In ‘Sonnet 130’, Shakespeare parodies other sonnets and Petrarchan blazons of feminine physical beauty. The figurative language used throughout this sonnet speaks to the reader on a multitude of levels. We as readers arbitrarily choose the connotations we wish to apply to create meaning relevant to us as the audience. Up to the point of the turn in the sonnet, it can be read that Shakespeare does not even like the physical appearance of his mistress. Conversely, it could be read that the poet is in fact praising the attributes of his mistress, masking his praise in negative imagery to prove the truth that Shakespeare conveys within the turn: that a woman can be beautiful and described as such, without using verbose, unrealistic imagery and language. Helen Vendler states that ‘[this] mock-blazon pretends to be a denigration, but is in fact a defence of the woman as she is, as rare as any’ (556). This essay will apply the connotations that Shakespeare was in fact praising his mistress throughout the sonnet, not just within the turn, while veiling this praise in figurative language and negative imagery. This disastrous love poem becomes profound and realistic as Shakespeare rejects the unrealistic conventions of the day.
Shakespeare begins ‘Sonnet 130’ with a dissimile: ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’ (line 1). The sun has many attributes that the reader could impose here. The sun provides essential nourishment for life. In ‘Sonnet 18’ Shakespeare poses the question ‘Shall I compare thee to a Summers day?’ (line 1) but rejects that comparison, reasoning that ‘too hot the eye of heaven shines’ (line 5). As well as the sun being too hot, the effects of the sun are diminished both at night, and behind clouds. Shakespeare admits this fact in ‘Sonnet 148’: ‘The sun itself sees not till heaven clears’ (line 12). Within the denotation that her eyes are nothing like the sun, lies the possible connotation that the attributes of her eyes supersedes the attributes of the sun. Her stare is not scathing, it does not burn. Her gaze is omniscient, not transient like the setting sun, thus, the nourishment gained from her watchful eye is ever present and ever shining unlike the diminished effects of the sun’s light at night or behind cloud.
The five lines that follow introduce the reader to the many colours of the mistress. Elizabeth D. Harvey notes that ‘The mistress’s color, [is] a surface expression of her beauty and her inner condition that makes her legible not only to the lover but to all who might choose to gaze upon her’ (324). Superficially, Shakespeare lists what appears to be less than attractive physical attributes. He outlines them as the world is free to see them. Her lips aren’t red like coral, her breasts aren’t white like snow, her hair is black wires, and her cheeks are not damasked. Had Shakespeare not been parodying the hyperbolic sonnet conventions of the day, he would have applied metaphors and similes to express the beauty of his mistress. On closer analysis, and by the interpretation of the figurative language Shakespeare employs, the reader can choose to apply connotations of beauty and praise.
Coral, while beautiful can inflict great injury on coral harvesters or swimmers. Shakespeare may be alluding here to the red colour of blood that is spilled when coral inflicts injury. The denotation is that the lips of the mistress are not as colourful or red as coral, denoting a lack of physical beauty, and the connotation may be that the lips of the mistress do not inflict injury. Her lips are not stained with the blood of others spilled by harsh words. Shakespeare uses litotes to emphasise the lack of redness in his mistress lips in the same way he references the lack of whiteness of her breasts.
Snow is the vehicle of the failed metaphor in line three, Shakespeare draws attention to snow being white and then poses the contrast of the mistress’s breasts being dun, or ‘dingy brown’ (Burrow 640). Johnathan Bate notes that ‘fairness was regarded as synonymous with aristocratic and courtly elevation, darkness with low origins’ (56). White is a sign of class, wealth, purity and innocence. A sign that the wearer of this white skin, does not have to labour outdoors for their living. John Kerrigan states that the ‘snowiness of skin [was]… commonplace’ (359); however, this mistress is not commonplace, she is ‘rare’ (line 13) as is the love between poet and tenor. In Helen Vendler’s analysis of ‘Sonnet 127’, ‘the first poem to address her color explicitly’ (Hunt 369), she poses that Shakespeare ‘disposes of other candidates for his approval by saying sophistically that in these days of cosmetic alteration one can no longer tell which are true beauties and which are false beauties, made so by art’ (541). The mistress is beautiful in all her natural glory. She does not require the white ‘cosmetic painting’ (Harvey 324) of court to make her beautiful.
