Shakespeare's sonnets and the Petrarchan tradition

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar), 2007
28 Seiten, Note: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Petrarchism and the Petrarchan Tradition in England

3. Formal aspects of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and the Petrarchan tradition

4. Traditional and unconventional thematic aspects and Shakespeare’s Sonnets

5. The Petrarchan language of love and its use in the Sonnets

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Ever since the first publication of Shakespeare’s Sonnets in Thomas Thorpe’s, very likely unauthorized, Quarto-edition in 1609[1], these poetic masterpieces have interested and captivated readers and critics alike for the following centuries.

Shakespeare’s exceptional abilities as a playwright as well as a poet have always drawn the attention of literary criticism towards his works and also to his sonnets. In the past, critics have often tried to answer all sorts of questions concerning the sonnets. Among the questions dealt with, like the identity of the persons mentioned in the poems, the correct order and structure of the sonnet cycle and many others, critics also tried to answer in which ways Shakespeare used and incorporated already existing poetic conventions and in how far he wrote against, contrasted and overcame common literary traditions by producing, according to Pequigney’s praise, “the greatest of all love-sonnet sequences”[2].

The common literary tradition for writing love poetry that not only English but also continental poets followed in the sixteenth century was that of Petrarchism[3].

Already after Francesco Petrarca, or Petrarch, had introduced this way of writing love poetry, the fashion of imitating or adopting and sometimes contrasting the Petrarchan way of writing poetry spread from Italy to France, Spain, the Netherlands and also to England[4], where Wyatt and Surrey introduced the sonnet form and the thematic aspects which characterize Petrarchism[5]. Although Petrarchism, with its many followers who, despite striking similarities, often exhibit different ways of adopting the model set by Petrarch, seems not too easy to define[6], this paper aims to show how this prominent love poetry tradition was adopted and adapted by Shakespeare for his Sonnets.

To achieve this goal it seems essential to try to define what the Petrarchan way of writing love poetry is and why it became a predominant fashion in England before and during the time Shakespeare wrote his sonnets. This is to be the purpose of the following chapter.

After the basic theoretical introduction it seems interesting to look at formal as well as thematic aspects of Shakespeare’s sonnets and to ask how far Shakespeare uses the existing Petrarchan conventions concerning formulae and themes in his own sonnets.

A paper on Shakespeare and Petrarchism, and on poetry in general, would seem most incomplete if it did not include an analysis of the poetic language that a poet uses for writing his sonnets. Using various examples from different sonnets of Shakespeare, this will be done in the last chapter where differences and similarities between the Petrarchan language of love and Shakespeare’s own expression of love and other feelings are to be dealt with.

Finally, it has to be said that it is of course impossible to write about all sonnets or all aspects of the connection between Petrarchism and Shakespeare’s Sonnets in a term paper. Despite the danger of looking only for the best examples and therefore presenting a distorted view of Shakespeare’s handling of the Petrarchan tradition it is essential to take an exemplary approach in dealing with the said questions.

Another difficulty will be that it seems to be almost impossible to find many new and interesting aspects of Shakespeare’s poems that have not yet been analysed by scholars since his sonnets have received so much scholarly attention over the centuries that one has to state that dealing with Shakespeare’s sonnets means digging in an over-researched field of literary criticism[7].

2. Petrarchism and the Petrarchan Tradition in England

As I have already hinted, it is not easy to define Petrarchism. Although it is possible to characterize Francesco Petrarca’s poetic work, it is much more demanding to define Petrarchism as literary movement or poetic convention since so many followers of the Petrarchan fashion produced numberless poetic works that exhibit not only similarities but also differences. Therefore it is justified to speak of “multiple Petrarchs”[8] that constituted Petrarchism and as the participants in the fashion did not always imitate Petrarch himself but also other followers of the fashion[9], adding new aspects themselves, the convention took a more and more heterogeneous outset over the centuries.

Nevertheless, this chapter aims to describe some basic characteristics of Petrarchism and explaining how the fashion was introduced and assimilated into English Renaissance culture. In my opinion, this seems to be an essential theoretical step to understand the ambivalent relationship between Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence and the Petrarchistic sequences of his predecessors and contemporaries.

