A comparison of Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets

The relevance of this subject is that the real blossoming of the sonnet was in the works of Frank Petrarch well before William Shakespeare’s time. But if the Italian poet wrote sonnets mainly about love, his followers filled them with deep philosophical content.

In describing a sonnet, I will rely on the opinion of the scientist, V. Belinsky, who determined that a sonnet is a special poem form which originated in the XIII century in the poetry of the Provencal troubadours. The traditional Italian sonnet consists of 14 lines and is divided into 2 parts – an octave (eight-line stanza), including 2 quatrains, and a sestet (sestain), split into 2 terzettos (tercet). The Spaniards, the French, and the British adopted the form of a sonnet from Italian poets in the XVII century. Sonnet poetry reached its peak in England in the late XVI and XVII centuries.

From the very beginning of sonnet poetry, the poems were dedicated to one person. This is how the cycles of sonnets were created, linked by inner unity. Dedications unite the “Sonnets” of Shakespeare. 126 sonnets are addressed to a friend, the rest – to the beloved one in the original. However, in some translations, certain sonnets, dedicated to a friend, are addressed to a woman. In some cases, this is explained by the absence of a grammatical category of gender in English which often makes it difficult to clearly identify the addressee of a sonnet.

Petrarch has determined the internal form of a sonnet based on a comparison. For each case, the poet has found the appropriate image or the whole chain of them. The more unexpected the adaptation was, the better it was considered. The comparison has often reached an extreme point of hyperbolism. Petrarch constantly compares. For him, it is much more important to establish the very possibility of a new poetic world, revealing the state of the world as a great analogy which becomes the image of a new connection of things. Poetic hearing is heightened not only to the sounds of the world but also to the sound of a word which suggests a semantic closeness of concepts in the sound relationship.

Sonnet characteristics and origin

The term comes from the Italian “sonetto” which means “to sound”, “to ring”. A sonnet is a fourteen-line poem composed according to certain rules: the first quatrain represents the exposition of the “problem” or the “question”, the following sestet develops the positions outlined in the first quatrain, and then tercet is to be followed by the “resolution” in the final tercet, especially in its ninth line. The end of the resolution which expresses the essence of the poem typically initiates what is called the “turn” that signals the move from proposition to resolution.


A sonnet appeared presumably in the XIII century in Sicily. As a canonical form, it has first reached perfection at Petrarch, Dante, the author of the “Divine Comedy.” From Italy, a sonnet has traveled to France, where it has established itself as the classical form of a poem in creative works of Pierre de Ronsard (XVI), to England (W. Shakespeare), to Germany (Opitz, Goethe). In Russia, the first sonnet was written by Trediakovsky in 1735, it was translated from French classical sonnet Barrot, performed by Trediakovsky with his “tinted” thirteen-composer with female rhymes.

The golden age of the sonnet genre in Shakespearean and Petrarchan works

William Shakespeare

The works of the great English writer William Shakespeare is of universal importance. Shakespeare’s genius is dear to all mankind. The world of ideas and images of the humanist poet is impressively huge. Shakespeare’s universal significance is in his realism and the commitment of his creativity.

Shakespeare’s creative path is divided into three periods. The first one (1591-1601) is when the poems like “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece”, sonnets and almost all historical chronicles, with the exception of “Henry VIII” (1613); three tragedies: “Titus Andronicus”, “Romeo and Juliet”, and “Julius Caesar” were created. The most typical for the genre of this period was a cheerful, light comedy (“The Taming of the Shrew”, “The Merchant of Venice”, “Twelfth Night”).

The pinnacle of English Renaissance poetry and the most important milestone in the history of world poetry were Shakespeare’s sonnets (1592-1598, published in 1699). By the end of the XVI century, the sonnet had become the leading genre in English poetry. Shakespearean sonnets have an outstanding place in the development of the sonnet art of that time in terms of their philosophical depth, lyrical strength, drama, and musicality. Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets combine the image of the character who celebrates his devoted friendship with a wonderful juvenile and his passionate and agonizing love for a promiscuous lady (The Dark Lady of the Sonnets).

