Alliteration is a kind of figurative language in which a consonant sound repeats at the beginning of words that are near each other (see Reference 1). This repetition of initial consonant letters or sounds may be found in two or more different words across lines of poetry, phrases or clauses (see Reference 4). William Shakespeare’s poetry, particularly his sonnets, have many instances of alliteration.
The invention of the word "alliteration" is attributed to Pontanus in the 15th century, but its use appears earlier, even in ancient Green and Roman literature (see Reference 1). In poetry, alliteration is characteristic of Anglo-Saxon, Middle English, Old Saxon and Icelandic poetry, collectively known as old Teutonic poetry (see Reference 1). A complement to alliteration and its use of repeating constants is assonance, the repetition of the same vowel sound within words near each other. Because repetition attracts attention, the primary purpose of alliteration is to emphasize a line, idea and/or image within the poem.
Much of Shakespeare’s poetry consists of sonnets, also known as little songs (see Reference 5). Sonnets are fourteen lines long and have a strict rhyme scheme and structure (see Reference 6). Shakespeare’s sonnets are written in iambic pentameter, in which the pattern of a stressed syllable following an unstressed syllable repeats five times. The last two lines of a Shakespearean sonnet are a rhyming couplet. Many of Shakespeare’s sonnets use alliteration, and some use alliteration and assonance together.
Strong Alliteration in Shakespeare's Poetry
A few lines in Shakespeare’s sonnets 5 and 12 exhibit strong alliteration (see Reference 2). Strong alliteration means that the line has multiple repeating initial constant sounds, instead of only two. For example, sonnet 5 has three instances of both the letter b (“Beauty's effect with beauty were bereft”) and the letter s (“Lose but their show, their substance still lives sweet”) (see Reference 2). Likewise, in sonnet 12, there is another example of strong alliteration using the letter b, but in this case, the b sound repeats four times: “Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard” (see Reference 2). As the purpose of alliteration is to create emphasis, the purpose of strong alliteration is to place even more emphasis on an image or a line.
Unusual Use of Alliteration in Shakespeare's Poetry
An unusual example of alliteration is found in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, where the sounds of the letters L, A and R are repeated. These are unusual uses of alliteration because they are alliterated using the exact same words, or versions of the same word, bringing even more emphasis to the words and/or images. In particular, Shakespeare writes, “Admit impediments. Love is not love/ Which alters when it alteration finds,/ Or bends with the remover to remove." In the first line, the L sound and the A sound both repeat at the beginning of two of the six words. In the second line, the R sound repeats at the beginning of two of the seven words (see Reference 3). This sonnet also contains assonance as a complement to its alliteration. In the seventh line, Shakespeare writes, “It is the star to every wandering bark,” which is an example of assonance. Here, the same sound of the letter A repeats in three of the eight words in the line (see Reference 3).
- Shakespeare Online: Literary Terms -- Alliteration
- University of Maryland, Baltimore County: Introduction to Shakespeare - Sonnets 5 and 12
- Virginia Community College System: Sound Effects in Sonnet 116
- Poetry Foundation: Glossary of Poetic Terms
- Etymonline: Online Etymology Dictionary: Sonnet
- Princeton University: Sonnet
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images