Shakespeare Sonnet No 130 Questions and Answers
1. What picture of an ideal feminine beauty of the Elizabethan age does Shakespeare present in his Sonnet No. 130 (‘My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun’.)? Is there any satire implied in it?
Ans. Shakespeare in his Sonnet No. 130 (‘My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun’.) has presented the picture of an ideal feminine beauty as dealt with in the love-poems and sonnets of his age. These poets and sonneteers did not present their beloveds as they really were but always pointed their beauty in an exaggerated way. As a result these beloveds not only became representations of ideal beauty but also creations of their imagination. Shakespeare, a lover of natural and unadorned beauty, cannot endure the excesses and affectations with which they were endowed. So when he draws them in their manner, he also introduces some satiric note in it. It is for this that the sonnet becomes so attractive to readers, particularly to those who are acquainted with Elizabethan love-poems, lovesongs and sonnets.
The catalogue of beauty of the idealized and fictionalized beloveds begins with eyes. It is implied that their eyes are more shining than the sun. In some sonnets it is found that even the bright sun will go pale before the dazzling sparks of their eyes. The next item is lips and the beloveds are shown to have lips which are redder than coral. The third item is breasts for which they can really feel proud. They are not shown in their real colour but are made to have at least snow-white breasts. The hair is the next item. of their beauty, and their heads have but golden wires in place of hair giving them an unusual brightness for these. The fifth item is their cheeks which are so fresh and pinkish that even the mingling of red and white roses brought from Damascus will fail to outshine them. The sixth item is their breath. It is so sweet and pleasant that flowers are made to get their sweet fragrance out of it. The seventh item is their speech. When the beloveds speak, their speech has such a pleasing sound that even music cannot claim to compete with it. The last item is their manner of walking. When they walk, they seem to move like goddesses, and their tread (=walking) is so light and graceful that even the grass does not stoop (=bend) under the weight of their feet.
These beloveds appear exquisitely beautiful and exceedingly charming at the first glance. As we pay more attention to it, we realize that their beauty is not natural but artificial for which the poet is not willing to pay compliments to them. He is rather satiric in his tone for their beauty that is built-up and based on exaggeration. To have eyes that can outrival the sun is something which no same man will accept. Similarly, to have lips and cheeks that are redder than coral and more pinkish than damask roses can only be taken by those whose heads have turned for excess of adulation (=high praise). Again, to have breath more delightful than the ‘perfumes’ (i.e. fragrance) of flowers and voice more pleasing than the sound of music are neither natural nor believable. Only a doting lover can think his beloved to have breasts as white as snow or take her to be a goddess when she treads with affected steps. This shows that Shakespeare is satiric about the beauty of these beloveds as it is artificial and hyperbolic, created by minute care and cosmetics, and results from affectation and artifice (=cunning).
2. How does Shakespeare draw the beauty of his mistress in his Sonnet No. 130 (‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’.)? Is there any satiric undertone in it? What is the poet’s true estimate of her?
Ans. The poet seeks to draw the beauty of his mistress in the light of those beloveds of contemporary poets and sonneteers who are apparently exceedingly beautiful and infinitely charming in outward appearance and in their manners of speech and walking. Placed besides these beloveds the poet’s mistress is found to be too much deficient in physical charms.
The poet starts with the eyes of his mistress and says bluntly that they are in no way comparable to the sun. As for the red colour of her lips it is undeniable that coral is far more red than it. Far from being white as snow her breasts are actually dull and greyish-brown in colour. There can be no question of golden tresses on her head for nothing but black wires grow on it. Her cheeks can never boast of having damask roses, red and white on them for they are actually swarthy (=dark) in complexion. Her breath does not give out any delightful fragrance, for it produces but a strong and offensive smell. Her speech is hardly comparable to music. When she treads, there is no goddess-like gait to be found in her steps for she walks putting her feet firmly on the ground. All these show that the poet’s mistress pales into insignificance beside other’s beloveds in respect of beauty.
No lover true to his senses will draw his beloved in such a disparaging way unless he is prompted by some satiric motive. The Dark Lady gave him enough cause for anger and resentment by seducing the fair youth and by spurning his own love. His hatred against her inspires him to shoot such satiric arrows at her. His satire is unmistable when he describes her breasts as ‘dun’, her hair to be composed of ‘black wires’, and her breath, instead of smelling like flowers, ‘reeks’. Clearly the poet’s satiric attitude to his mistress makes him to draw her picture as one who can have no right claim to beauty. Satirized as she is in this merciless way the little beauty that she actually possesses falls far short of that of other beloveds whom their adoring lovers have turned into goddesses and women of ‘rare’ beauties.
