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Close Reading and Discussion of William Shakespeare's Sonnets 1, 18, 130, and 138

Updated on May 26, 2014
William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare | Source

Usually, with Shakespeare, I start off with attempting to “translate” the piece into modern English, because I tend to struggle with understanding it and misinterpret things constantly. Luckily for me, this sonnet isn’t as difficult.

Sonnext CXXX (130)

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun
Coral is far more red than her lips are
If snow is white, then her breasts/skin in dingy
If hair is like wires, then hers are black wires
I have seen red and white roses
But no such roses do I see in her cheeks
And in some perfumes there is more delight
Than in my mistress’ reeking breath
I love to hear her speak, yet I know very well
That music has a far more pleasing sound
Though I’ve never seen a goddess walk,
My mistress walks on the ground
And yet, I think my love is as rare
As any described by false comparisons

Close Reading of Sonnet CXXX (130)

Here Shakespeare is being rather humorous in his exploration of the relationship between the subjects of love poems and the objects of perfection they are often compared to, literally, and described as, metaphorically. While you don’t realize it until the couplet, thinking he is merely describing the many flaws of his mistress, I believe he is actually commenting on the absurdity of some of these metaphors. For example, having eyes like the sun, when taken quite literally, is not only impossible, but it wouldn’t exactly be beautiful. I think that Shakespeare’s intention with this sonnet is to demonstrate that his mistress is still wonderful, and lovely, and “flawless” without these ostentatious comparisons to ideal images of nature, beauty, and perfection.

For me, I immediately thought of current controversy around the unattainable perfection of celebrity body images; with the prevalence Photoshopped magazine pictures and the fact that many of these celebrities have professional make-up artists, nutritionists, personal trainers, stylists, and more ensuring that they look “perfect,” self-esteem and body image amongst women (and men) are very low, while eating disorders and self-harm are very common. To me, the comparison of a subject in a love poem to these idyllic images of beauty—the sun, roses, snow, music—paints the same unrealistic picture of perfection as the media does of celebrities. In this sonnet, Shakespeare reminds us that people are not, in fact, so ridiculously flawless, and those standards certainly aren’t the only measure of love.

I think that the couplet is the most important part of the poem as it reveals the true meaning and intent in an unexpected twist to the first time reader. The last line particularly resonated with me: “As any she belied with false compare” (14). To me, this means that a love based on the reality of your significant other is deeper and truer than a love based on a false image of that person that you create for yourself—an important life lesson, I think.

One thing that confuses me about Shakespeare’s sonnets is the relationship between the subject and the speaker. While the subject is generally discernable, is the speaker Shakespeare himself? Does the speaker vary poem to poem, written from the perspective of some sort of fictional character? How does this change assumptions we make about the speaker and his (or her?) intent? How does this change the meaning of the poems?

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare | Source

Understanding Shakespeare's Sonnets

Comparing Sonnets 1, 18, 130, and 138

The obvious common theme that these poems share is love. But, beyond that, they have an interesting sequential relationship to one another in a sort of pattern that I picked up on while reading.

Sonnet I (1)

From fairest creatures we desire increase
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content,
And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding.
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

Sonnet I compares a man—whom the speaker is urging to procreate in order to permit his beauty to carry on—to a lovely rose. The metaphors aren’t heavy; in line two, he explicitly states the comparison, “That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,” attempting to convince the subject of the need to reproduce. Only again in line 11 does he allude to the flower image directly: “Within thine own bud buriest thy content,” speaking of the subject’s contentedness—and even selfishness—with not passing on his “fairest” beauty.

Sonnet I uses these direct comparisons between a person and the unattainable beauty of nature as might be expected in a love poem; this man is a “fairest creature” (1) as beautiful as a rose (2), revered as highly as flowers, “the world’s fresh ornament” (9). This paints him as being impossibly ideal, which is a typical component of love poems: exaggeration towards perfection.

Sonnet XVIII (18)

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Sonnet XVIII follows suit: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” (1). The direct metaphors of this subject to elements of nature are much more prominent.

