Shakespeare’s sonnet 130 is part of the “Dark Lady” sonnets in which the speaker describes a woman he’s in love with. In Sonnet 130, the poet compares the beauty of his lover to the traditional beauty standards that are typically written about during this time, things such as red lips, fair skin, and rosy cheeks. In the second stanza he goes on to describe that he loves the sound of her voice, but knows that music sounds better, and that even though he’s never seen a goddess walk, he doubts his mistress walks like one because she treads everywhere she goes.
Despite not abiding by common beauty standards, the poet still proclaims his love for her. Through structure, diction, and sardonic tone Shakespeare undermines the society’s vain obsession with physical beauty.
In a sonnet, the poet begins the first three stanzas speaking about an issue, which is later resolved in the final two lines, also known as a heroic couplet.
In the first stanza (lines 1-4) the speaker compares his lover’s features such as her eyes, lips, breasts and hair to those of a woman who would usually be praised in romantic poetry such as this. By making these comparisons Shakespeare is condemning people who base their love for others solely on their appearance. In the next stanza he continues to belittle her appearance and even her scent, “And in some perfumes is there more delight/ Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks,” (7-8).
In a way, the structure and tone of this poem collide in the sense that, with every stanza, the speaker gets closer to making his proclamation of love for his mistress.
In the last quatrain of the sonnet, the speaker hints at things he appreciates about his mistress, such as her voice and the way she walks, yet he undermines that by saying “music hath a far more pleasing sound,” and “My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground,” (10 and 12). As the last line before the heroic couplet, Shakespeare establishes the problem he is facing with his lover, the fact that she is nothing like what everyone else thinks is conventionally beautiful.
However, in the last two lines, Shakespeare reverses the entire argument he’s been posing in the previous stanzas, “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare/ As she belied with false compare,” (13-14). This is the final step of a sonnet, a solution or, in this case, a criticism of the problems that were stated earlier in the poem. The use of a sonnet was perfect for this argument because it allows Shakespeare to pose an argument against society’s views, and then present his solution to the vanity of said views.
The sarcastic and extreme diction that this poem begins with is used to attack other poets who commonly write poems proclaiming their love to mistresses because of their physical beauty only. To begin with the first stanza, Shakespeare’s words “nothing like the sun,” and “far more red than her lips red,” can be interpreted as an exaggeration in order to invoke a sarcastic mood (1-2). In order to provoke the idea of just how terribly society would view his mistress’ smell, he says “the breath that my mistress reeks,” (8).
The word “reek” can be viewed as extreme in this poem in order to widen the gap between society’s views and his own views. In the last two lines however, the diction becomes more positive with words such as “heaven,” “rare,” and “belied” (13-14). The word “heaven” suggests that, in the speaker’s eyes, his mistress is angelic or holy. The word “rare” is used to describe how his relationship with his mistress is absolutely one of a kind, and this is pertinent to the argument because it is one of a kind because he loves her for reasons that are not related to her looks.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “belied” can be defined as “to surround or encompass” (Oed 1a). This is an extreme use of this words in the sense that it suggests that the mistress is fully surrounded by people who base their love for others off of physical appearances. By starting off with strong language that seems sarcastic, Shakespeare is making a point to his readers that he’s criticizing the vanity of beauty, he transitions to more positive words in order to indicate that this is how he actually feels, and that he was only insulting his love in order to make a point about how people are obsessed with the outer appearance.
Lastly, perhaps the most important aspect of sonnet 130 is tone, and the transitions it goes through throughout the poem. As mentioned in the second paragraph, the sonnet style, and the tonal shifts of this poem go together in the way that they get slightly more positive as the three quatrains go on, and then in the heroic couplet, things brighten up completely. The poem starts out with what seems to be a completely negative tone, an almost cynical tone when discussing what is wrong with his mistress (according to common beauty expectations). In the second stanza, while the speaker is still criticizing the looks of his mistress, he seems to be slightly more hopeless by saying “no such roses see I in her cheeks” (5).
In the last quatrain, Shakespeare admits he’s “never seen a goddess go” (11), which is a tiny hint that he could view his mistress as a goddess (which, as stated in the second paragraph, is undermined by the use of the word “tread”), and this allows the reader to begin to see where the poet I going with this poem. The first three stanzas possess a sarcastic, sad and overall negative tone, which Shakespeare is using in order to show how skewed society’s views on love are. Finally, in last two lines, a tonal shift from almost completely negative to very positive is indicated by the words “And yet” (13). The tonal shift here is used to reveal how Shakespeare actually feels about his mistress and proves his point about how vain the society he lives in is.
In conclusion, the sonnet is a type of poem that relies on structure and tonal transitions in order to make a point, but in order to have tonal shifts, differing diction is needed, so without one of these aspects, Shakespeare wouldn’t have been able to get his point across. All of these devices allow Shakespeare to argue that the people of his time rely too much on appearance, and in a way he’s also criticizing the love poems written before this for setting such specific beauty standards. Lastly, Shakespeare is also criticizing the clichés that many poets before him have created and is suggesting that there’s more to love than just physical beauty.