Analysis and Interpretation of William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130”
In William Shakespeare’s (1564 – 1616) “Sonnet 130”, published 1609 in his book “Shakespeare’s Sonnets”, the speaker talks about his mistress who does not correspond with the ideals of beauty. The speaker compares her with beautiful things, but he cannot find a similarity. But he points out that his love does not depend on how she looks like. This poem is the total opposite of William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18” and makes it, and other poems from this century, look ridiculously and superficially.
William Shakespeare’s poem is a sonnet with fourteen lines, typically for a Shakespearean sonnet it is divided in three quatrains and one couplet in the end. The rhyme scheme in the quatrains is a cross rhyme (abab cdcd efef) and the last two lines are a rhyming couplet (gg). William Shakespeare uses an iambic pentameter throughout the poem. Its formal regularity makes this sonnet look like a representative love poem for the time William Shakespeare lived, but having a scrutiny on the words and their meanings it becomes clear that this sonnet is totally different.
The first line starts with introducing who is talked about: the speaker’s mistress. She is not addressed herself; instead he uses a descriptive tone and so the reader can imagine very well how the mistress looks like. The reader gets the feeling that there is a real man talking about his love. As a result you start to identify with the speaking voice and you can understand better what the speaker is talking about. Really striking is the anaphora “My mistress” (l. 1 and l. 12) used to start the poem and to end the three quatrains up; the reader can see obviously that in the ending couplet a new thought is expressed. The eyes of the mistress are compared with the sun, but they have not even a likeness with it. The sun as one of the most important elements for life on earth is a really high level for comparison. With starting this way the speaker shows the expectations made for women they had to fulfil to be seen as beauty.
In the second line the colour of the mistress’ lips are contrasted with the colour of a coral. The speaker takes an object from nature; therefore she as a part of nature is not a perfect creation. The coral is even “far more red” (l. 1) than her lips are. The colour red stands for sensuality and she is not as sensual as a woman has to be in the eyes of a man.
The anaphora in lines three and four is closing up the first quatrains with the word “If” (l. 3 and l. 4). “If” stands for an expectation which is not satisfied. Women were expected to look good and attractive. Line three talks about her “breasts” (l. 3), which are not as white as snow. White skin was not only about looking good, but it was also a sign of being noble, coming from a good family and being virginal. So the whiter a woman was the more she was
respected; but the mistress’ breast “are dun” (l. 3). In the common opinion she was not respectable and not much worth. Her hair is like “black wires” (l. 4), which does look horrible and is not nice to touch. The colour plays again an important role. Black is not a colour you can find in nature; it is actually not a real colour, but the absence of light. Black signifies sadness, darkness and evil. In the past men set a high value on women’s hair; it was a sign of femininity and beauty.
The speaking person starts the fifth line, and therefore the second quatrain, with an explicit “I” (l. 5) which you can find as well in the beginning of the fourth quatrain (l. 9). The speaker is not talking for somebody else, but for himself and his own mistress. The reader finds himself adopting this explicit “I” (l. 5 and l. 9) and feeling the same as the speaker does. In lines five and six the speaker does not see “red and white” (l. 5) roses in the mistress’ cheeks. Both of these colours were already used in the poem; this repetition is stressing that neither the noble white nor the passionate red is found in her. Those colours are linked with femaleness. Roses are also a sign for love and passion, so again the mistress is questioned in fulfilling her role as a woman who is supposed to please a man.
The smell of the mistress is described in line seven and eight, where it is said that some perfumes smell much better than she does. Perfume was in former days a really expensive and worthy object, but it can be seen as a pleasant smell in nature too. Anyways the mistress’ breath does not only smell worse than perfume, it even “reeks” (l. 8). This strong word intensifies the statement that nobody comes close to her and establishes a relationship with her.
But for all that, the speaker declares that he loves “to hear her speak” (l. 9), even though he knows that music is nicer to listen to. This last quatrain is the first time the speaker says something positive about his mistress. In this times women were not seen as individuals with own talents, so every woman had to have a wonderful voice to sing with. It was one of the basic things women were taught while they were living at home. Only working women, like servants or farmer's wives, were not supposed to be able to sing perfectly. So the mistress in the poem is seen as a low standard woman, not having a good education.
The last comparison is made with a goddess, which is probably the highest thing a woman can be compared with. The speaker admits that he “never saw a goddess go” (l. 11), so actually this comparison cannot be taken seriously. He hyperbolizes the ideals of beauty. His specific imagination of a goddess walking does not come close to the mistress’ way to walk. He says that his mistress “treads on the ground” (l. 12) and does not hover in the air like a goddess
would do in his vision. A graceful goddess is the most perfect being the speaker can think of. He admits that he personally has never seen a “goddess go” (l. 11), but he does not doubt that somebody else maybe has. The comparisons made from the coral to the goddess are rising up. On one hand the speaker starts in nature with the coral under the sea and ends with a hovering goddess high over the ground. And on the other hand the value is increasing: from an almost useless coral to a priceless goddess. But the mistress does not even reach the lowest level. This shows that she actually is not worthy to be loved, but the final couplet is a complete turnaround:
The speaker announces that he loves her, independent from the ideals of beauty men had. In this line you find the height of his comparison in nature and meaning: the “heaven” (l. 13). His love is higher than anything he was comparing her with previously. For the speaker she is much worth and he loves her more than anybody who “belied” (l. 14) her with “false compare” (l. 14). This last line is an attack on men who think a woman is only an object to look on, not a person to look into. The value of a woman is dependent on the thing you compare her with. Even if the mistress does not accord with the typical comparisons men used in the speaker’s times, she still can be beautiful in his eyes. Either because of her pretty visual nature, which he just needs to compare with different precious things, or because of her wonderful inner values, which you cannot see immediately but have to find out.
William Shakespeare wrote this poem although it was unusual for a man to see a woman as a multidimensional character. Women were supposed to delight men with a lovely face and body. But to fall in love with a woman because she was smart or intellectual was totally untypical. You cannot say for sure that the author is at the same time the speaker of this sonnet, but probably William Shakespeare advanced the view he lets his speaker have. He wanted other men living in his times to rethink their opinion about women. After reading “Sonnet 18” and “Sonnet 130” from William Shakespeare’s book “Shakespeare’s Sonnets”, it seems contradictorily that he wrote two sonnets as different as can be. In one sonnet the only reason the speaker loves his woman is because she looks beautiful, and in the other the speaker loves her although she does not look handsome in the eyes of most men. William Shakespeare’s purpose was to make those typical love poems in the 16th century, when he probably wrote his sonnets, look superficially. After reading this sonnet the reader finds other love poems superficial and thinks that it is shocking how women were reduced on their appearance. Through “Sonnet 130” William Shakespeare wants to show that real love is deeper and goes beyond looks.