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Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder: A look at Shakespeare's Sonnet 130

Updated on July 7, 2015

Shakespeare was a poet of a different breed in his own time. When all of the other poets were writing Sonnets about women and describing them as these beautiful goddess-like creatures, he had other features in mind. One Sonnet in particular, Sonnet 130, is a different approach at idolizing women. In this analysis of Sonnet 130, I will show through Shakespeare's images, word choice, and form how he finds a deeper beauty in women, their flaws.

To begin with, in the first lines of Sonnet 130 Shakespeare begins by describing how his lady looks. He uses rough, ugly images to describe his "mistress" (line 1). He starts by saying: "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun; / Coral is far more red than her lips red;" (lines 1-2). Shakespeare is saying that her eyes aren't bright and she doesn't light up people with her gaze, but her eyes are black and kind of sadden. Then when he is describing her lips he doesn't say that they are scarlet red, as some poets would, instead he says that they are light and dull, the exact opposite of a stunning red. In lines 5-6 he goes on to describe her face and basically says that it is pasty white with little to no pigment. His mistress is pale and her cheeks aren't rosy red. He also describes her hair as being wires, but not blonde, no, her hair is black. He writes: "If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head." (line 4). The last physical feature to be described are her breasts. He writes in line 3: "If snow be white,......then her breasts are dun;". Instead of using a beautiful appealing color of snow white he describes her breasts as being dun, brown. Shakespeare appears to be using this poem to expose the false exaggerations of most love poems during his time.

William Shakespeare

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Now in these next 5 lines, 6-12, Shakespeare describes tactile qualities of his mistress. The scent of her breath, the sound of her voice, and the way she walks are all under scrutiny. Lines 7-8 read: "And in some perfumes is there more delight / Than in the breath from my mistress reeks." In these 2 lines Shakespeare is saying that even the worst perfume smells better than her breath. It's almost as if he would be describing morning breath or bad breath from eating certain foods, but he could be saying her breath reeks all the time and that it never smells of perfumes like other poets describe in their love poems. Then in lines 9 and 10 Shakespeare describes her voice as this awful sound and would rather listen to beautiful music than listen to her speak. However, Shakespeare does write in line 9, "I love to hear her speak" even though he knows he has heard far more joyous sounds. So despite her wretched voice he'd rather listen to her than anything. Perhaps because her voice is real and raw and not hidden by the veil of some extravagant enchanting sound. The last tactile description he gives is that of her walk. Shakespeare says that she "treads on the ground" (line 12). It's almost as if he is comparing her to a heard of animals or a stampede. She walks hard and heavy instead of lightly floating across the room as if you could barely hear her coming.

Shakespeare uses specific words to enhance these images discussed earlier. He uses harsh, ugly words to paint this image of his mistress. In describing her breasts he colors them to be "dun", when describing her hair he says that they are "black wires" and then when acquiring the aroma of his mistress' breath he conjures up "reeks", like some kiss of death. Shakespeare is using these harsh words to do what other love poets do exaggerate a beloved's beauty, but he uses words that would paint a real picture not an ideal picture. Shakespeare doesn't want his women to be these exaggerated goddesses, he wants them to be raw and real. Most poets of his time used beautiful language to describe say a woman's hair; they saw women as beautiful, blue eyed, blonde Goddesses. The poets of Shakespeare's time used sonnets to describe the fair beauty, but what Shakespeare saw as beauty was something sort of in the eye of the beholder.

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Now on the form. Shakespeare could of picked any form, but he chose a Sonnet why? I believe he chose this form because it would grab the most attention, especially in a time when Sonnets were used to describe fair beauty. Shakespeare chooses a Sonnet to describe his mistress in this ugly, wretched way to show his reader that beauty is not only in fair skin, rosy lips, and long luscious locks. Nor is it in the snow white skin or warm enchanting eyes. It's in the flaws of a woman that makes her beautiful. Shakespeare wanted to show that beauty is only skin deep and that one has to look beyond artificial features in order to embrace true beauty, beauty that lasts a lifetime. In the last 2 lines of the Sonnet he writes: "And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare." Shakespeare is saying that his love for his mistress is rare because he does not love her for stunning beauty, he loves her because she isn't perfect.

Shakespeare's Sonnet 130 is, in my eyes, a masterpiece. I read Sonnets by other poets that depict women as flawless creatures and that's just not realistic. I could compare it to how fashion magazines paint women as being these anorexic skinny women and in showing that they are advertising that all women should aspire to look like them. The love Sonnets do the same thing, they exaggerate women in ways that are way off base. Women aren't perfect Goddesses, they have many faults and imperfections. From head to toe women are flawed. Shakespeare captures those imperfections to paint a beautiful masterpiece of what he views as beauty. If I were a woman of his time I would be a bit afraid of the man who wrote me outlandish love Sonnets for fear that if I didn't maintain what he viewed as perfect he would leave me, but the man who loves me for my imperfections no that's a man worth keeping. I know is I were his mistress I'd rather get a Sonnet like his than one that would describe me as an unrealistic character out of a fantasy.

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William Shakespeare "Sonnet 130"

SONNET 130

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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    • wrenchBiscuit profile image

      Ronnie wrenchBiscuit 3 years ago

      Of course, we can assume that Shakespeare's goal was to be more realistic in his assessment of his mistress,and I am inclined in this direction.However, in spite of the fact that he expresses his love at the end,we can't dismiss the possibility that this sonnet could have simply been a mean spirited attack.It is not uncommon for someone with such literary talents to use them as a weapon when provoked.

      This is a great poem and a great review. The video was interesting as well.Your sentiment,"I'd rather get a Sonnet like his than one that would describe me as an unrealistic character out of a fantasy ", is admirable.If you can truly withstand such honesty, then it must be difficult for you to live in such a dishonest world.It is safe to say that you could never be a politician, or a used car saleswoman.

    • Brittany Kussman profile image
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      Brittany Kussman 3 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      Thanks for the comment and for taking the time to red my hub. Being a mom of a now 2 year old my body went through different changes that I was never used to so I have learned to accept my flaws and imperfections and am happy to have a husband who love me no matter what I look like. I personally would rather have honesty over fabricated versions of truth, I hate being lied to about anything especially the way I look. If someone can't accept me for my flaws then they aren't worth my time. So you would be correct a politician or used car saleswoman isn't in my career path. Thanks again for the read I'm glad you enjoyed it.

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