It is difficult to draw a true estimate of the poet’s mistress for he has not only hatred but also tenderly feelings for her. He clearly states that though her voice is not musical, he loves to hear it. Again, he does not like her to be raised to the sky as a goddess, for he is quite contented with her close link with earth and reality. Finally he states that though she is deficient in beauty, to him at least his mistress is as rare as any other beloved of the contemporary poet or sonneteer. His attitude to her takes a complex turn when he modifies his earlier statement by adding that she is as rare as any female beauty who has been exaggeratedly and therefore untruly praised through false and unreliable analogies. Since the beauty of such a beloved is based on affectation and pretence, the poet’s complement to the simple and natural beauty of his mistress is likewise to be taken with a grain of salt (i.e. not to be taken as entirely true). Hence we believe that the poet’s true estimate of her is neither one of total disparagement nor one of total praise.
3. What were the qualities that made up the beauty of the beloveds of other poets and sonneteers? On which are their supposed beauty based? Does the poet offer the picture of an ideal plain woman as his mistress?
Ans. The Elizabethan love-poets and sonneteers were accustomed to presenting their beloveds not as they really were but as models of beauty, as those who were idealized and fictionalized by their imagination. Consequently they were turned into ‘rare’ beauties who were hardly found to be treading (=walking) on the hard ground.
There were certain well-known items of beauty which every Elizabethan love-poet and sonneteer made use of while drawing the beauty of their beloveds. Shakespeare here draws our attention to these while making satiric treatment of them. As he makes a comparative study of his own mistress in the light of other’s beloveds, the beauty of his lady love goes down by far than that of other’s mistresses who stand conspicuously in the present sonnet for their highly attractive physical charms.
The contemporary poets and sonneteers of Shakespeare began treating the catalogue of their beloveds’ beauty with their eyes. They made them have eyes more sparkling than the sun. Their lips were redder than coral and breasts more white than snow. Their hair consisted of golden wires. Their cheeks had the glow of mingled red and white roses brought fresh from Damascus. Their breath was so sweet that flowers seemed to get their fragrance from it. Their voice was no less delightful than music. When they walked, they did not seem to look like women treading with firm steps on the hard ground. They rather looked like goddesses, their light and graceful steps put so softly that even the grass did not stoop under the weight of their feet. Their adoring lovers, thus, turned them into ‘rare‘ and exceptional beauties. They were left as models for imitation by those who considered themselves to be women of inferior beauty.
It is clear that the beauty of these beloveds is not real but highly exaggerated and adorned. It is the outcome of much art and attention, care and cosmetics. Let us now see on what their points of beauty are actually based. Their eyes looked brighter than the sun because of some paints that glittered brilliantly whenever any light fell on them. Their lips were redder than coral for the application of some artificial cosmetic preparation. The reason behind the snow-white look of their breasts was also some whitening skin-care applied on the named parts. The damask roselike glow on their cheeks was again created with the help of some colouring materials giving out a pinking gloss. Their breath was perfume-like because they chewed in addition to minute mouthcare, some flowers or suchlike things that enhanced the fragrance of their breath. Their voice was made music-like through artifice (=skill) and pretence to which the lover’s fancy was also added in a large measure. Finally, their goddess-like gait was also the result of affectation and long practice. The so-called ‘rare’ beauty of these beloveds was, thus, based on adornment and artifice, care and cosmetics, affectation and hyperlede.
The poet has drawn the beauty of his mistress in such a way that she appears highly downgrade when compared with other’s beloveds. There are two features which make her unusually deficient in beauty. One is that her breasts are ‘dun’, the result of her black complexion; the other is that her breath ‘reeks’, the outcome of her lack of oral hygiene. To these may be added her hair which is a collection of ‘black wires’ and her cheeks where attitude to her is, therefore, one of repulsion and attraction, of hatred and love.
The poet does not see any damask roses which implies their swarthy complexion. Yet she does not appear entirely repelling to her lover. He openly admits: ‘I love to hear her speak’. Again, he states that though she does not appear goddess-like while she goes, she remains a firmly earthly woman when she walks which indicates that, unlike other beloveds who are affected and fanciful, she is a down-to-earth (=practical) woman having a firm link with reality. Her beauty is not based on adornment and make-up but natural and simple. From this it may be assumed that she is an ideal plain woman whom the poet loves. But it becomes complicated when in the final couplet he says that to him at least she appears as ‘rare’ as any other beloveds of Elizabethan lovepoets and sonnetees. Since, however, the high praise of the beloveds is dependent on ‘false compare’ which makes their artificial beauty to be of no value, the so-called ‘rare’ beauty of his mistress, though natural, is likewise without value for the inherent unattractiveness of her physical features.