Poetry Explication: Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130”

William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130”, was written as a mockery of the traditional love poem. Most love poems portray a woman as the epitome of perfection. Women are made out to be divine angel-like creatures who have

no flaws or vices. Shakespeare illuminates the absurdity of deifying a human being. He understands that a perfect woman does not exist. Perfection is not something he is interested in; it bores him. He makes it clear that the object of his affection does not have to be the classic depiction of beauty, but that it matters more to him that there is a deep personal connection. We all want someone that understands us, and Shakespeare is no different. He is after all, just a man looking for meaningful companionship. Shakespeare uses a variety of negating similes, imagery, theme, and structure to make his point. This is Shakespeare’s way of speaking against the use of cliché’s of conventional beauty, which eloquently liberates women from stereotypes of superficial beauty, and draws attention to our mind and inner splendor.

Shakespeare uses honesty, not flattery, to speak of the woman he loves. According to lines one through four of the sonnet, Shakespeare’s mistress’ eyes are not like the sun, her lips are not red, her breasts are not snow white, and her hairs are black wires. In lines six through twelve you learn that her cheeks aren’t like roses, her breath doesn’t smell like perfume, her voice doesn’t sound like music, and she doesn’t float goddess like when she walks. So far, the mistress might be insulted. Lucky for Shakespeare, there are two more lines. In the final two lines, known as the turn, Shakespeare says that even though his love isn’t what other people fictionalize in their poems and sonnets, his love is rare and therefore just as important. He refuses to glorify, but that doesn’t mean he loves the woman any less. And perhaps his honesty was more appreciated anyway.

The rhetorical structure of Sonnet 130 is important to its effect, and punch line. In the first quatrain, the speaker spends one line on each comparison between his mistress and something else (the sun, coral, snow, and wires–the one positive thing in the whole poem some part of his mistress is like). In the second and third quatrains, he expands the descriptions to occupy two lines each, so that roses/cheeks, perfume/breath, music/voice, and goddess/mistress each receive a pair of unrhymed lines. This creates the effect of an expanding and developing argument, and neatly prevents the poem from becoming boring. After all, the whole of the sonnet relies on a single joke for its first twelve lines. In the last two lines of the sonnet the joke is delivered, which negates any kind of negative feelings thought to be present at the unflattering view of Shakespeare’s mistress. This delivers the whole point of following Shakespeare through his breakdown of his mistress’ average looks, and you see why the demeaning manner he speaks of her is not insulting or important, but honesty and truth. There is idealistic conflict, and then there is a resolute solving of any uneasy feelings.

Shakespeare contempt of the modern ideals of what a woman should be alludes to the kind of man he was, and the kind of woman it was he adored. Although he did write about his love in a glorifying, traditional fashion, he takes this opportunity to shock people with the brash truth. He does not seem to take kind to over-used stereotypes. He does not feel the need to describe the object of his affection using false clichés, but would rather draw attention to the fact that she was not perfect, and he still loves her. Shakespeare does not feel the need to conform to convention. And the woman he loved was sure to understand this, and not be insulted by his reverence, but pleased at his honesty. Flattery swells the heart and mind, but honesty would give their love a definitive meaning. He wants to shock his audience with his denouncement of his woman’s beauty, because he knows there is much more to love then this superficial detail. These two lovers were on the same wavelength, and understood each other. Shakespeare and his lover did not need the approval of society to share their connection with a smirk on their faces.

In “Sonnet 130”, Shakespeare uses imagery to call attention the clichés of a woman’s beauty, and how his lover has none of these picturesque qualities. He explains how “coral is far more red then her lips’ red”. By doing so he drops conceit of his woman’s supposed sublime beauty. His woman’s lips are not red like coral, but an average color. He illustrates that her breasts are not snow-white, but “dun”, a dull grayish-brown color. He is slowly taking her image and making it out to be not what it should be, but what it actually is. He stresses that his lover’s hair is made of “black wires”, and that there are no roses in her cheeks. He is slowly deconstructing the image of an angel, replacing it with that of a plain woman. Not all woman have golden wires for hair, some have simple black ones. And his mistress does not have rose-red or rose-white tones in her cheeks. He asserts that perfume has a much better smell than his mistress’ breath that “reeks”. It does not seem realistic to have breath that smells sweet, most people’s breath has a stench to it. He knows “music hath a far more pleasing sound” then her voice. She cannot sing, and she does not sound like she’s singing when she speaks. And when his mistress walks, she walks on the ground like any normal person, not like a goddess in the clouds. Shakespeare slowly makes it known that his mistress is a mortal woman, and there is nothing divine about her. Some might find this imagery shocking, or insulting, but this leads to the butt of his joke on society. He thinks his “love as rare”, because he does not need to lie about his mistress’ looks in order to validate his love for her. He knows love goes deeper then outward appearance, and to lie about her looks would be a discredit to their love.

Clearly, “Sonnet 130” has a theme of reality, and what love really is. Shakespeare coyly draws attention away from the physical beauty of a woman. These things are not important. And he addresses this theme by deconstructing the images of ideal beauty that society pictures when they think of a woman. A woman does not need to be a shining example of what traditional beauty is for him to love her. Again, he “thinks his love as rare/As any she belied with false compare.” This is the reality of love for Shakespeare. HE does not need to lie about her looks. His love is enough, and that makes her beautiful to him.

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