Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Inner Turmoil and the Darker Take on Sonnet 130

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In his Sonnet 130, Shakespeare undermines Petrarchan ideals by having the speaker compare his mistress unfavorably to the sun, coral, and snow, thus poking fun at other poets of the age, such as Thomas Watson, who used exaggerated comparisons with natural elements to describe their fair one's beauty. From this reversal of the ideal, the reader can see that the speaker considers his mistress to be imperfect, though he thinks his "love as rare / As any she belied with false compare." This acknowledgement of the mistress' imperfection, when seen in context with the more sobering Sonnet 129 about "lust in action," (especially Ralph Fiennes' take on it) allows for a gloomier reading of Sonnet 130, much like the performance given by Alan Rickman. This tone marks Sonnet 130 as a continuation of the Dark Lady sonnets, with the insults and conciliatory couplet therein understood to be the products of mingled self-recrimination and desire. Shakespeare perhaps writes to describe, not the authenticity of true love, but the madness of inexplicable desire. He sees the flaws of his mistress, but he desires her as one would desire a creature of rare beauty, and so his Sonnet 130 becomes an exploration of his own insensibility.
Poets such as Thomas Watson were accustomed to following Petrarch's example by using cavalier poetry to idealize the object of their affections, with blazons cataloging the woman's every feature. Shakespeare does the same thing, but rather than idealizing his mistress, he describes her many flaws. Salempress contributor Ashleigh Imus writes that "Sonnet 130 mocks the exaggerated praise of beauty that flourished in the poetry of Shakespeare’s time," and that rather than adding to this praise, "the speaker celebrates his lady as she is, implying his honesty as evidence of a more credible and authentic love." This reversal can be read as a playful attack on the poetic traditions of the age, as well as an argument that meaningful affection has more to do with true attachment rather than physical appeal, a reading supported by Salempress. But such honesty, so out of character with the rest of cavalier poetry, and following the grim Sonnet 129, has an additional interpretation, perhaps as more of a comment on the speaker's inner turmoil than the ridiculous comparisons most sonnet writers employed.
The playful insults of Sonnet 130 form an odd contrast with the bleak Sonnet 129, which talks of "lust in action" and "waste of shame," an apt description of the consequences of illicit passion (1-2). Following Sonnet 129, the playfulness of Sonnet 130 doesn't make much sense, unless one considers the playfulness as a cover for self-recrimination. With this interpretation in mind, gone are the suggestions of true love despite aging beauty or even affection made stronger by the recognition of flaws. Instead, Sonnet 130 seems a continuation of the theme that passion is inexplicable, unknowable, and dangerous. One reading of the Sonnet is the speaker listing reasons as to why his love doesn't deserve his affections: "If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun," "black wires grow on her head," and "My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground" (3-4, 12).  After this backward blazon, he proceeds to admit that his attachment is real, despite her many flaws, for he thinks her "as rare / As any she belied with false compare" (13-14), in keeping with the idea that desire is unreasonable, but irresistible. The reader is left to wonder if Sonnet 129's reference to "heaven that leads men to this hell" is (14), in fact, referring to the pleasurable company of the Dark Lady, of whom the speaker says in Sonnet 130, "And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare" (13-14).

If the speaker is indeed the same man who spoke of lust as "savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust" in Sonnet 129, his same lack of trust is evident in Sonnet 130 (4). Sonnet 130 ridicules the tradition of hyperbolic blazons by listing the less-than-ideal features of his mistress, yet concludes with a couplet expressing the speaker's devotion to this mistress. He cannot explain his devotion by comparing her eyes to the sun, nor does he himself know why he feels so passionate about a woman with wiry hair and dun breasts, but that makes his feelings no less real. In Sonnet 129, he knows lust will lead to misery, and yet he risks this downfall for a few moments of foolish, inexplicable, unintelligible passion with the undeserving woman of Sonnet 130. 

1 comment:

  1. I never thought of this as a follow-up to 129, though I should have! You give Shakespeare a definite ulterior motive, and I like that take on it. It's really useful to think of the works as a whole rather than separate.