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Analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130- A Beautiful Subversion

Sonnet 130: My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun

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.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Poetry and Poetics: Shakespeare’s Unique Love in “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”

It was usual for 16th century sonneteers to write variations of Petrarchian love sonnets. The customary theme was the rejected lover writing of his unattainable love’s charm and grace. Laments and distressed grievances routinely filled these sonnets, and stated circumstantial injustice, personal flaws, or the indifference of the unmoved love interest. The mark of a great sonneteer was the ability to take this singular theme and infuse it with their creative originality. Here is an example of Petrarch exclaiming praises and regretting his sorry state, lead on by his love of Laura (his eternal, unattainable love):

the rest of her was so other, so various                                       
in form, noble, heavenly and immortal,                                         
that my intellect was all unequal to it,                                       
my weak sight could not endure it.                                             
because our style cannot rise beyond our wit:                                 
and when a man fixes his eyes on the sun,                                     
the brighter it shines the less that he can see. (Petrarch 339)

There is a heavy emphasis on his beloved’s “other [ness]”, she is “various in form, noble, heavenly and immortal”.  This is a very stacked compliment, as she embodies perfection in every sense. She is god-like and awes him into a state of weakness through absolute and sheer flawlessness. The last lines of the poem, famously link Laura to the brightness of the sun, the luster of which blinds the speaker into perpetual, sad worship of that which is so above him.

Petrarch’s genius lay not only in his astounding praise, but also in his extraordinary laments, the likes of which showed a subtle, and sometimes fierce resentment of his lovely beloved. He wailed about being imprisoned by love’s shackles, tortured by his own exquisite emotion, and beguiled by a cruel fate’s nasty whims. It was not easy for Petrarch’s speaker to be in love with an immortal goddess possessing the perfect figure, with skin that was pale and fresh as the morning snow, shining blonde hair, lips as red as ruby, and a brightness of expression and being eclipsing the sun itself. This was truly the ideal of a woman, and many sonneteers after Petrarch infused these faultless qualities into the name and being of their own beloved.  

 Shakespeare’s love was far from the conventional ideal. In “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”, Shakespeare appears to berate his lover, comparing ways in which considered objects of grandiose beauty are not at all like his mistress. At times, his description of her uses ugly words, and paints her in a seemingly common, ordinary way. The first reading of the sonnet induces the question of whether it is a love sonnet at all. It is possible to look at it as a satire on love sonnets in general, and perhaps a harsh criticism of the woman he supposedly loves. Yet, there is a lingering sense of admiration, as even some small words seem to indicate that there may be a genuine and loving affection. There are interposed lines hinting at a strong feeling, foreshadowing the powerful ending. Shakespeare forces the reader to question the love of perfection, and provides a very realistic alternative. He opens up the possibility that a human being is more capable of loving someone equally human, and because of that humanity, no less unique than a golden goddess floating in the sky of our dreams and regrets. This is a love sonnet, illustrating a depth of feeling, and genuine affection through a different and unique form of expression. It uses the conventions of the time and turns them around to portray a dissimilar love, a love not based on unrealistic comparisons and inconceivable standards.    

The title of this sonnet takes is back to the usual comparisons between the object of affection and the sun. In romantic fashion, both shine on our minds and hearts, and fill us with energy and warmth. Shakespeare’s title points out, that in a literal sense, the sun has little in common with the beloved’s eyes. While the beloved’s eyes can fill us with figurative warmth of emotion and can appear to “glow” in a distorted manipulation of the senses, the sun literally bequeaths heat and light upon the earth and other planets.

In the second line, the speaker disparages another familiar comparison and states “Coral is far more red than her lips’ red:” (Shakespeare). Red is the color of passion and figuratively relates to heat in the same way as the sun. Red coral is a stony piece of skeleton possessing a rouge complexion and is used for ornamentation as jewelry. Regular coral is deeply pink and is factually redder than the mistress’s lips. We can conclude, therefore, that her lips are almost bloodless and pale.      

The next two lines describe the quality of hair and snow in relation to the speaker’s mistress, as he pronounces, “If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; / If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.” In the romantic sonnet, beauty is typically associated with fair skin and blonde hair. Therefore, the objects compared with the beloved are usually those that reflect those qualities. Snow is associated with pure and fresh fairness, and the speaker contrasts this color with the shade of his mistress’s bosom, which he calls dun. Dun is a yellowish, darker color, and not considered the standard of beauty. Next, the speaker evokes the similarity between hair and wires, and states that black wires grow on his mistress’s head. The imagery here does appear to be somewhat disparaging, as the growth seems to take the shape of an intertwining, thread like, and enveloping creature. The word “on” seems to point to an inclining upwards growth. The word “wires” is ugly and makes one think of cuts, and rough metal. Another point of shock is that her wires/hairs are black, a difference from the traditional blonde beauty ideal, celebrated by so many other sonneteers.