The “Christian humanist”[10] Francesco Petrarca, or Petrarch, had started the fashion of writing love sonnets in his particular way by praising a beautiful and virtuous woman in his Il Canzoniere (or Rime sparsi), a cycle of sonnets and love songs on which the great humanist worked until his death in 1374. Though Petrarch did not invent the sonnet form he surely made it popular[11] and began the vogue of writing sonnets about unfulfilled love that is still today associated with his name.

In the Canzoniere, Petrarch is expressing his love for Laura, a virtuous and beautiful woman. The central conflict on which Petrarch’s, and many of his followers’, sonnets are therefore based is that the beloved woman’s “beauty is a Platonic reflection of her virtue, and it is this for which he [the respective poet] loves her, but this same virtue causes her to reject the speaker’s pleas”[12]. As the beloved woman is virtuous and also bound to another man she can only reject the wooing of the poet and if the beloved gave in to the poet’s desires the Petrarchan poetry would, of course, loose its foundation[13]. The admired lady’s ‘cruelty’ in not answering the poet’s pleas is her only ‘fault’, but it is a ‘fault’ inherent in the conventional Petrarchan situation between the lover and the unattainable beloved. This traditional situation leads to the poet lover’s characteristic conflicting feelings between short periods of hope and much longer periods of desperate love in which the lover suffers because of being unhappily in love. The fact that the traditionally beautiful and virtuous Petrarchan lady cannot be tempted to give in to the poet’s wooing leads to a mix of poetic blame and praise for her[14].

The conflicts inherent in the Petrarchan love poetry are typically expressed by fitting rhetorical figures like oxymoron and antithesis[15], and the lady’s uniqueness in her beauty, virtue and abilities can only adequately be described by using hyperbolical comparisons because for the love-sick poet “she represents physical and spiritual perfection”[16]. Thematically, Petrarch and his followers that would rightfully bear the label of ‘Petrarchists’ are therefore concerned with describing an unfulfilled love by focussing on the description of a perfect woman and by expressing the feelings, mainly pleasure and pain, of a love-sick poet[17]. Although we find in Petrarch’s Il Canzoniere a significant development at the end when the poet, aware of his self and Christian moral doctrines, renounces his love for Laura after her death for the love of the Virgin Mary[18], Petrarchan poetry usually exhibits an unchanging and stable relationship between the lover and the idealized beloved[19].

Many of the conceits that Petrarch used in his sequence later became traditional, too[20]. Remarkable about Petrarch is furthermore that he uses his conceits in a varied way so that they do not become boring and that his “conceits use simple concepts and concrete images”[21].

The reasons why Petrarch poetry was absorbed all over Europe in the following centuries are manifold. First of all, it needs to be mentioned that ‘love’ had been a central topic before Petrarch, who himself was influenced by existing literary traditions[22], and ‘love’ was to remain the central topic of poetry after the Italian humanist. In the way in which Petrarch superbly expressed love he became a role model and “an example on two levels: the aesthetic and the moral”[23] so that the general interest of poets in the topic ‘love’ and the existence of the great prototype of Petrarchsim, Petrarch’s Il Canzoniere, tempted others to imitate the original master. Further reasons for the spreading of Petrarchism across Europe were the facts that the respective diction was easy to imitate[24] and that the rise of the importance of literature in the vernacular[25], Petrarch himself wrote his Canzoniere in the Italian vernacular[26], combined with changes within the European languages lead to an interest in exploring the linguistic possibilities of the changing languages in a new, fashionable and fitting poetic formula that was the Petrarchan love sonnet.

Relatively late, the Petrarchistic fashion came from Central Europe to England. By then, Petrarch had already been imitated by many other poets who varied and added features of the original to suit their own needs[27]. The diversity of the Petrarchan literary movement that was constituted by the many followers of the tradition has to be kept in mind when dealing with Shakespeare, as the most famous Elizabethan poet and dramatist was not just looking back on the person who started the vogue but on a, by then, long tradition that had reached its peak in England shortly before or during the time Shakespeare produced his own sonnets[28].

