I have had a very long love affair with all things Shakespeare. I have a bookshelf dedicated to his works and works about his works. If a lit class at school promised we’d read one of his plays, I signed up. It is a goal of mine to see a production of his (ideally Romeo & Juliet or The Taming of the Shrew or Macbeth or Hamlet or anything really) at the Globe Theater. I just can’t get enough of the man!
This is why I am introducing a weekly (maybe bimonthly) blog posting, dedicated to the Bard—Shakespeare Saturdays, if you will. Perhaps some Saturdays we’ll discuss a particular play, a sonnet, a theme of his, a mystery behind the man, a book about him, anything having to do with Shakespeare. It will be a great way (I promise!) to brush up on your knowledge of Will Shakey’s works or to learn something new about them!
Since this is the first posting, we’ll start slow with just a sonnet! One of the more well known sonnets. First, I’ll give you a little background information on Shakespeare’s sonnets.
There are 154, published in 1609, however they were not published by Shakespeare so it is unknown in what ordered he would have wanted them to appear. Almost all of the sonnets are constructed using three quatrains and a couplet at the end. Many argue that you can split the sonnets into two groups based on who the sonnets are about or who they are aimed towards. Numbers 1-126 are commonly viewed as being addressed to a ‘fair youth.’ These sonnets explore sexuality, love, family, and the brevity of time. The other half of the sonnets, 127-152, are addressed to The Dark Lady. These sonnets are overtly sexual and focus on passionate, sexual love instead of platonic or familial love.
Today, we will discuss Sonnet 130.
My mistress’ eye are nothing like the sun,
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks,
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound.
I grant I never saw a goddess go:
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
This sonnet is written to his Dark Lady, you can tell because he refers to her skin as “dun” and her hair as “black,” and can be read in many different ways. Shakespeare compares his mistress to beautiful things, but always states that his mistress is not as beautiful. Her lips are not as beautiful as coral, and her skin is dull and lacks the luminosity of snow. He makes it clear that she is no goddess nor does she have any qualities that would make her goddess-like. She can’t sing and she smells, ouch.
However, the turning point of this sonnet is in the final couplet. Shakespeare finds that his mistress is rare because she cannot compare to all of these other-worldly beauties. She is not a goddess, and that might be a good thing. She is real and tangible. And that is better than any goddess Shakespeare could imagine. By comparing her to all of these wondrous qualities that are not held by humans, he is not berating her, but praising her.
I think that a definite connection can be made between this sonnet and the world we live in today. People often want to look like supermodels and celebrities, that are airbrushed and professionally done-up to appear attractive behind possibility. But that might not be the best definition of beauty. Perhaps, as Shakespeare seems to argue, beauty is seen in the natural form of humanity. Being the most organic form of yourself is what is truly beautiful because it is relatable and real and for a person to be able to love you, they must see the real you.
I know, I am really reading this with as much optimism as possible but I think that is it a nice way to interpret these 14 lines. What do you think Shakespeare meant with his words? And what other works of his would you like to see on Shakespeare Saturdays?