Shakespeare was known for writing a specific type of sonnet, the Shakespearian sonnet. Having written 154 sonnets, he grew to have certain feelings about different types of poetry. This is evident in Shakespeare’s sonnet “My mistresses eyes are nothing like the sun”. In this poem he breaks from the poetic norms of his time and uses this sonnet to ridicule others, specifically Petrarchan sonnets. He believed that his feelings are just as real as the people who write romantic poetry in the Petrarchan style, and that perhaps they do not necessarily love who they are writing about but the idea of them. With this poem, Shakespeare wanted to show that ones love does not have to be portrayed as the picture of ultimate beauty to be loved.
This is one of Shakespeare’s poems that is simplistic in nature and frank in its expression. It is also one of his few poems that is humorous. In this poem, Shakespeare is not comparing his mistress to the sun, or the moon, or any other otherworldly object. He does not place this girl on a pedestal but rather portrays her as the woman he knows she is. If Shakespeare were to compare his lady love to something that was otherworldly, his love would not be comprehensible because there is no one who looks that perfect. Readers would not be able to relate as well as they do with this poem and the reason they are able to is because she is described as a human with all of her flaws. In fact, it is almost as if he is insulting the one he loves when really, he claims his love for her is just as great.
Historically, Petrarchan poems were typically what was written during this time. Petrarch was an Italian poet who was famous for his poems to Laura (Petrarch). These poems were filled with exaggerated imagery that compared her to otherworldly objects like the sun and the moon. However, even during Shakespeare’s time these were considered to be particularly hyperbolic. Shakespeare felt that this was unnecessary and that a woman did not have to be described so exaggeratedly for a poem to be written by her. This is why he used this poem as a way to poke fun at that type of romantic poem. For example, Shakespeare writes, “If hairs be wires, black wires grown on her head” instead of writing something like, “The hair’s bright tresses, full of golden glows” (Petrarch). These are two totally different ways to describe ones lover, yet Shakespeare’s appears more real. There is no way that a womans hair will glow, and Shakespeare understands this. Shakespeare uses contrasting imagery throughout this entire poem like he is contrasting his love with Petrarch’s. Symbolically it also contrasts Shakespearean poetry to Petrarchan.
Even though he speaks so insultingly of her, Shakespeare loves this woman. Shakespeare dedicated sonnets 124 to 154 to this woman and this one was number 130. This woman was often referred to as the “Dark Lady” because he speaks of her “dun” complexion (Shakespeare 3). Another way we are able to see how Shakespeare truly felt about this woman is because of the symbolism he uses in color even as he is insulting her. The four colors that he uses to describe his Dark Lady is red, white, dun, and black. All of these colors have symbolism that show he loves her. The color red is symbolic for passion, white for purity, which means even as he is using this to insult Petrarch’s style of poetry, he still holds her on a pedestal. The color black is symbolic of sexuality and the color dun is a neutral color which could compare to beige because it is a skin color which represents unification.
Even though Shakespeare believes that putting a woman on a pedestal in poetry is hyperbole, he does this in his opposing poetry. The imagery in this poem compares with those in Petrarchan poems. However, instead of his words being those of undying love for a woman whose beauty isn’t as exaggerated as those in Petrarchan poems, they are more reasonable. The colors used in this poem are also hidden expressions of his love for this woman. He wants to express his love to his lady but he wants to do it with less exaggeration. Shakespeare wants to be truthful in his descriptions of his lady and his love. All of the colors in this poem represent positive things and feelings that he has for his Dark Lady. The first quatrain states “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” (Shakespeare 1). A sun
which is bright, full of life, and overwhelming, is not in fact what regular human eyes look like and he knows this. However, he takes the time to even mention them in his poem which means that they mean something to him. The second line of the first quatrain contrasts her lips to coral which is important because even though he states that the coral is more red than her lips, by comparing her at all to something from the ocean makes the reader reminisce about it. This matters because the ocean is something that is considered very beautiful and in turn this indirectly correlates her image with the ocean. Many of these lines compare her to things and yet say that those other things are more beautiful. However, it is often noted that most beauty is found in flaws; such is the way of humanity. For example, if art’s beauty was based on perfection, the perfect human figure, the perfect landscape, there would be a lot less art in museums. As it stands, much of historically beautiful art is flawed. Humans crave flawed humans and objects because we ourselves are flawed. All humans have flaws and yet this is what makes humanity beautiful. Not to mention, it is easier to love something that is flawed. This is because seeing something in its perfection makes one judge themselves. This makes a person compare themselves to this perfection and in doing this, it is not possible to love this object or person as much as one could.
Shakespeare does not want to falsely compare his Dark Lady to anything, and she was most certainly someone he loved. Historically, it is not known whether she was an actual woman or a fictitious character made to be an anti-Petrarch construct. Even so, whether she is or she isn’t, it is obvious that the emotions are still there. In many of his other poems about her, they show extreme emotion, ranging from “taunting compliments” to extreme obsession (Delahoyde). He also used his “Dark Lady” to contradict Petrarch’s “Laura”. Shakespeare wanted to write about a woman who was completely opposite. He wanted to write about someone who was dark and troublesome, with ungoddess-like beauty that could break the stereotype of that perfect woman. Again, Shakespeare felt that love sonnets did not need to portray picturesque women of beauty. He believed that his Dark Lady, with her “dun” complexion and “black wire(s)” hair, should be written about because she feels real. Shakespeare does not show his love for this woman as Petrarch might. Instead of exaggerating about her beauty and the depth of his love, it is as if he was insulting her. Yet in the end, he makes the reader understand that he knows he isn’t in love with a goddess but a mere human being. This is easier for a reader to relate to because this is life. In life, there is no goddesses or the ultimate beauty and perfection. This relates across generations, not just during Shakespeare’s time. There still is no perfect human being and yet we still fall in love. Shakespeare is okay with the fact that his lady love isn’t perfect and he still feels his love is just as strong as any love that Petrarch might have for Laura.
Shakespeare made this poem uncomplicated because he wanted people to understand it. He used the structure of this poem as a way for him to relate it back to life. Shakespeare was influenced by Petrarch because this very close to how a Petrarchan poem is written. However, there are two key differences. Shakespeare uses the Blason to contrast his lady with images that would relate more easily to a woman than otherworldly exaggeration. Instead of falsely comparing her, he says over and over that she is not an otherworldly being. This is important because she is of this world. Something that every person can relate to because people who are in love, are in love with others who are also of this world.
Shakespeare wrote this poem because he wanted to go against the cliché Petrarchan poems of this time. He believed that these poems were over done and that one should not compare their love to something that they are not because it is a lie. He knew that even if a person wrote these things, they could never really be true because it isn’t possible. By writing a poem that contradicted what was normal at the time, Shakespeare wrote poetry that was easier to relate to because the woman portrayed was done in such a manner that she appeared to have more humanistic beauty than otherworldly, unreal beauty.
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“Critical Approaches to Literature.” Critical Approaches to Literature. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Dec. 2012.
Delahoyde, Michael. “Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” Washington State University, n.d. Web. 4 Dec. 2012.
“Petrarch.” Petrarch. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2012.
Shakespeare, William. “My Mistresses’ Eyes Are Nothing like the Sun.” 1609. Literature: Approaches to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. By Robert DiYanni. 2nd ed. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2008. 849. Print.