The important roles of Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-1547), in establishing the sonnet from and the Petrarchan tradition in England have been well pointed out by several scholars[29]. Wyatt and Surrey, both courtiers of Henry VIII, had got to know Petrarch’s Canzoniere on their travels to continental Europe and brought the Petrarchan sonnet to England. Both writers only wrote a few sonnets, some were close imitations of Petrarch, but they gained influence when their sonnets, along with works of other poets, were published posthumously in Tottel’s Miscellany in 1557[30]. In his preface, Richard Tottel wrote that the work was intended “to the honour of the English tong”, testifying to the rise of vernacular in England, and that Wyatt’s and Surrey’s style and wit should serve as an example for others[31].

Although Wyatt and Surrey did not really ‘infect’ many other poets before the “great outbreak of sonneteering”[32] that started only in the second half of the sixteenth century, they brought the Petrarchan sonnet to England and were the first to assimilate it into English Renaissance culture also by changing the rhyme scheme from the Italian abbaabba in the first part of the fourteen-line sonnet, the octave, and the cdecde in the second part[33], the sestet, to a more fitting English rhyme scheme. It was Surrey who changed the inner division of the sonnet to three quartrains with the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef and a final couplet (gg) thereby inventing the English sonnet form, in iambic pentameter, that later became mainly associated with Shakespeare as he used this form for most of his sonnets, too[34].

The structural change of the sonnet allowed “a different and in some ways more flexible argumentative structure” than “the 8/6 division of the Italian sonnet”[35], a fact that Shakespeare was to prove some decades after Surrey with his Sonnets.

When the vogue of petrarchistic poetry can be said to have not really caught on in the time of Wyatt and Surrey, it did so in the 1580’s. Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella (1591) and Spenser’s Amoretti (1595) surely also had an impact of spreading the vogue of Petrarchism in England, although they were not the first to produce a petrarchistic love poem sequence[36]. The French Petrarchists such as Ronsard, Du Bellay and Desportes also had, as some literary critics pointed out[37], their share in making the fashion popular in England. It is therefore essential to remember, when analyzing the English and also Shakespeare’s relationship to Petrarchism, that petrarchistic English poetry “is often an imitation of an imitation”[38], which means that not Petrarch himself but his followers were imitated[39].

Among the reasons to explain the strong influence Petrarchism had on the English Renaissance culture are that the convention expressed central human realities, “above all else, the longing for the unattainable”[40], that its shifting between power and powerlessness and success and failure fitted well into a courtly world of patronage with its own uncertainties[41], and that the sonnet and the sonnet sequence now offered very adequate means to write about love[42] which always has been a central topic of poetry.

Although Shakespeare was well aware of the norms and conventions of Petrarchan love poetry it is quite likely that he did not read a single sonnet by the Italian father of the fashion. On the other hand, it is almost certain that he knew Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella[43] and probably also at least some of the “debased matter”[44] that was produced during the Petrarchism and sonneteering craze in England.

That Petrarchism was the dominant poetic fashion late Renaissance England, that it was often from imitators themselves that other poets learned the typical conventions and that the vogue was also joined by poets of mediocre and small wit certainly influenced Shakespeare’s own ambivalent attitude towards Petrarchism. This ambivalent attitude in the selectivity of using petrarchistic conventions and contrasting and overcoming them will be examined in the next chapters.


[1] All 154 sonnets had been published completely by Thorpe under the title “SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS. Never before Imprinted”, Hyland (2003), p. 136; Borgmeier (1974), p. 202.

[2] Pequigney (1985), p. 2.

[3] Encyclopedia of the Renaissance, p. 459; Leonard Forster characterizes “Petrarchism as a European phenomenon”, Forster (1969), p. 1.

[4] Forster (1969), p. 24ff.

[5] although Geoffrey Chaucer was very likely the first English poet to translate a poem by Petrarch; Forster (1969), p. 35; Wyatt and Surrey can be said to really have introduced the Petrarchan style of love poetry in England in the first half of the sixteenth century; Forster (1969), p. 50.

