Wednesday, 4 June 2014

What is Shakespeare's Sonnet 130 About? | My Mistress' Eyes Are Nothing Like The Sun

Mary Fitton might have been
Shakespeare's Dark Lady
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 is part of the ‘dark lady’ series of poems (127-154). She is the poet’s mistress, although whether she was real or an imagined character is still not altogether clear. In either case, she is known as the ‘dark lady’, because she’s described as having black hair and a dull complexion.

The relationship between poet and mistress is a fraught one, with some poems in the series pointing out her flaws and the latter sonnets detailing her ultimate betrayal. 

However, in Sonnet 130, which is only the third of the ‘dark lady’ poems, Shakespeare describes his love for the woman. 

And he does so in a rather unusual way.

“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red…”


The form of Shakespearean (or English) sonnets is modelled on the Petrarchan sonnet, which became popular in England in the latter sixteenth century. 

Petrarchan sonnets were almost exclusively love poems and were often grandiose, with the poet elevating his love to an unattainable standard of beauty. But that's not what we get here. In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, all this is turned on its head.

Essentially, the poem is a parody of those over-the-top verses of love. So, whereas a Petrarchan poet may well proclaim that his lover’s eyes are more glorious than the sun, Shakespeare takes a realistic approach to his subject.

Shakespeare's Sober View of The Dark Lady's Beauty


Every stock comparison is lampooned, and the dark lady’s beauty isn't lauded as something unmatchable. In fact, it’s presented as very pedestrian. 

Shakespeare's Sonnet 130 parodies the
grandiose Petrarchan sonnets
There are many things that are far more beautiful as far as the poet is concerned: the lady’s eyes, lips, breasts, hair, cheeks and breath cannot match the splendour of nature. 

Her voice is no sweeter than music and, unlike goddesses, such as Venus (who is a popular figure of comparison in Petrarchan sonnets), she treads on the ground like every other mere mortal.

“And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.”


However, this is not in any way offensive to the dark lady. In fact, quite the contrary, Shakespeare suggests that the false comparisons that he's parodied are just that: false.

In the volta (the final couplet), Shakespeare twists the direction of thought and says that, despite the fact he cannot (or will not) make ridiculously exaggerated claims as to his mistress’ beauty, she is just as special and unique as any of the women who have been subject of exaggerated flattery.

So, he's taking with one hand and giving with the other.

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 damask'd, 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.

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