An Analysis of Shakespeare's Sonnet 130. The concept of love and beauty

Hausarbeit, 2017

10 Seiten, Note: 2,0



Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Analysis of Sonnet 130
2.1 Analysis of the form
2.2 Analysis of the Content

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Love Sonnets have a long tradition in English literature. The Italian poet Petrach, who is considered the father of the sonnet form, was the first one to invent a concept of love in sonnets that should influence many writers throughout English literature. In his sonnets, Petrarch praises his beautiful, godlike mistress Laura, who is utterly perfect on the inside and on the outside. Some of the greatest English poets, like Spenser and Shakespeare wrote sonnets after Petrach’s model. However, Shakespeare uses the Petrarchan conventions in a radically different way. Not only are a great number of his sonnets presumably about a relationship about two man, but also does he write about a ‘Dark Lady’ (Pfister 111). “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” is the first line of Shakespeare sonnet 130, with which this term paper will be concerned. Sonnet 130 was written by William Shakespeare in 1609. From his collection of 154 sonnets, Sonnet 130 is one of his most famous. The term paper will examine, in what ways and in how far Shakespeare was influenced by Petrach and how he changes the Petrachan concept of love in sonnet 130.

In order to do so, firstly, the form of the poem will be analysed. Subsequently, the content and the theme of the poem will be examined further. Here, special attention is turned on the concept of love and beauty regarding the context of the history of the love sonnet and a short comparison will be drawn between Spenser’s Sonnet 15 and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130. The conclusion will bring form and content together and verify the working hypothesis of this term paper.

2. Analysis of Sonnet 130

In the following, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 will be analysed, regarding its form and its content. Firstly, the poem’s form, especially its communicative situation, its external form, its metre and rhyme scheme and its rhetorical devices will be examined. In the second part of this chapter, the content of the poem, with special attention to the concept of beauty in the context of the history of the traditional love sonnet, will be analysed.

2.1 Analysis of the form

The ‘lyric persona’, which is not to be equated with the historical author, refers to the fictive speaker or the voice in the poem. The ‘lyric persona’, also called ‘lyric I’, can appear overtly or covertly. Whenever a fictive speaker appears overtly and is therefore clearly perceptible, present and more or less individualised, the term ‘explicit subjectivity’ is used. By contrast, ‘implicit subjectivity’ describes a lyric persona that does not appear overtly (Nünning 53f.). In Sonnet 130, the ‘lyric persona’ appears overtly, the speaker is clearly perceptible since it refers repetitively to him- or herself in the first person singular “I” (e.g. ll. 5, 6, 13). Furthermore, the deictic expression “my” is used several times (e.g. ll. 1, 13). The occurrence of explicit subjectivity has the effect that the ‘lyric I’ is able to communicate and self-express his or her thoughts and feelings. Similar to the concept of the ‘lyric persona’, a distinction has to be made between the real reader and the fictive addressee of a poem. The fictive addressee is called the ‘lyric thou’ and it can also appear explicitly or implicitly (Nünning 54). In Shakespeare’s example, an overt ‘lyric thou’ does not occur. There is no occurrence of forms of address or personal pronouns referring to the second person singular or plural.

The relationship between the speaker and the subject matter can be analysed by looking at the choice of words in the poem. The ‘lyric I’ speaks of a woman that he calls “his mistress” (ll. 1, 12). He refers to her by using the deictic expression “her” (e.g. ll. 2, 9) and the personal pronoun “she” (ll. 12, 14). By looking at the concept of isotopy, it is striking that the fictive speaker talks about the woman’s appearance; for instance her eyes (l. 1), her lips (l. 2) and the way she walks (l. 12) and compares it to different objects, i.a. to concepts of nature (e.g. l. 1 “the sun”, l. 6. “roses”).