Shakespeare’s sonnets are lyrical confessions; a character tells the story of his heart’s life, his contradictory feelings; it is a passionate monologue that angrily denounces the hypocrisy and cruelty that reigned in society and opposes the eternal spiritual values of friendship, love, and art. The sonnets reveal the complex and multifaceted soul world of the character, responding to issues of his days. The poet magnifies the spiritual beauty of man and, at the same time, depicts the tragedy of life in the circumstances specific to that time.

Artistic perfection in expressing deep philosophical ideas is inseparable from the compressed, laconic form of a sonnet. The Shakespearean sonnet uses the following rhyming scheme: abab-cdcd-efef-gg. In three quatrains, the dramatic development of the subject is often provided with the help of contrasts, antitheses, and in a metaphorical image; the final distich is an aphorism that formulates a philosophical thought of a subject.

Shakespeare refuses manners, euphuistic comparisons, trying to depict a real image of a woman:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun; 

Coral is far more red than her lips’ red; 

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; 

If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head. 

I have seen roses damasked, red and white, 

But no such roses see I in her cheeks; 

And in some perfumes is there more delight 

Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks. 

Among the sonnets that express the most important public ideas is  Sonnet 66. This is the angry rebuke of a society based on meanness, caddishness, and trickery. In lapidary phrases, all the social scourges of an unjust society are named. The main character is so deeply affected by the terrible picture of the triumphant evil that starts to call for death. The sonnet, however, ends with a glimmer of light mood. The man reсalls his beloved that he must live for:

Tired with all these, from these would I be gone,

Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.

His revealing monolog, which is a direct outburst of indignation, the narrator speaks in one breath. This is conveyed by the repetition of  “and” in ten poetry lines. The use of the words “tire’d with all these” at the beginning and end of the sonnet, highlights the direct connection between the narrator’s experiences and social problems of the time. The man absorbs everything that concerns a person in the public world into his mind. The drama of his experience is expressed in the stirring up energetic phrases, each of which represents an antithesis that reproduces real social contradictions. The narrator can no longer see the ” … needy nothing trimm’d in jollity, And purest faith unhappily forsworn, And gilded honour shamefully misplaced,

And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted, And right perfection wrongfully disgraced, And strength by limping sway disabled, … “

Many of the sonnets are either a chain of metaphors, as where the poet likens himself first to a fall forest, then to twilight, and, finally, to a burning fire, or a single metaphor.

Francesco Petrarca

At the turn of the XIV century, the whole Northern Italy was trapped in a struggle between the Guelphs (supporters of papal power) and Ghibellines (supporters of imperial power) parties. In 1300, 4 years before the poet’s birth in Florence, the White (moderate) Guelphs were in power. In the same year, for 2 months, the ruling college of the Priors had Dante in it, who, by this time, had timed his later journey through the afterlife. Pietro di Parenzo di Garzo (Ser Petracco) was in the notaries, at the college of the Priors, and had a son, named Francesco, born 4 years later in his family.

This is one of the most famous sonnets of Petrarch, the creator of the classic European sonnet. His “Canzoniere” was being written up, edited, and filed all his life. Although he did not, at least officially, consider Canzoniere his main or best book, giving preference to Latin poems and philosophical letters, and treatises. It was his “Songbook” that made his name immortal. Consisting of 2 parts, it was divided by biographical events: “Rime in vita Laura” (life) and “Rime in morte Laura” (death) that had 263 and 103 poems, respectively. This compositional division suggests the possibility of a biographical reading of the entire collection, in order to give the impression of psychologically consistent deployment of the feeling, love affair or “dialectics of the soul.”

Petrarch worships Laura which immediately changes the shape of his love in comparison with the vassal serving a beautiful lady, as it was for the troubadours. The unattainability, painful for the poet, grows, as he now does not possess courtly art of enjoying love from afar. But at the same time, he constantly feels himself in the presence of a deity, and it grants him an inexplicable spiritual bliss.

I find no peace, and all my war is done;

I fear and hope; I burn and freeze like ice;

I fly above the wind, yet can I not arise;

And nought I have, and all the world I seize on;

That looseth nor locketh holdeth me in prison

And holdeth me not, yet can I ‘scape nowise;

Nor letteth me live nor die at my device,

And yet of death it giveth none occasion.