It was common practice to weave golden strands of thread, or wire of brass, copper, iron or gold within a lady’s hair, and these wires ‘could not be black unless tarnished’ (Burrow 640). Though the wire is of value – being ‘gold, iron, brass or copper’ (Burrow 640), it is tarnished and imperfect. The denotation is that her hair is not shiny, smooth or soft. The connotation is that though the wire is tarnished, value lies beneath the tarnish of daily life and the scars of living. Kerrigan notes that these lines ‘instead of rejecting a cliché outright, it accepts it only to expose its absurdity by invoking the mistress’s dark beauty’ (359).
While the Kerrigan says that Shakespeare ‘exploits a confusion in the history of the word “damasked”’ (359), the Oxford English Dictionary notes that the meaning of damasked at the time of Shakespeare was ‘[o]f silk, fine linen, and other fabrics: Woven with richly-figured designs’. The softness of silk and fine linen are appropriate comparisons to a woman’s cheek. However, the poet does not see the beauty of intricately embroidered roses within her cheeks. The lack of these roses denotes a lack of beauty; however, roses also have attributes that would do a disservice to dwell in the cheeks of a woman. This mistress lacks thorns, or prickly words. She is not fragile. The lack of these attributes, along with the unchanging (red to white) colour in the mistress cheek connotes an even temperament, neither hot nor cold, angry nor indifferent. She is even keeled.
The poet’s commentary moves on from physical colours to the mistress’s breath, her voice and the way she walks. The denotation and metaphor in line seven and eight is rather harsh, implying that the breath of the mistress reeks. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests many uses for the word reek over time and Kerrigan concurs, that ‘the modern connotations are distracting; reeks was more neutral than offensive for early readers, close to “emanates” or “exhales”’ (360). Admittedly, some perfumes have a more pleasing smell, but therein lies the possibility, that she does actually exude a sweeter smell than other perfumes.
Shakespeare, finally, offers a compliment; yet follows up drawing the reader straight back to reality, that no, the sound of her voice, is not more pleasing than the sound of music. Vendler provides comforting criticism, she states that ‘the fact that music is said to be far more pleasing than her speech (or anyone’s speech) need not be thought of as a criticism. Speech cannot rival the aesthetic power of music, nor can anyone walk like a goddess’ (557). Shakespeare lays out the original denotation that the voice of his mistress is unpleasant, however, as the reader considers the reality of that statement, there is no argument with negative connotation that could prove this statement false. The same is to be said about the manner in which this mistress walks. Vendler suggests that here the ‘hierarchizing reaches its humorous climax: “Personally I’ve never set eyes in a goddess, unlike your privileged self. You say your mistress glides like a goddess; well my mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground”’ (557).
Shakespeare concludes this sonnet with a rhyming couplet in which he conveys the truth, that true love is rare. Just as the mistress is described as a temperate woman, neither hot nor cold, red nor white, Shakespeare tempers his praise of her refusing to subscribe to the hyperbolic conventions of Petrarchan and other contemporary love poetry. Vendler notes that such verbose praise ‘can be preposterous when called to the bench of accuracy’ (557). She does not need to be ‘belied with false compare’ (line 14).
From a purely physical blazon, and through the interpretation of figurative language, we gain a realistic insight into the temperament and nature of this mistress. Admittedly, the actual reality remains ambiguous as, through the guise of figurative language, the reader is left to apply the connotations of their choice and current mind-set.
“Damasked”. Oxford English Dictionary. Print.
“Reek”. Oxford English Dictionary. Print.
Bate, Jonathan. The Genius of Shakespeare. London: Picador, 1997. Print.
Hunt, Marvin. “Be Dark but Not Too Dark”. Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Critical Essays. Ed. James Schiffer. New York: Garland, 2010. pp. 370-389. Print.
Harvey, Elizabeth D. “Flesh Colors and Shakespeare’s Sonnets”. A Companion to Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Ed. Michael C. Schoenfeldt. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007. pp. 314-328. Print.
Shakespeare, William. The Complete Sonnets and Poems. Ed. Colin Burrow. Oxford: OUP, 2008. Print.
Shakespeare, William. The Sonnets and A Lover’s Complaint. Ed. John Kerrigan. London: Penguin, 1999. Print.
Vendler, Helen. The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1998. Print.
 Harvey also notes the important consideration of humours, their representation by colours, and the impact that interpretation of colours may offer to this sonnet (324). I have not engaged with this criticism due to a limited word count.