A Response to a Sonnet by Shakespeare
I am going to write about my response to ‘Sonnet 130’. I chose this sonnet because it made me laugh at Shakespeare’s stated attitude to his lover, because it is so unexpected when you first read the poem, but the the sonnet is read you come to understand that Shakespeare is also making a serious point baout love and the stereotypical images of feminine beauty that were dominant in his day. Those stereotypical images have their parallel in our society too, because through the media images of what women should look like ideally are carefully used to manipulate us. I will analyze Shakespeare’s language in order to show how he achieves this comic effect to give a slightly different view of love.
‘Sonnet 130’ (Shakespeare p 395) begins with a bold statement which confounds our expectations of what a love poem should be like: “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” (line 1) Conventional sonnets, we imagine, praise the beauty of their lovers and use extravagant similes or metaphors to exaggerate the attractiveness of their lovers and to flatter them. I liked the down-to- earth quality of Shakespeare’s writing in the whole poem, but especially in the first unexpected line. The first quatrain continues in this mood with Shaekspeare mocking, not his mistress, but other writers who use unrealistic comparisons to flatter their lovers. We learn that coral is far more red than his mistress’s lips; that her skin is white, but not the pure snow white that poets often claim for their lovers; and we learn that her hair is black! Even the word “wires” (line 4) to describe her hair is unusual and fresh. In Shakespeare’s era (and in our own time to a certain extent) the ideal of feminine beauty had blonde hair. In our own world we are used to clichés such as ‘Blondes have more fun’ and ‘Gentlemen prefer blondes’; most Barbie dolls have blonde hair. I liked these lines because they are provocative and they show that appearance is not important when you really love someone. I have often been judged on my appearance, so I find this sonnet refreshingly honest.
The second quatrain continues in the same mood: Shakespeare admits that roses are more beautiful than his lover’s complexion and that
...in some perfumes there is more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks. (lines 7-8)
That word “reeks” is superbly chosen and positioned. It is given prominence by the fact that it rhymes with “cheeks” and ends the second quatrain; it also sounds so unpleasant. This is an unconventional love poem in that Shakespeare is admitting his lover sometimes has bad breath!
Line 9 begins with a statement – the first in the sonnet of genuine affection – “I love to hear her speak” (line 9), but he then goes on to admit that music is “a far more pleasing sound” (line 10). In line 11 Shakespeare admits he has never seen a goddess (thereby denying that his lover is a goddess and again poking fun at the language other poets might use of their lovers), but in the next line he seems to express great pride in the very ordinary nature of his lover:
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground (line 12).
I think the sense of pride comes from the sense that his lover is an ordinary woman: Shakespeare seems proud that “she treads on the ground” – she is real and genuine, even if she is not a goddess. In the final couplet Shakespeare turns everything around by claiming that although his lover is very ordinary, his love for her is “rare” (line 13) and the final line criticizes poets who exaggerate their lovers’ qualities. Having been so seemingly critical of his lover (“black wires”, “reeks”), Shakespeare ends the poem by convincing me that his love for his mistress is absolutely genuine and grounded in reality.
I liked this sonnet because it made me laugh and it took me by surprise. I also agreed fully with the serious points that Shakespeare seems to be making: that true love does not depend on outward appearance at all, and that you do not have to conform to society’s preconceived stereotype of how women should look. Too often we judge people on their external appearance, and this sonnet is a witty reminder that we should not.
Shakespear, William. 1609. The Sonnets. New York: Duckworth Overlook.