Sonnet 130 – “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” – is an original and witty poem which satirizes the excessive imagery used by other love poets of Shakespeare’s time, and also pokes fun at the stereotypes of feminine beauty that were the dominant norm in Shakespeare’s era – and still are to a certain extent. Those stereotypical, hackneyed images of what women should look like have parallels in our culture too, because through the media and films, images of what the ideal woman should look like are used to manipulate us. Shakespeare’s language will be analyzed in order to show how he achieves a comic and satiric effect to attack his contemporaries’ love poems, and to prove that his love for his mistress is more genuine.
‘Sonnet 130’ (Shakespeare 395) starts with a fresh and bold statement which defeats our expectations of what a love poem should be like:
“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” (1)
Conventional, less original sonnets, we imagine, praise the appearance and beauty of their lovers and use extravagant, hyperbolic similes or metaphors to stress the beauty of their lovers and also to flatter them publicly in print. There is a very ordinary, down-to- earth and simple quality of Shakespeare’s writing in the whole sonnet as he rejects the hyperboles used by other poets, but especially in the first unexpected line. The first quatrain continues this tone with Shakespeare satirising, not his lover, but other writers who use unrealistic and exaggerated comparisons to praise and flatter their lovers. We learn that “coral is far more red” than his lover’s lips; that the skin of her breasts is white, but definitely not the pure snow white that poets often claim for the skin of their lovers; and we learn that his lover’s hair is black! Even the word “wires” (line 4) to describe her hair is unusual, bold and fresh. In Shakespeare’s time (and in our own era, it might be argued, to a certain extent) the absolute ideal of womanly beauty had blonde hair. In our own culture we are have clichés such as ‘Blondes have more fun’ and ‘Gentlemen prefer blondes’; most Barbie dolls produced in the world have blonde hair. These lines are funny and provocative, and at this point Shakespeare sounds quite aggressive in his tone to his lover.
The second quatrain continues in the same mood: Shakespeare admits that roses are more beautiful than his lover’s facial complexion (red cheeks were taken as a sign of vitality and sexual arousal, and roses were often used to describe a lover’s flushed cheek!) and that
…in some perfumes there is more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks. (7-8)
That word “reeks” is brilliantly chosen and cleverly positioned. It is foregrounded by the fact that it rhymes with “cheeks” and it is the final syllable of the second quatrain; it also sounds so disgustingly unpleasant. This is an unconventional love poem in that Shakespeare In admitting his lover sometimes has bad breath, Shakespeare reinforces both the ordinary, down-to-earth nature of his lover and the unconventional nature of his sonnet.
Line 9 starts with a very short and simple statement – the first of genuine affection in the sonnet so far – “I love to hear her speak” (9), but he then immediately admits that music has “a far more pleasing sound” (10). In line 11 Shakespeare is honest – he has never seen a goddess move (thus denying that his mistress is a goddess and again satirizing the language other poets often used to praise their lovers), but in the very next line he expresses enormous pride in the very down-to-earth, ordinary characteristics of his lover:
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground (12).
This sense of great pride comes from the fact that his mistress is real – she is an ordinary, everyday woman: Shakespeare seems defiantly proud that “she treads on the ground” – she is real, touchable and genuine, even if she is not the ideal woman that other poets describe in their poetry. Callaghan (56) writes that
The point of this poem is that not only does this woman not meet the ideal standard of blonde Petrarchan beauty, but that no woman does.
Atkins (323) is even more precise:
This sonnet is a reply-poem to a poet who has just written a sonnet to his mistress. Shakespeare’s speaker retorts, ‘I don’t know about your mistress, but my mistress is nothing like that. She’s a real woman and doesn’t need any ‘false compare’ to distort her attractiveness.
In the final couplet Shakespeare changes the entire sonnet by concluding that, although his mistress is very ordinary not very special, his love for her is “rare” (3) and the final line criticizes poets who use “false compare” to praise their lovers’ looks and traits. Shakespeare seems to be implying that other poets may use extravagabt imagery, but their love is not really sincere. Having been so apparently critical of his mistress (“black wires”, “reeks”), Shakespeare ends this famous sonnet by convincing the reader that his love and feelings for his mistress are totally genuine and grounded in reality. He also implies that the hyperbolic imagery and similes used by other poets are empty clichés which may suggest that their love is not real and is as ridiculous as the language they flatter their lovers with.
Atkins, Carl D. Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Three Hundred Years of Commentary. 2007. New York: Associated University Press. Print.
Callaghan, Dymphna. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. 2008. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell. Print.
Shakespeare, William. The Sonnets. 1609.New York: Duckworth Overlook. Print.