Shakespeare's Sonnets (130 & 138)
What is a sonnet?
The sonnet is unique among the poetic forms that originated in Western Europe and remained popular through the centuries. The word sonnet had originated from the Italian word “sonnetto” which means little song. It follows a conventional rhyme scheme. Apart from the different themes addressed by the sonnets the most common theme was love. Basically these sonnets were to praise the beauty of a real or imaginary woman. Two major types of sonnets exist; Italian or Petrarchan sonnets and Shakespearian or English sonnets. Italian sonnet has fourteen lines and it consists of two parts, an octave (eight lines) with a rhyme scheme of abbaabba and a sestet (six lines) with a rhyme scheme of cdecdc or cdcdcd. And Shakespearean sonnets too have fourteen lines with three quatrains followed by a couplet with a rhyme scheme of ababcdcdefefgg. The sonnet was introduced to English poetry in sixteenth century by Thomas Wyatt and Earl of Surrey. Shakespearian SonnetsShakespeare was born in 1564. When he was 18, he married a lady called Anne Haththaway and she was 26 years older than him. Within about one and half years he had three children. He disgusted at love and marriage and went to London. He stayed there for seven years and during that time he wrote 154 sonnets. They were called sequence of sonnets. It was a fashion for poets at that time to write 154 sonnets. He died in 1616. Most of these sonnets reflect on his personnel life. Commenting on his sonnets William Wordsworth said “with this key Shakespeare unlocked his heart.” Shakespeare used original Elizabethan spellings. His ‘u’ and ‘v’ were interchangeable.
Sonnet 130- My Mistress’ Eyes Are Nothing Like The Sun.
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare As any she belied with false compare.
The sonnet 130 can be taken as a sonnet that satirizes the conventional sonnets at that time where the poets praised the beauty of the woman by idealizing her as a goddess. The sonnet 130 is an exposition of a dark lady and it rejects the conventional exaggerations of love poetry. In brief the poem seems shocking for the readers who want to see women as dainty and idealized creatures, but to the readers who get attracted by real and tangible flesh and blood, the image will be more persuasive. In this poem the readers can see how Shakespeare had identified his lady (the dark lady of the sonnet) as an ordinary woman and a woman with normal human frailties and not a goddess. He creates a realistic picture of the lady by using different comparisons that contrast with the ordinary conventional comparisons.
Beauty of the lady Conventional comparison Poet’s view
Her eyes Like sun Nothing like sun
Her lips Red colour Can have objects redder than her lips
Her hair Threads of gold Black wires
Her cheeks Red roses No roses on her cheeks
When she breaths like perfume Can have more perfume
Words she speaks Music hard words
When she walks Waft like air Down to earth
The above mentioned realistic factors are what Shakespeare shows through his sonnet 130. According to those he praised the dark lady while mentioning her as an ordinary woman with human frailties. So in brief the sonnet 130 can be taken as a satire. Furthermore the poem questions the stereotypical idea of beauty while satirizing the idealizing and idolizing of the beloved commonly found in love sonnets. Apart from these the sincerity of love despite the absence of conventional beauty can be taken as the major theme of the poem. To emphasize more his idea he has used some of clichéd imagery like eyes like sun etc, but overturns the cliché at the end.
Sonnet 138 – When My Love Swears That She Is Made Of Truth.
When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutor’d youth,
Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false speaking tongue:
On both sides thus is simple truth suppress’d.
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O, love’s best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years told:
Therefore I lie with her and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flatter’d be.
Shakespeare’s sonnet 138 too originates from his love for the dark lady. The poet candidly reveals both the nature of his relationship with the dark lady and the insecurities he has about growing older. He is deadly afraid of his old age. So according to him when his mistress swears that she is completely truthful, he believes her even though he knows she lies. So that the poet believes that the woman will think that he is a naïve young man who is ignorant about the world and the tricks people play. He pretends that he stupidly believes her lies while fooling himself into thinking that she thinks that he is young even though she knows that he is passing his prime. Next he concludes his idea by questioning that both he and his beloved suppress the simple truth but why does not she says that she is a liar. And why does not he say that he is old? And the conclusion is that the old people who are in love hate to hear their age. Therefore he sleeps with her and she sleeps with him and both flatter themselves by lying about each other’s faults.
As techniques Shakespeare has used punning words/ or the words with different meanings. For example the word lie can mean telling untruth to deceive oneself or lie with a partner to have sex. And also the homonym made/maid (virgin) and the word vainly can mean vanity as well as futility of foolishly believing his false speaking beloved. The nature of truth and flattery in romantic relationships and the divergence between appearance and reality can be taken as themes of the sonnet 138.