As is also stereotypical of love poems, the subject in this case is not described as being as wonderful as these “ideals”, but even better; here, Shakespeare highlights the true, imperfect nature of these supposed symbols of perfection, rather than further praising them as in Sonnet I.

Summer is often viewed as an idyllic season, but he poses that, in reality, the winds are harsh, the weather is never ideal—too hot or too cloudy—and most of all, the season is brief, and fades to fall, which is made to seem sad and gloomy in comparison. The object of his affection, on the other hand, is in fact the ideal that summer is not: lovely (2), temperate (2), and gentle (3, 5-6), with enduring beauty that does not fade (7-14). Here again we see a subject characterized as an impossible ideal.

Sonnet CXXX (130)

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun
Coral is far more red than her lips are
If snow is white, then her breasts/skin in dingy
If hair is like wires, then hers are black wires
I have seen red and white roses
But no such roses do I see in her cheeks
And in some perfumes there is more delight
Than in my mistress’ reeking breath
I love to hear her speak, yet I know very well
That music has a far more pleasing sound
Though I’ve never seen a goddess walk,
My mistress walks on the ground
And yet, I think my love is as rare
As any described by false comparisons

Sonnet CXXX, on the other hand, takes a much more humorous and realistic approach to the description of love, seemingly shunning the latter practice of impractical comparisons to “perfection,” specifically elements of nature.

The subject, this time a woman, is compared to nature and other praised elements of beauty in the opposite way one would expect from a love poem: the sun shines much brighter than her eyes (1), coral is far redder than her lips (2), snow far whiter than her skin (3). Rather than being described as akin to these elements, she is contrasted with them literally.

Shakespeare plays off the humor in how absurd it would be for a woman’s skin to actually be as white as snow, her lips as red as coral, and to essentially have miniature suns for eyes! It seems that he is highlighting her flaws, but I think his emphasis is much more so on the ridiculousness of the idea of describing people with such metaphors—like we’ve seen in sonnets I and XVIII—than showing that she is imperfect; rather, he is showing that she is just fine and wonderful, and he loves her very much, a truer love for this real woman than others who describe their loves with “false compare” (14). This emphasis on truth is a movement away from the images of perfection in the previous two sonnets.

Shakespeare's Sonnets Audiobook

Sonnet CXXXVIII (138)

When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutor’d youth,
Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue:
On both sides thus is simple truth supprest.
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O! love’s best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years told:
Therefore I lie with her, and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flatter’d be.

Sonnet CXXXVIII is not as humorous as Sonnet CXXX, but it continues the practice of blatant honesty and realism when talking about this relationship between a man and a woman. The relationship is built on an understanding of mutual “deceit” and deliberately unspoken truths; she is unfaithful, he knows it, she claims not to be, he says he believes her, she knows he doesn’t, he knows she knows he doesn’t… so on.

She flatters him by considering him still youthful, but they both know he is not. On the surface the two clutch their lies—she “swears that she is made of truth” (1), and he “believe[s] her, though [he] know[s] she lies” (2)—but in all actuality, they are both aware of the other’s deceit—“On both sides thus is simple truth supprest. / But wherefore says she not she is unjust? / And wherefore say not that I am old?” (8-10). Again, unadulterated truth characterizes this piece.

Unlike the previous three sonnets, the last does not reference any elements of nature. It does, however, follow a pattern I see through these poems, from light-hearted exaggeration and idealism (sonnets I and XVIII) to a pleasant, heart-warming realism (Sonnet CXXX) to a rather unpleasant pragmatism (Sonnet CXXXVIII). Without reading the rest of the 150+ sonnets, I cannot be sure that this pattern is still apparent throughout, but at least between these four poems, it is the connection I made.

William Shakespeare's signature often varied; here is one example.
William Shakespeare's signature often varied; here is one example. | Source

Fun Fact

Also, fun fact: In the few signatures that have survived, Shakespeare spelled his name “Willm Shaksp,” “William Shakespe,” “Wm Shakspe,” “William Shakspere,” ”Willm Shakspere,” and “William Shakspeare”--but never “William Shakespeare.”

You can find the full works of William Shakespeare for free here.

© 2014 Niki Hale

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