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The literary value of William Shakespeare’s sonnets can be discussed in a variety of contexts. For some, the sonnets are associated with cultural ciphers that only sophisticated people at dinner parties understand. For others, Shakespeare’s sonnets are literary works that “everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read” (Paterson). To introduce the analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” it is important to mention a brief history of sonnets themselves. Shakespeare wrote a total of 154 poems that were first published in 1609. The sonnets are completely different from his plays, although they also contain elements of dramaturgy as well as the general sense of storytelling. Every poem has a specific topic that can be discussed either separately or in the context of other poems. Unfortunately, too little is known about Shakespeare’s life to say for sure whether his sonnets were autobiographical in meaning; therefore, readers usually perceive them as written by a “speaker.” Despite the fact that the usual approach to analyzing poems and sonnets is to divide literary devices and assess their value, it is proposed to use the structuralist approach and analyze Sonnet 130 as a system of artifacts and signs that bear a specific meaning when combined.
While Shakespeare’s sonnets can be analyzed through different approaches, this analysis will use the structuralist approach to assess the attitudes of the speaker towards his beloved woman in Sonnet 130. In linguistics, structuralism is an approach that studies relationships between signs and systems instead of analyzing them in isolation or “a mode of analysis of cultural artifacts which originates in the methods of contemporary linguistics” (Culler 4). Therefore, structuralism can be regarded as an approach that is based on the supposition that if actions of human beings have a specific meaning, there should be a system of conventions that enables the existence of that meaning. For example, when confronted by the ceremony of baptism, an observer from a culture where baptism does not exist may not regard it as a cultural phenomenon. Procedures and actions that take place during baptism are only understandable to the representatives of the culture in which the tradition is considered common.
If to explain how the structuralist approach will be applied in the context of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, the whole meaning of the poetic piece will be assessed by combining the value of each verse. Within such an interpretation of the Sonnet, exploring artifacts (verses) with meaning and not physical phenomena will allow the analyst to make distinguishments between them while enabling to bear meaning within “the symbolic system from which they derive” (Culler 6). Each artifact (verse) will be considered as a structure in itself that is defined with the help of the place they hold within the unified structure. It is important to mention that the grammatic structure of the Sonnet will play no part in the structuralist analysis since it did not have any connections to the development of structuralism itself. If to mention Chomsky’s approach towards structuralism in relation to linguistics, he postulated that language makes people see the role of structural linguistics, what practices are involved in it, and whether accounts of the discipline were either insufficient or misleading (Culler 5). Lastly, within the system of structuralism that makes it possible for one to judge a meaning through a combination of different factors, signs are vital components that can explain the significance of a specific phenomenon. Signs are composed of “significant” and “signifiers” (Culler 18), which refer to form and meaning; however, there can be different connections between the two components when it comes to various types of signs.
“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” is a sonnet that is far more complex than it presents to be from first glance. It mocks the tradition of poets to elevate the beauty of women beyond real-life situations. In the poem, Shakespeare took a completely different approach and set a tone of a realistic description of a woman of his time. The key theme of the Sonnet is that women should be valued for who they are as individuals and not for their looks. Structures that exist within the poem all point to the authors’ efforts to transfer the reality of life into words. The following paragraphs analyze the artifacts (verses) with the help of the structuralist approach.
“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” is the line that opens the Sonnet; it is a direct mockery of poets who usually compare the beauty of their beloved women with that of the sun (Shakespeare 136). Without reading the passages that follow the opening line, one may think that the sonnet’s author wrote an offensive letter to his former mistress. The second line reads as follows: “Coral is far redder than her lips red” (Shakespeare 136). Again, it may seem that the poet has nothing of value to say about his present or former mistress. However, if to dig deeper into the meaning of the two lines and analyze them as one structure, it will become evident that mockery of the romantic style is present. For instance, if to compare this verse with Watson’s Sonnet 7: “Her lips redder than any Coral stone,” a direct relationship between the two can be seen (qtd. in Forsyth 94). Combining the two passages and reviewing them as one structure allows readers to discover that the author intended to mock his fellow poets who used overly romanticized language.
