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What Is an Elizabethan Sonnet?

By Ray Hawk
Updated May 23, 2024
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An Elizabethan sonnet is a form of poetry that was popular during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in England, from 1558 to 1603. The period is commonly thought of in terms of William Shakespeare, who lived from 1564 to 1616, so a poem used in one of his many popular plays was referred to as either an Elizabethan sonnet or Shakespearean sonnet. The types of poems have 14 lines written in iambic pentameter, and are designed to rhyme in one of two primary ways. The Italian form sets the first eight lines of the poem apart as the major theme or octave, and the last six lines as a supporting sestet to conclude it. In the English version of an Elizabethan sonnet, there are three groups of four alternating rhyming lines known as quatrains, followed by one group of two lines known as a couplet.

Poetry of this type was so popular during Shakespeare's time that it is estimated over 300,000 Elizabethan sonnets were written down in Europe during the 16th century. Their primary theme involved one of romance, though many early versions of the literature are now regarded as lacking in craftsmanship or attention to artistic detail. They instead appear to have been a more conventional and common method of expressing one's emotions during the time period. The overriding theme of poets of the period who wrote romantic sonnets was one of a male lover's unrelenting devotion to the object of his affection, and the woman's tendency to be idealized and unobtainable.

elizabethan sonnet

The origin of the Elizabethan sonnet took place in Italy, and can be traced back to Petrarch, a renowned Italian scholar and poet of the 14th century. Printed versions of the Elizabethan sonnet began to proliferate in Europe after 1591. The tradition had already been verbally entrenched, however, long before then, in Italy, Spain, and France.

elizabethan sonnet

The idealism and self-torment of obsessed lovers portrayed in sonnets at the time were instrumental in their rise in popularity as a form of creative use of language and expression of emotions. This extreme nature to their portrayal of human behavior probably also led to their eventual fade from fashion as practical processes of mechanization and industrialization took hold in society. The Elizabethan sonnet had a focus in poetry terms largely on unmarried women, and, as the role of women changed in society to one of more equal partnerships in economic growth, the passion of the sonnets grew to have more of a gender-neutral nature. Shakespeare utilized his plays to preserve the intention of the sonnet as an expression of passion and infatuation between the sexes, undimmed by the mundane demands of the day.

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Discussion Comments
By fify — On Oct 25, 2014

@fBoyle-- Elizabethan and Shakespearean sonnets are the same. They are both slightly different versions of Petrarchan sonnets, which originated in Italy. It became popular in English speaking countries but English didn't suit the format of the sonnet so much and so the format was changed a little. The result was Elizabethan sonnet, also referred to as Shakespearean because Shakespeare popularized it.

I personally enjoy Shakespeare's sonnets. They are bold and sometime very unconventional. There is always meant to be a twist in a sonnet. In the beginning, an issue or question is posed and the end of the sonnet clarifies or answers this. But Shakespeare does it in a very interesting way. Sometimes the end is very shocking in his sonnets.

By fBoyle — On Oct 24, 2014

@bear78-- Well, Elizabethan sonnets do idealize women to a great extent. And it's normal for types of poetry to lose popularity from time to time. As you said, they always make a comeback at a later point.

I'm actually a bit confused about the names of these sonnets. So apparently, Elizabethan and Shakespearan sonnet are the same thing. Then what about Petrarchan sonnets? I thought that Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets were the same.

By bear78 — On Oct 24, 2014

I don't understand how Elizabethan sonnets can lose popularity. Unattainable love and passion, these seem like themes that are always relevant in society. I don't think that social status of the genders, or economic conditions have anything to do with it. These are emotions and issues that will also be relevant.

Even if this type of sonnet falls out of favor for some time, it is bound to return. Even today, Shakespeare's works are hugely popular with numberless films and stories being based on them every year.

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