Damask roses are sweetly aromatic and possess a silky quality. When comparing his beloved’s cheeks to the roses, the speaker declares, “I have seen roses damask’d, red and white, / But no such roses see I in her cheeks;” This comment points out the quality of a damask rose and specifies that no such quality is observed on the cheeks of his mistress. She does not have a rose-like blush emanating from her face and may be rather ordinary in complexion. The next two lines continue on the theme associated with fragrance, and state “And in some perfumes is there more delight / Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.” Notice, that the speaker uses the word “some” when saying that there is more delight in a few more perfumes than in his mistresses’ breath, indicating that his mistress’s breath is possibly superior to a few other perfumes. It is curious that he describes the breath as reeking. It is possible that “reek” signifies smoke, but generally, the word produces the association of a disagreeable, rancid odor. It is possible that his mistress suffers from halitosis.   

The next line reaffirms the notion of his love for her, as he exclaims, “I love to hear her speak, – yet well I know / That music hath a far more pleasing sound;” (Shakespeare). This is a polite assessment of his situation, as he genuinely likes the sound of her voice, but admits that in comparison the sound of music is superior. However, the start of that line is very powerful and direct, and eclipses what might seem as negative language and imagery before this line. He strongly and directly, without the use of subtle hints or indirect allusions asserts his love for her voice. The first line is bold and dynamic, yet follows with a slowing dash and reflection, “- yet well I know”. It seems similar to a sad admission or an unwanted confession. It illustrates the honesty of the speaker, as he is not one to exaggerate or create falsity, as is seen throughout the rest of the sonnet.

The lines after, again bring up a famous point of comparison for most sonneteers. In other sonnets, the beloved having the qualities of a goddess help make her appear even more unattainable and grand, as this inserts a spiritual value into the professed love and give it the feeling of a holy quest. The goddess aspect also diminishes the speaker of these sonnets and gives us powerful imagery of something small and insignificant pleading to something of an unimaginable magnitude. The beloved, figuratively becomes larger than life and conquers the speakers mind, soul and body. Shakespeare’s speaker is not quite as dramatic when he asserts, “I grant I never saw a goddess go, – My mistress when she walks, treads on the ground;” The usual associations of a goddess include the quality of hovering or floating encircled in a shining halo that blinds the vision and deafens the senses. The speaker admits that such a comparison would be possible, yet as he has never seen a goddess, and would be unable to compare. He still maintains that there is nothing special about the walk of his mistress. She simply steps and walks as any other mortal human being. Could this be an exaltation of her humanity?

The last lines sum up the speaker’s sentiments and it can be argued that the second to last line contains the volta of the sonnet. The speaker stops describing the qualities of his beloved and instead strongly asserts his strong feeling in saying “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare.” His exclamation to the heavens is a strong one, and when he calls his love rare, it invokes a feeling of something that is unusual or infrequent. The word can also describe something that is valuable and amazing, therefore having a rare quality. The last line induces the thought that his love is as rare as her consideration for the compliments that are false and lack veracity. There is a clear turn here and the feeling is that of reconciliation.

His mistress does not require common and unrealistic flattery, and is prone to scorn it. Her qualities might not be the standard of an epic sonnet, but this is not indicative of lack of another type of beauty. Her hair is black, her cheeks lack fullness, freshness, her breath is not always the best, and her voice might be of a drawling, hoarse pitch. She is unlike the standard of beauty and therefore even more so captivating. An exoticism is attributed to her, and false compare would be an injustice to her true features and attributes. It is as possible that the speaker owns her love, as it is feasible that he cries out for her without response. The speaker of the sonnet does not tell us this, and leaves it for us to fill in the facts according to the comparison of what she is not. Not once does he tell us she is ugly or in any way deficient. Even if she is, it does not detract from the fact that his love is rare, and more importantly, existent. It is possible that this is both a criticism and a satire on the traditional love sonnet, but even that does not change the power, somberness, and sincerity of the last two lines.  Shakespeare makes us analyze the worth of comparing a certain beauty to something fantastic and awe-inspiring. The speaker loves in spite of the lack of Petrarchan values, and loves for the sheer humanity inherently present within his mistress. This is not a romantic declaration of love, but rather a brutally honest one. Shakespeare defies custom and convention and cries out for his right to love someone who is herself; even if this might be something, she is not meant to read.            

The fascinating quality of this sonnet attributes itself to its originality, satire of other sonnets and ambiguity of the speaker’s true intention and feeling. The last lines of the sonnet leave the impression that the rest of the sonnet was in actuality complimentary in spite of the seemingly negative imagery and language. It could very easily be construed as praise to the rare, unique, and human quality of the beloved. She does not have to have the unrealistic features of celestial and unearthly objects and instead captivates the speaker with her earthly, original attributes. She is of a dark complexion, possesses flowing black hair, and a sensuous mesmerizing voice. The first twelve lines could also be a bitter degradation of the beloved, in spite of her beauty, to conciliate the rejection faced by the speaker. Most likely, it is a declaration of love, not only original in its language of praise, but also in the description of the beloved, and in the reversal of the traditional love sonnet. Shakespeare forces us to question the standard of beauty, and makes us think about the beauty of reality and common feature, and the artistry of Shakespeare reveals this with magnificence and mastery.

Author: Kristap Baltin – kristapbaltin.com

Find a copy of Shakespeare’s complete sonnets and poems here.