The following two lines, “If snow is white, why then her breasts are dun; If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head” can be considered disrespectful if taken out of context and judged separately (Shakespeare 136). Epithets such as “dun” do not favorably describe a woman; similarly, comparing hair to black wires can be viewed as negative in tone. Lines that follow also include negative comparisons of the mistress’ beauty and different phenomena from nature “I have seen roses damasked, red and white; But no such roses in her cheeks; And in some perfumes is there more delight; than in the breath that from my mistress reeks” (Shakespeare 136). Everything in the Sonnet 130 points to the fact that beauty is subjective and cannot be used as for describing one’s value. To those who are not acquaintant with the poetry of the sixteenth century, the Sonnet may seem rude because it does not elevate a woman’s beauty and does not pay any compliments that are considered essential when composing a poem. However, those who understand the standard characteristics of sonnet writing will judge the poem as a separate structure that is different to others: Shakespeare tried to use as many stereotypical comparisons of a woman’s beauty with natural phenomena to mock the way other poets described their beloved women.
The structuralist approach to the analysis of Shakespeare’s sonnet calls for the identification of its value as a literary piece that was written at the time when there was a tradition of elevating beauty over other qualities women have. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” is a unique piece that disregarded the norm and tradition in order to let readers understand that beauty is not the only valuable characteristic that describes a human being. Vital lines “And yet by heaven I think my love as rare, as any she belied with false compare” that conclude the sonnet are crucial to take into consideration when discussing its value (Shakespeare 136). They hold the key theme of the piece, that despite the lack of “traditional” beauty a woman can be still loved and appreciated for who she is as an individual. The author calls his love rare and that which does not need to be compared with anything or anyone else. In the context of the structuralist approach, there is a stark contrast between the two first and the last two lines of the sonnet. If to judge them separately, one can think that the author changed his opinion about his mistress; however, if to assess the entire piece as a combination of artifacts, it can be concluded that there is a logical structure that leads the author to a positive conclusion about his subject of admiration.
It is crucial to understand that discussing a short literary piece through using the structuralist approach implies combining different components of the sonnet into one structure and judging it as a unity (Hawkes 101). Therefore, the analysis above did not include the assessment of separate literary devices or grammatic structures, which is inherent to the traditional way of reviewing poetic pieces. When it comes explaining the meaning of the Sonnet as a system of conventions that enable the existence of that meaning, it is noteworthy that Shakespeare went against conventions and traditions associated with poetry writing of the sixteenth century, giving his sonnet an entirely new meaning. While some level of irony and mockery was present “between the lines,” the key theme of the Sonnet was rather serious.
Shakespeare broke the boundaries of the social conventions that dictated men only to say positive things about the beauty of women and disregard their individual qualities; the structuralist approach towards the analysis of his sonnet was effective for distinguishing between literary devices that characterize the tone of the piece and the structure that combines those devices into one unity. As structuralism in literature refers to the relations between forms and meaning, it can be concluded that Sonnet 130 bore a meaning that was quite detached from the form: while the form was somewhat negative in tone, the overall meaning was positive (Lye). The analysis showed that “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” is more than a poem about a man’s subject of adoration but the urge to the society to abandon the tradition of elevating beauty above other qualities.
Culler, Jonathan. Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature. Routledge Classics, 2002.
Forsyth, Mark. The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase. Icon Books, 2013.
Hawkes, Terence. Structuralism and Semiotics. Routledge, 2004.
Lye, John. “Structuralism and Literary Criticism.” Brocku, 2008, Web.
Paterson, Don. “Shakespeare’s Sonnets by Don Paterson.” Guardian. 2010, Web.
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Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Ticknor and Fields, 1865.