Withouten eyen, I see; and without tongue I plain;

I desire to perish, and yet I ask health;

I love another, and thus I hate myself;

I feed me in sorrow, and laugh in all my pain;

Likewise displeaseth me both death and life;

And my delight is causer of this strife.

In his sonnets, Petrarch created the ideal image of a woman whose beauty purifies and ennobles the poet’s soul. It is Love itself that comes in her guise, and the poet’s soul should be worthy of meeting with the sublime bliss. There is no place for low-lying feelings here:

When Love within her lovely face appears

Now and again among the other ladies,

As much as each is less lovely than she

The more my wish I love within me grows.

I bless the place, the time and hour of the day

That my eyes aimed their sights at such a height,

And say, ‘My soul, you must be very grateful

That you were found worthy of such great honour.’

From her to you comes loving thought that leads,

As long as you pursue, to highest good,

Esteeming little what all men desire;

There comes from her all joyous honesty

That leads you by the straight path up to Heaven—

Already I fly upon my hope.

Petrarch was the first humanist-scholar and poet of the Renaissance, even before the Renaissance, the first writer to realize himself as a man of the New Age. His contribution to prose and Latin poems is enormous. But it is simply impossible to comment adequately on his Canzoniere, for here he summarises all the experience, not only of his personal work but also of all the lyrical poetry of Europe that existed before him in Romanesque languages, generalised and concentrated around the poet’s self, typified as the personality of the “new man.”

317 sonnets, 29 canzones, 9 sestains, 7 ballads, 4 madrigals make up this poetic confession, the story of a mature, storm-beaten man about the confusion of feelings that he endured in his youth. This is also a book where the poet managed to separate himself from his own self, look at it from the outside, make a narrator out of it, in fact, for the first time in history. This distance between the author and the narrator explains that great harmony the poet has achieved. In the book, this feeling and his object, Laura, are static, the poet himself and his narrator change. The Canzoniere can be called a book of inconsistent memories of love and self, the beauty of a woman, and the beauty of a feeling. If Dante’s beauty, before becoming an attribute of Beatrice, was an attribute of God, Petrarch makes it directly a human belonging.

Having asserted the beauty of the world and the feeling of love for Laura, the Canzoniere gradually develops into the assertion of the love of life, of everything earthly. But earthly life and earthly love are not only joy. It is much more often pain, thus, the Canzoniere is a sad book, as sad as nature itself sometimes is. Sorrow and joy together create the harmony of life, and, on the pages of the book, – an amazing, highest artistic malleability.

And so, I would like to note that there were differences between Italian and English sonnets after all. Firstly, it can be seen in the structure of a sonnet. In the analysis, it is possible to draw a conclusion that an English sonnet differs from an Italian in its internal structure (3 quatrains and 1 distich), a free rhyme order after which 3 quatrains have 2 separate rhymes, and the last 2 lines rhyme with each other. All Shakespearean sonnets have one important feature in common which is characteristic of the poet’s creative handwriting – intense drama. It always contains an acute conflict which is usually solved in the last lines.

An Italian sonnet, with its play of theses and antitheses, remained a sonnet of ascent, forming, eventually, an astrological constellation anchored by rhymes. An English sonnet, already in its beginnings, has stepped on a different path, where Shakespeare is preceded by Surrey (Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey). The rhyme in such a sonnet works differently, evading Italian virtuosity.

All of Petrarch’s work was based on deep self-esteem which helped him to understand all mankind. Petrarch was awarded a laurel crown at the Capitoline Hill on April 8, 1341. His numerous imitators and followers cultivated the sonnet genre, varying the motifs of platonic love in their creativity.


In this article, I have characterized a sonnet as a special form of a poem, considered the work of Petrarch and Shakespeare, identified the similarities and differences between their sonnets. From all this, I can conclude that Petrarch’s sonnets, in large part, were dedicated to his ideal woman, Laura, the embodiment of beauty and freedom. Love is what drove Petrarch to create sonnets.

As for Shakespeare’s sonnets, they are, in many ways, close to the works of other English poets of the XVI century, imitators of Petrarch. The content of the sonnets, for the most part, is about glorifying friendship. The feeling of friendship is higher and richer than love passion, it has all the fullness of love experiences: the joy of dating, the bitterness of separation, and the pain of jealousy.