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Sonnet 130 is Shakespeare’s mockery of traditional standards for beauty and a call for a focus on the other qualities that make a person attractive. From the very first line, Shakespeare dismantles the classic Petrarchan sonnet, insisting that “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun”. He then proceeds to mock both traditional beauty standards and the method in which beauty is usually praised. The traditional Petrarchan sonnet compartmentalizes the beauty of a woman, listing off her body parts one by one and praising each one. Shakespeare mocks this form by following the pattern, but insulting his beloved instead of complimenting her. Eyes are often compared to the sun in sonnets, but Shakespeare begins his sonnet by assuring his audience that his mistress’s eyes are “nothing like the sun.” He continues this pattern all the way through the sonnet, taking a traditional compliment and turning it on its head: hair is commonly compared to wires, but “black wires grow on her head”; cheeks are said to be rosy, but “no such roses see I in her cheeks”. Shakespeare completes this off-putting effect by breaking the iambic pentameter in the second line of the sonnet. For a reader or listener, hearing that “coral is far more red than her lips red” is a jarring break in the rhythm that he or she expects. Though this effect is subtle, it completes the break in traditional form for a love sonnet.
Redeeming the Lady
The volta in the last two lines of the sonnet changes the entire meaning of the poem. After twelve lines of mocking both the traditional sonnet and the physical attractions of his love, Shakespeare finally makes his point: “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare / As any she belied by false compare”. Though she obviously lacks the physical beauty one expects and desires in a woman, Shakespeare claims that she is still loved and worth loving. Felicia Steele argues here that what sets this woman apart for Shakespeare is her speech. Though the poem is mainly insults, he does allow “I love to hear her speak”. Steele suggests that it is through her superior verbal skills that this woman has entranced Shakespeare and “belied by false compare” her competitors. However, Shakespeare does not explicitly state what makes this woman worthy of his love; the sonnet is entirely focused on the attributes she lacks. Though the reader is left mystified about precisely why Shakespeare loves this woman, this serves to keep the focus on Shakespeare’s point: beauty isn’t everything. In his Sonnet 54, he touches on the same subject (though in a more complimentary manner), again insisting that inner beauty is just as important as outer beauty. He compares beautiful but hateful people to wild roses that have no scent, and insists that they die disregarded and dishonored. The final declaration of his love for the subject of the poem serves to drive home Shakespeare’s essential message: one does not have to be beautiful to be worth loving.
This sonnet may be one of the most encouraging for Shakespeare’s readers. Clearly this lady is no extraordinary beauty and possesses none of the qualities usually praised in love poetry; however, she is passionately loved. This is a message that can give hope to readers who, like this lady, are not particularly charming or lovely or gorgeous.
This poem allows for ordinary love by ordinary people. A blogger named Fugu discusses here the hypocrisy of poets in exaggerating the beauty of their subjects, arguing that this does no one any favors. Pretending that the object of desire is always flawlessly beautiful serves only to discourage women and disappoint men, and can be an obstacle to people falling in love by setting unrealistically high expectations. Shakespeare does his audience many favors in this sonnet by mocking the shallowness of society and simultaneously suggesting that there may be more to look for in a person than physical beauty.