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Shakespeare Sonnets

"Sicilian School" to Shakespeare – a Brief History

13th - The century in which Giacomo da Lentini (1220 -1250), a poet of the 'Sicilian School', is credited with having invented the sonnet as a poetic form – a form which included the Sonneti "Sì come il sol che manda la sua spera", for example, which, when translated into English, begins " Even as the sun that sends its hopes".

14th - The century during which Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374), an Italian humanist, started the literary fashion for compiling sonnets into collections or sequences around a central theme, namely a male suitors unrequited love for a woman whom is either unresponsive to his affections, or is simply beyond his reach – a theme partly found in the sonnets of Shakespeare.

16th - The century in which Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) and Thomas Howard (c.1517-1547) popularised Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnets in England during the first half of the century.

1590s - The decade that witnessed the English 'sonnet craze', and the period in which it is believed that many of Shakespeare's sonnets were composed. This includes sonnet 18 which begins 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?' which is arguably one of the most well known, and therefore oft quoted, of all the Shakespeare love sonnets.

"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date..."

1591 - The year that Sir Philip Sidney's (1554-1586) collection of sonnets entitled Astrophel and Stella was posthumously published. This book, it has been suggested, further fueled the craze for sonnets in England.

1603 – Death of Elizabeth I whose status as the unmarried 'virgin Queen' has since been linked with the popularity of sonnets whose central theme conformed to that popularised by Petrarca.

"I would rather be a beggar and single, than a queen and married" - the response of Queen Elizabeth I to the Duke of Wurtemberg's Ambassador, in 1564

1603 - Also the year of James I (previously James VI of Scotland) accession to the English throne and arguably the period that marks the decline in the popularity of sonnets whose central theme was love, which was followed by the emergence of sonnets with new theme's as exemplified by John Donne's fourteenth sonnet "Batter my heart, three person'd God..." for instance, an example of a so-called Holy Sonnet which was but one of many to examine rather less romantic topics composed by, amongst others, Literary notaries such as John Milton.

"Batter my heart, three-person'd God; for you
As yet but knock; breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new..."
John Donne (1572-1631)

1609 - The year in which the first edition of Shakespeare sonnets was published by T.T (Thomas Thorpe) in London, England, despite their declining popularity, and without Shakespeare's consent. Indeed, Thomas Thorpe (1580-1614) was at that time, described by contemporaries as a publishing understrapper of piratical habits", and a manuscript thief.

Constructing the Shakespearean Sonnet

Shakespeare's sonnets are structured as follows:

- 14 lines
- 3 quatrains and a couplet
- 10 syllables per line
- Iambic pentameter
- An a-b-a-b | c-d-c-d | e-f-e-f | g-g rhyme scheme

In 1609 a single volume containing a collection of 154 single verse 14 line sonnets by William Shakespeare was published by Thomas Thorpe in London, England - without Shakespeare's consent.

A volume that was dedicated to the mysterious, and still unidentified, Mr. W.H, and has since been translated into every major world language.

Facts About William Shakespeare's Sonnets

50-100 - The usual number of sonnets found in a single volume, collection, or 'sequence'.

154 - The number of sonnets that were included in the 1609 publication of Shakespeare's Sonnets, making this an unusually large collection.

Enjoyed learning all about William Shakespeare's sonnets? Then why not explore some of the 154 Shakespeare sonnets, find out some general interest facts about Shakespeare's works, or read a few famous Shakespeare quotes, just some of the topics and resources here at William Shakespeare facts.

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