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Shakespeare’s Sonnets 18 & 130, An Essay in Contrast and Comparison

Updated on April 12, 2017
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Kristen has been writing for over 30 years. She graduated from UCF with a B.A. in English-Creative Writing December 2015.

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William Shakespeare is considered to be one of the greatest writers of the English language. He was born and raised in Stafford-upon-Avon in England, where he married Anne Hathaway in 1582. He left his hometown and family for London sometime between 1585 and 1592 to pursue his writing career as Encyclopædia Britannica states there is no known recorded history of Shakespeare’s activities during this time frame to exactly know when he did so.

It is during his time in London that the body of his works, consisting of 154 sonnets, 2 long narrative poems and 38 plays, that survived to the present day are composed. Of his sonnets, two of his best known are Sonnet 18 or Shall I Compare Thee… and Sonnet 130 or My Mistress’ Eyes…, which upon review present similarities, as well as differences between them.

One aspect they both share is their format, which is that of a Shakespearean sonnet. They both contain fourteen lines which consist of three quatrains and a couplet. They follow a regular rhyme scheme, with each verse written in the rhythm iambic pentameter. The one facet where they differ from the traditional Petrarchan sonnet is the pattern, abab cdcd efef gg.

Another similarity they share is their use of nature. Shakespeare uses the sun as a basis of comparison in the opening line, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” of Sonnet 130, and in the metaphor “the eye of heaven” in verse 5 of Sonnet 18. Shall I Compare Thee… makes reference to the seasons of spring and summer symbolizing periods of the subject’s youth and nature personified as “changing course untrimmed.” My Mistress’ Eyes… make use of coral, snow and roses as a color comparison to what the subject lacks in her lips, breasts, and checks.

The universal theme that runs though both works is that of courtly love, which is defined in The American Heritage Dictionary as, “A set of attitudes toward love that was strong … his love for her inspired him to do great things ... There was usually no physical relationship or marriage between them...” (“Courtly love”) Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day aims to make the subject immortal through the written word. My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun states that despite all of the subject’s physical shortcomings, he is in love with her.

The most obvious areas where they differ are the genres of each piece. Shall I Compare Thee… is a hyperbolized love poem. Amanda Mabillard observes that Shakespeare “builds the image of his friend into that of a perfect being…; thus, he has metamorphosed into the standard by which true beauty can and should be judged.” My Mistress’ Eyes, on the other hand, is written as a parody of the former, where he “deliberately uses typical love poetry metaphors against themselves” (Mabillard, An Analysis of Shakespeare's Sonnet 130). James Hale writes that verses 11 and 12 ask “Who among mortal men has ever witnessed a goddess in order to make such similes in the first place?” (Hale, “Sonnet 130”)

They also diverge in the subject of the author’s affections, his relationship with and view of each. Sonnet 18 is written as part of what is commonly known as the Fair Youth sequence (Sonnet 1-Sonnet 126), where the subject is a man. Sonnet 130, part of the Dark Lady sequence (Sonnet 127-Sonnet 152), is clearly written for a woman. Collins English Dictionary defines a mistress in the informal tense he uses in referring to the subject in Sonnet 130 as “a woman who has a continuing extramarital sexual relationship with a man.” There is no such indication of physical desire in Shall I compare thee.... In the fair youth he sees beauty that begs to be immortalized, in contrast to the common appearance of his female lover.

Through Shall I Compare Thee… and My Mistress’ Eyes, William Shakespeare gave the world and its future generation’s two of its finest works of literature. He demonstrated the mastery of his craft by writing in different themes, yet uniting them in the theme of love.

Works Cited

"Courtly love." The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005. Web.16 Mar. 2012.

Hale, James. "Sonnet 130." Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition (2002): 1-3. Literary Reference Center Plus. Web. 16 Mar. 2012.

Mabillard, Amanda. An Analysis of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18. Shakespeare Online. 2000. Web.16 Mar. 2012

---. An Analysis of Shakespeare's Sonnet 130. Shakespeare Online. 2000. Web.16 Mar. 2012

"Mistress." Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers. Web.17 Mar. 2012.

Shakespeare, William.”Shall I Compare Thee…”Literature: A Portable Anthology.Second Edition. Ed. Janet E. Gardner, et al. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009. 465-466. Print.

Shakespeare, William.”My Mistress’ Eyes…”Literature: A Portable Anthology.Second Edition. Ed. Janet E. Gardner, et al. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009. 467. Print.

“WilliamShakespeare.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 16 Mar. 2012.

© 2012 Kristen Willms

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