Comparison between Petrarchan and Shakespearean Sonnets

Arts and Literature


Sonnets are a form of poetry that have been widely recognized and used by various poets throughout history. Two of the most prominent types of sonnets are Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets. Although both types follow a specific structure and rhyme scheme, they differ in terms of themes, language, and overall style. This article aims to explore the differences between Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets in detail.

Petrarchan Sonnets

Petrarchan sonnets, also known as Italian sonnets, were popularized by the Italian poet Petrarch during the Renaissance period. These sonnets consist of 14 lines divided into two parts – an octave (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines). The octave typically presents a problem or question, while the sestet offers a resolution or answer.

Structure and Rhyme Scheme

Petrarchan sonnets follow a specific rhyme scheme, which is ABBAABBA for the octave and either CDECDE or CDCDCD for the sestet. This rhyme scheme allows for a clear distinction between the two parts of the sonnet and helps in conveying the poem’s message effectively.

Here is an example of a Petrarchan sonnet by Petrarch himself:

Sonnet 3

Love, that on viewless wings dost ever soar,

And in my inmost bosom build thy nest,

Thou dost my sighs to such high strains address,

That my soul fain would follow, but forbear.

Thou hast extinguished hope, and banished rest,

And made me bow to sorrow and despair;

And ever in my heart thou takest thy rest,

And well I know my heart is in thy care.

Themes and Language

Petrarchan sonnets often revolve around themes of love, beauty, and unrequited affection. The language used in these sonnets is typically poetic, with metaphors, similes, and other literary devices employed to convey the emotions and experiences of the poet.

Comparison to Shakespearean Sonnets

While Petrarchan sonnets focus more on idealized love and the poet’s personal emotions, Shakespearean sonnets delve into a wider range of themes, including love, beauty, time, mortality, and even political or social commentary. The language used in Shakespearean sonnets is more accessible and conversational compared to the poetic and elaborate language of Petrarchan sonnets.

Shakespearean Sonnets

Shakespearean sonnets, also known as English sonnets, were popularized by the renowned English playwright and poet William Shakespeare. These sonnets also consist of 14 lines, but they follow a different structure and rhyme scheme compared to Petrarchan sonnets.

Structure and Rhyme Scheme

Shakespearean sonnets are divided into three quatrains (four-line stanzas) and a concluding couplet (two lines). The rhyme scheme is typically ABABCDCDEFEFGG. This structure allows for a gradual development of ideas or arguments in the quatrains, leading to a powerful concluding statement in the couplet.

Here is an example of a Shakespearean sonnet by William Shakespeare:

Sonnet 18

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:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimmed;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance or nature’s changing course untrimmed;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade

Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;

Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou growest:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Themes and Language

Shakespearean sonnets cover a wide range of themes, including love, beauty, time, mortality, and the power of poetry itself. The language used in these sonnets is characterized by its rich imagery, wordplay, and use of metaphors to convey complex emotions and ideas.

Comparison to Petrarchan Sonnets

Shakespearean sonnets are often more introspective and explore the complexities of human emotions and relationships in a more nuanced manner compared to Petrarchan sonnets. Additionally, Shakespearean sonnets are known for their ability to capture universal truths and resonate with readers from different time periods and cultures.


Both Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets are remarkable forms of poetry that have left a lasting impact on the literary world. While Petrarchan sonnets tend to focus on themes of idealized love and personal emotions, Shakespearean sonnets explore a wide range of topics with a deeper introspection. The language and structure of each type of sonnet also contribute to their unique characteristics. Whether it be the structured elegance of Petrarchan sonnets or the profound insights of Shakespearean sonnets, both forms continue to captivate readers and inspire poets to this day.

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