Analytic Response: My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun
William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) is one of the most famous poets and dramatists of all time, who is known worldwide for his works including the 154 sonnets (Bevington, 2015). Sonnet # 130 contains a critical approach to the idealization of women’s beauty which appears to be characteristic of human culture. As a result, this sonnet has been considered to be a mild criticism of Petrarchanism (Shakespeare & Duncan-Jones, 2010, p. 47; Matz, 2008, p. 140).
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The first part of the sonnet consists of the unrealistic flattering comparisons that are characteristic of a woman’s beauty imagery as a part of Petrarchanism (Matz, 2008, p. 140). An example of such similes includes the comparison of a woman’s skin to the snow. Shakespeare’s character, however, points out that if “snow be white, why then her breasts are dun” (Shakespeare & Atkins, 2007, p. 322). He then proceeds to dwell on the fact that his mistress does not possess any of the mythological qualities attributed to Petrarchian women. At the end of the third quatrain, the character expresses his belief that his mistress is most certainly not a goddess, but a mortal woman since she “treads on the ground” (Shakespeare & Atkins, 2007, p. 322).
At the same time, the description of the woman is in no way depreciatory. For example, it is explicitly stated that the character likes to hear his mistress’s voice and thinks her to be rare. Being the writer of the past centuries, Shakespeare may be misunderstood because of the changes in the language. For example, the word “reek” that has acquired a negative connotation used to mean “exhale” (Shakespeare & Atkins, 2007, p. 322; Matz, 2008, p. 140). The character does appreciate his woman’s looks; it is the standard lies directed at women that he finds tasteless. Apart from that, when comparing the mistress to the women, the character does not show that he thinks her more or most beautiful which once again proves that her looks are not outstanding. The thing that makes her special is love, not her outstanding looks.
This appears to be an important feature of the woman’s image. In Petrarchian imagery, it is common for the character to be obsessed with a woman who is pure, high-born, and approachless as a goddess (Shakespeare & Duncan-Jones, 2010, p. 47). However, the lady described by Shakespear is tangible and real, and if her feet do touch the ground, a man can probably touch her as well.
The ending couplet is emphasized by the structure of the sonnet. This is an example of the classic Shakespearean sonnet that consists of three quatrains with alternate rhyme (abab cdcd efefe) and a couplet (gg) (Furniss & Bath, 2007). In effect, the two ending lines appear to contrast with the rest of the poem, and the information carried by it is emphasized as well (Schoenfeldt, 2007, p. 19). These two lines do not contain the faulty comparisons of the woman’s beauty with inanimate objects.
Instead, the character compares her to other women and finds her “as rare” as those who are showered with flattery. It should be noted that she does not believe her to be more beautiful. The thing that makes her different from the character is not her looks but the fact that he can call her his love, which he does in the couplet.
Shakespeare is separated from us by centuries, and yet I find this sonnet applicable to the modern world. I believe that nowadays women’s beauty is belied and objectified more than ever: by men, by women, by decorative cosmetics and after-touch. We seem to seek goddesses, creatures with no compare, but we forget that mortal men and goddesses do not get along well. Shakespeare criticized the idealistic view of female beauty in sonnet #130, but it seems that this is a mistake people have been making for centuries.
Bevington, D. (2015). William Shakespeare. Web.
Furniss, T., & Bath, M. (2007). Reading poetry. Harlow: Pearson Longman.
Matz, R. (2008). The world of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co.
Schoenfeldt, M. (2007). A companion to Shakespeare’s sonnets. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.
Shakespeare, W., & Atkins, C. (2007). Shakespeare’s “Sonnets”. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson university press.
Shakespeare, W., & Duncan-Jones, K. (2010). Shakespeare’s sonnets. London, UK: Methuen Drama.