[6] like William J. Kennedy has pointed out, “the history of Petrarchism is a history of multiple Petrarchs”; Kennedy (1990) quoted in Dubrow (1995), p. 5; see also: Dubrow (1995), p. 123;

[7] Hempfer speaks of a “kaum mehr rezipierbare Flut von Publikationen zu den Sonnets”, Hempfer (1993), in: Mehl/ Weiß, p. 170; and Innes points out that “Shakespeare’s sonnets are especially infamous for the sheer amount of secondary material they have produced”, Innes (1997), p. 10.

[8] see footnote 6.


[10] Forster (1969), p. 1.

[11] Hyland (2003), p. 126.

[12] Hyland (2003), p. 37.

[13] Borgmeier (1974), p. 206; Hyland (2003), p. 37.

[14] Hyland (2003), p. 134

[15] Forster (1969), p. 6; Klotz (1993), in: Mehl/ Weiß, p. 83; Bartenschläger (1993), in: Mehl/ Weiß, p. 61; Hyland (2003), p. 37.

[16] Forster (1969), p. 3 and p. 9.

[17] Forster (1969), p. 13; Bartenschläger (1993), in: Mehl/ Weiß, p. 48; Hyland (2003), p. 37.

[18] Dubrow (1995), p. 62;

[19] Bartenschläger (1993), in: Mehl/ Weiß, p. 59.

[20] Hyland (2003), p. 37.

[21] Forster (1969), p. 6f.

[22] Forster (1969), p. 2f; Encycplodepia of the Renaissance, Vol. 4, p. 458f.

[23] Encycplodepia of the Renaissance, Vol. 4, p. 459.

[24] Leonard Forster writes that “though Petrarch, like any great poet, is by definition impossible to translate, his imagery and his stylistic devices could be used in any language”, Forster (1969), p. 7;

Hyland (2003), p. 37.

[25] Dubrow (1995), p. 54.

[26] and Pietro Bembo, one of Petrarch’s most devoted and most influential diciples, propagated the use of the vernacular by Petrarch as well as the style of Petrarch’s poetry; Encycplodepia of the Renaissance, Vol. 4, p. 458f.

[27] it is also necessary to point out that in imitating Petrarch Spanish, French, English and poets from other countries were “linking the Petrarchan tradition to their own cultural heritage” and therefore adding to and influencing the tradition; Encycplodepia of the Renaissance, Vol. 4, p. 459.

[28] Evans (1969), p. 85 and p. 95.

[29] Evans (1969), p. 71ff; Forster (1969), p. 50; Borgmeier (1972), p. 205f; Hyland (2003), p. 125; Sanders (2000), p. 89ff.

[30] the exact title was Songes and Sonettes, written by the right honorable Lorde Henry Haward late Earl of Surrey and other, but this first Renaissance anthology became familiarly known as Tottel’s Miscellany; Sanders (2000), p. 89.

[31] Sanders (2000), p. 89.

[32] Evans (1969), p. 95.

[33] there were other possible rhyme schemes variants for the sestet, like cdcdcd, cdedce and cdeced; Hyland (2003), p. 126.

[34] Vendler (1999), p. 22.

[35] Hyland (2003), p. 128; same point is made by Vendler (1999), p. 22 and similarly by Klein (2002), p. 30.

[36] a list of English, mainly Petrarchan, sonnet sequences can be found in Hyland (2003), p. 135f.

[37] Dubrow writes that “the influence of French poets on the English sonnet tradition was profound”; p. 17;

[38] Evans (1969), p. 27.

[39] Dubrow also points out that “English poets often approached Petrarch’s lyrics through the filters of both commentators and continental poets”, Dubrow (1999), p. 23.

[40] Martin (1972), p. 82.

[41] Dubrow (1999), p. 25, 27 and 54.

[42] Pequigney (1985), p. 216.

[43] Klotz, in: Mehl/ Weiß (1993), p. 89.

[44] Martin (1972), p. 82.

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Shakespeare's sonnets and the Petrarchan tradition
Ernst-Moritz-Arndt-Universität Greifswald
Petrarchism in English Renaissance Poetry
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Shakespeare, Petrarchan, Petrarchism, English, Renaissance, Poetry
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Stefan Ruhnke (Autor), 2007, Shakespeare's sonnets and the Petrarchan tradition, München, GRIN Verlag,


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