November 2, 1995
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Or so they say. However, in “Sonnet 130,” written by William Shakespeare, the speaker describes a much different situation. Where a woman’s outer beauty is seen as the perfect pinnacle of Nature, the speaker describes his love as a putrid, ugly hag whom seems to have no understanding of hygiene. Using his wit, Shakespeare has written a very successful sonnet that parodies platonic love and outer beauty. Written in the Shakespearean sonnet form, he develops three arguments that come to the conclusion that love knows no beauty except beauty which sees an inner light.
The first quatrain compares the speaker’s love to Natural beauty. The opening line suggests that her beauty is beyond a comparison of the sun. The reader is mislead in thinking that the mistress has far superior beauty than of any beauty Nature has. In lines two and three the image of perfect beauty is shattered as the mistress’ features are described in further detail, “Coral is far more red than her lip’ red;/ If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun” (Shakespeare 2-3). Here, Nature becomes far more beautiful than the mistress being spoken about. It seems as if nothing about this woman is aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Even her hair is compared to “black wires” that “grow on her head” (4), signifying that the artificial life is more suited for her beauty, but even this artifical beauty is denied.
The next quatrain discusses her beauty in relation to man-made or artificial beauty. Damasked roses, with their painted pink petals are brighter and more cheerful than the roses she wears in her cheeks (5-6). In early literature the comparison of a rose to the red blush of one’s cheeks was commonplace. However, the speaker’s reference to the damasked rose suggests that she is lacking in any good skin color. Going one step further the speaker denies his love any beauty by even describing the smell of her breath. Lines 7 and 8, suggest that there are far more pleasant “perfumes” than the mistress’ breath which “reeks” whenever she speaks.
Shakespeare’s last comparison of the speaker’s mistress is in a comparison between her and the arts and spiritual qualities of that age. “I love to hear her speak, yet well I know/ That music hath a far more pleasing sound,” (9-10) suggests that her voice is harsh and ugly, and very unpleasant. Whereas the ideal woman’s voice is supposed to be equated with light and heavenly tones, he’d rather hear music that is far more pleasing to the ear than listen to her speak. Even the way she moves cannot be compared to a “goddess” whose steps are light and graceful (11-12). At this point the reader has to ask himself, why the speaker is courting this woman? For no man in his right mind would court such a woman with these features.
The point of all this beautiful horror is summed up in the final couplet of the sonnet. It is here the speaker comes to the conclusion that although his object of his desires is not a perfect Natural beauty, what he does find beautiful is the qualities that compose her on the inside. For, he states that his love “as rare/ as any she belied with false compare” (13-14). What the speaker sees as “rare” is not the “belied” outer beauty of his mistress but the rare beauty of the inner light. It does not matter to him that his love “reeks” or has no rose color in her cheeks. What does matter to him is that her loves her for the inside beauty she displays, something which women with outer beauty lacks.
Although the qualities presented in the poem are not truly desirable by any woman, it is in what is not stated that makes this poem so beautiful. Not once does the speaker state that his love for this woman comes from within, but it is inferred from the picture that Shakespeare has painted. She may not have all these things described in the poem but the speaker will continue to love her for what she does have- on the inside. Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130” and it’s theme of inner beauty surpassing even the most horrid of looks, becomes a fairy tale for some women. To these women whom outer beauty has been denied, this poem is seen as an emblem of hope buried in the eyes of one who looks beyond the outer shell of a person. For beauty is in the eye of the beholder, only if the eye can surpass the looks of an individual and see straight into the true beauty that lies within the heart.