might be today (Rowse xxiv). Besides, there is plenty of counter-evidence in the other Sonnets, numbers 127 to 154, which deal mainly with the joy and the pain of a love affair with the so-called “Dark Lady”. She grants him sexual love, whereas the young man is ‘only’ a very close friend. “Love” should be rather understood as ‘devotion’ (Rowse xvi).

2 Preliminary remarks about the sonnet: what it is, what it can achieve

A sonnet can be seen as a little drama or as a dramatic moment within the sequence it is part of (Prince 174). Poetry is generally very apt to express ideas in a condensed form. This applies even more to the sonnet since “it continually presses for concision and subtle modulation”, just as a drama does because of the limited space (Prince 177). Fourteen lines are brief enough to help the reader to refer all ideas to the core of the poem, but fourteen lines also offer sufficient space to unfold a train of thoughts (Hubler 242). No wonder that Shakespeare, knowing about dramatic effects from his work as both an actor and a playwright, chose a form of poetry which would most poignantly convey the conflict of a lover.

3 Internal divisions in the original Italian sonnets

Francis Petrarch (1304-1374), a major figure of Italian sonneteering and at the root of the English tradition, chose the sonnet form to depict his conception of love within fourteen lines, divided into blocks of eight and six. Thematically, he conveys the idea that the beloved woman brings “to the imperfections” of the “unsatisfied” lover “a tender severity which would lead” him “to God” (Prince 181). It is the expression of a “single thought” in a “unified and intense” form, with a possibility of placing an argument within the eight lines of the first block and the opportunity to introduce an application or an answer within adequate space in the last six lines (Muir 88). This is why the volta, the turn of a sonnet, is generally considered best placed after the eighth line: there is still enough space to ‘turn’ without making the remainder sound “oversententious” or “casual”, which sometimes happens to couplets because of their stopping effect caused by the immediate ringing of the rhyme (Hubler 243).

4 Internal divisions in Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Almost all of Shakespeare’s Sonnets pause after the eighth line (Spiller 159) although the shape is now changed into four quatrains and a couplet with the following rhyme scheme: abab - cdcd - efef - gg (Muir 88). I will return to the altered rhyme scheme in 4.3 and will focus on the new division in the following two passages.

4.1 Logical, formal, and phonetic patterns in Sonnet 29

A strength of the Shakespearean couplet lies in the fact that it can “clinch or contradict” what has been stated in the previous lines of the sonnet (Muir 88), which would not have created the typical explicitness of the last two lines had Shakespeare adhered to the Italian form (Hubler 242). Petrarch’s sonnets are only superficially equipped with a couplet since the internal structure divides the sestet into two tercets (cdd – cee): cdd pulls on ee within cee and c pulls on ee within cee (Prince 172). The Shakespearean couplet rhyme (gg), however, contrasting with the alternating rhyme in quatrains one to three (abab, cdcd, efef), is a means of depicting a theme, feeling, or opinion within two lines of intensification.

Generally speaking, Shakespeare uses couplets for providing reasons, contradictions, modifications, and for completions of ideas (Muir 90). In Sonnet 29, which is addressed to the young man, the couplet is used to give a reason for the poets sudden cheering-up during a phases of low spirits: “For thy sweet love rememb’red such wealth brings / That then I scorn to change my state with kings.” It is devotion towards the young man which makes the poet quit his gloominess. The change of emotion begins with the transition from the octave to the sestet and is thus symbolised by the form: gloominess in the first eight lines, joy in the remaining six lines. Booth calls this a “logical pattern” which can arise in virtue of the sonnet form (175).


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How does Shakespeare utilise the sonnet form to express emotion? Discuss with reference to at least three poems
University of Warwick
Medieval to Renaissance English Literature
68 % (A-)
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ISBN (eBook)
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468 KB
The three chosen sonnets are numbers 4, 23, and 29. There is also a comparison to Sidney's sonnet 71.
Shakespeare, Discuss, Medieval, Renaissance, English, Literature
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Anne Thoma (Author), 2004, How does Shakespeare utilise the sonnet form to express emotion? Discuss with reference to at least three poems, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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