In Sonnet 130, the speaker, an older man, probably somewhere in his thirties or forties, meditates on the beauty, or the lack thereof, of his mistress, who is known by scholars as the Dark Lady. The speaker is arguing that although his mistress may not have all the standard qualities that are considered beautiful, to him, she is as beautiful as any woman who is highly praised and subjected to false comparisons: he loves her for her own natural beauty.
The speaker develops eight key images concerning his mistress’ appearance in order to make his argument. The first few images, in the first quatrain, focus on her eyes, lips, breasts, and hair. The next few images, in the second quatrain, focus on her cheeks and breath, and the last images, in the third quatrain, focus on her voice and her gait when walking. These images, at first, evoke a reaction of repulsion from the reader, but also help to explore the speaker’s emotional state and his feelings towards his lover.
In the first quatrain, he describes the condition of her eyes, lips, breasts and hair in order to provide an introduction to the unimpressive beauty of his mistress. For the first image, he states, “my mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” (1). Literally, this means that his mistress’ eyes are dull; rather than shining brightly like the sun, they instead sit dully in her head. This image, drawn from nature, is very literal, with very little room for outside interpretation: the speaker is simply stating that his mistress’ eyes are without luster. In developing the next image, he describes her lips: “Coral is far more red than her lips’ red” (2). Again, this is a very literal image, drawn from nature, which simply says that her lips, rather than being red, are pale and wan. In the last two lines of the quatrain, he describes the color and texture of her breasts and hair: “If snow be white, then why her breasts are dun; if hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head” (3-4). He draws from nature for the first image of her breasts, which he describes literally as being grayish rather than white like pure snow, but draws from a more material culture when describing her hair: by using the word “wires,” the speaker evokes an image of long, thick, brittle hairs growing out of the Dark Lady’s head. It is interesting to note that the word “wires” also plays on conventional idealization in Petrarchan poetry: the conventional sonnet mistress is said to have hair of spun gold (N4). Therefore, the speaker’s mistress having black wires instead of spun gold for hair is taking the ideas of standard beauty and mocking them. This image shows that the speaker abhors the standard and impossible ideas of beauty, and also begins the speaker’s argument that he loves his mistress because she is a real woman, rather than a woman with false beauty. The fact that he mentions these flaws without using any words of disgust or displeasure also shows that he doesn’t mind them, and may, in fact, love her because of them. This tone of the speaker seems to say that he is commenting on the fact that women are often given false comparisons: for example, it would be impossible for any woman’s eyes to be exactly like the sun.
The second quatrain focuses on the area around her mouth: her cheeks and her breath. The lines “I have seen roses damasked, red and white; but no such roses see I in her cheeks” (5-6) return the speaker to natural imagery, using a comparison with roses to describe the Dark Lady’s complexion as pale, without any sort of color whatsoever. The word “damasked” actually means two things: “mingled” and “soft and smooth” (N5). When using the word “mingled”, you might imagine a woman’s cheek flushed pink, as though the red and white roses are mingling together to create a pinkish color. It is this image that most people think of when comparing the Dark Lady’s complexion to the roses. However, when using the definition “soft and smooth”, a different image is evoked: that of texture. The pink color of her cheeks is still alluded to by the mention of the red and white roses, but the fact that texture is mentioned could also mean that her cheeks, rather than being soft and smooth, are rough and bumpy. The next two lines state, “And in some perfumes is there more delight than in the breath that from my mistress reeks” (7-8). Starting with the literal image these lines evoke, the speaker is literally saying that her breath leaves something to be desired. The word “reeks”, as used in the sonnet, actually does not mean “smells”; in Shakespeare’s time, it merely meant “emanates” (N8). However, this word complicates the sonnet for modern readers, since we see the word as meaning something different from what it used to mean in Shakespeare’s time. These images amplify the images mentioned in the first quatrain: the speaker is adding on details to continue his description of his mistress’ lack of beauty, and there is a sense that he is simply listing off her flaws in his head.
In the final quatrain, the speaker begins by describing the condition of her voice: “I love to hear her speak; yet well I know that music hath a far more pleasing sound” (9-10). In these lines, the speaker draws on a more cultural image, comparing music to his mistress’ voice. Quite literally, he’s saying that he loves to hear her voice, even though he knows that music is much more pleasant to hear. This line adds on to the speaker’s argument against the standard ideals of beauty: it would be impossible for anyone’s voice to be comparable to music. He is adding on to the fact that he loves her because she is a real woman: although her voice may not be perfect, he still loves to hear it. In the next image the speaker develops, he states, “I grant I never saw a goddess go; my mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground” (11-12). The literal image here is that of his mistress walking with very heavy steps: she is not graceful by any means. However, the phrase “treads on the ground” has another meaning: it also means, “As mortals do” (N12). In other words, the speaker could be talking about her graceless gait when walking, but he could also be commenting on the fact that no, his mistress is not a goddess, and she walks this earth just like any other woman would. These images of her flaws add on to the other images in the last two quatrains, furthering the argument of the speaker that he loves his mistress because she is real and not a highly praised and made up version of a woman.
The setup of this sonnet is very matter of fact and to the point, and it also conveys a sense of a “yes, but” type of argument. The fact that semicolons are used throughout the quatrains indicates that the speaker, in listing his mistress’ flaws, intends to create a whole image of her without stopping: the images all relate to one another in that they convey how she looks and emphasize the speaker’s feelings about her. They also serve the purpose of creating a continual “yes” argument: yes, her hair is wiry, yes, her cheeks are wan, and yes, her eyes are dull, amongst other things. The couplet ties the argument together by resolving the argument set up in the quatrain and creating the “but” argument; the speaker spends the entire sonnet saying “yes”, his mistress has flaws, “but” he thinks “my love as rare as any she belied with false compare” (13-14). Essentially, the speaker is reminding the reader of all her flaws, and adding on the fact that, either because of her flaws or in spite of them, he loves her and finds her beautiful to him. The phrase “and yet” allows the speaker to remind us of all of the Dark Lady’s features that he mentioned in the three quatrains. However, he continues by saying that he finds his mistress as precious as any woman that is “belied”, or misrepresented, with false comparisons, such as her eyes to the sun, her lips to coral, etc. With this last line, we realize that his entire sonnet has been a comment on heaping high praise on women by falsely comparing them to grand things like the sun, roses, coral, etc., when in reality, no woman is naturally like that. The speaker is revealing to us that he loves his mistress for the beauty that nature gave to her, and that she needs nothing more.
Shakespeare, William. Sonnet 130. In The Sonnets. Edited by Stephen Orgel. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2001.
Shakespeare, William. Notes, Sonnet 130. In The Sonnets. Edited by Stephen Orgel, London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2001.
Bevington, David. Notes, Sonnet 130. In Shakespeare, The Poems. Edited by David Bevington. New York: Bantam, 1980.