Next, the external form, the rhyme scheme and the metre of the poem will be analysed. Sonnet 130 consists of 14 lines. It is a traditional English love sonnet, which is divided into three quatrains and a concluding heroic couplet in the end. The poem consists of external rhymes. Its rhyme scheme has the form abab cdcd efef gg. In the three quatrains, alternate rhymes are used. The heroic couplet consists of a rhyming couplet. The metre used in Sonnet 130 is an iambic pentameter. As well as the external form of Sonnet 130, it is typical for the traditional English love sonnet. The poem consists of ‘end-stopped lines” since “the ends of the lines corresponds to a break in the syntax” (Nünning 59). In summary, it can be said that the form of the sonnet corresponds in every way to the traditional form of the English love sonnet. Next to the communicative situation and the structure of a poem, the rhetorical devices are to be analysed. In Sonnet 130, it is striking that Shakespeare uses many similes and much imagery. In line 1, Shakespeare uses a negative comparison, saying that his “mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”. He compares the woman’s eyes to the sun, however, in opposition to what the reader might expect from a love sonnet, he states that her eyes are not like the sun. In line 2, Shakespeare uses again a simile, pointing out that her lips are not as red as coral. Next, Shakespeare includes the image of white snow. The white colour traditionally symbolizes purity and innocence. Shakespeare compares the image of white snow to the woman’s breast, which are “dun” (l. 3), a greyish-brown colour. The image implicates that the mistress is the opposite of being innocent and pure. The next line contains a metaphor (“l. 4: “If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head”). In order to analyses a metaphor, the ‘source domain’ which is the original semantic field, from which the ‘vehicle’ is taken, and the actual referent, the ‘tenor” which is situated in the ‘target domain’ (Nünning 68), has to be identified. In line 4 of Shakespeare’s sonnet, the ‘vehicle’ are the wires, which are referred to the woman’s hair, the ‘tenor’. The metaphor immediately draws a picture of the woman’s hair in the readers’ heads. The next images are expanded to two lines. In lines 5 and 6, Shakespeare states that the colour of her cheeks is not like the colour of roses, which is again a negative simile. The woman’s breath “reeks” (ll. 7 and 8) and her voice is not as pleasing as music (ll. 9 and 10). However, the ‘lyric I’ says that it likes the sound of her voice, which is the only positive statement about her appearance throughout the poem. In line 10, the ‘lyric persona’ “grants [that he] never saw a goddess go”. The alliteration (grants, goddess, go) underlines the smooth and fluent walk of the goddess. By contrast, the mistress “treads on the ground” (l. 12). Moreover, comparing a woman’s walk to a goddess is a hyperbolic use of language. To sum up the rhetorical devices used in Sonnet 130, it can be said that Shakespeare uses many different and strong imageries for one extended argument. Every line and every device included supports the author’s line of argumentation.

2.2 Analysis of the content

Having analysed the rhetorical devices used in Sonnet 130, it is striking that Shakespeare compares the mistress of the ‘lyric I’ to traditional conventions of love poetry. In Shakespeare’s time, most sonnets were written after the model of Petrach, an Italian scholar and poet, who is considered the father of the sonnet form. His sonnets are about the beauty of the idealized, virtuous ‘Sonnet Lady’ Laura, who is both perfectly beautiful on the inside and outside. Typical for a traditional ‘Sonnet Lady’ is that she has golden hair, white skin, red lips and blue eyes. Her outside beauty mirrors her virtues and she is depicted as the ideal woman or even as a goddess. In order to show the perfection of the beloved lady, it was common to make comparisons between her and nature. Furthermore, the beloved ‘Sonnet Lady’ is always unattainable for the ‘lyric I’. The Petrachan concept of love and the metaphors and similes he used in his poems had already become clichés in Shakespeare’s times (Schabert 125, Pfister 105).

In Sonnet 130, Shakespeare changes the traditional concept. While the typical ‘Sonnet Lady’ typically has perfect red lips, Shakespeare’s mistress’ lips are far away from coral red (l. 2). The hair of a beautiful mistress traditionally is golden, the hair of Shakespeare’s mistress is compared to black wires (l. 4), which illustrate the opposite of golden, smooth and silky hair. The skin of the traditional ‘Sonnet Lady’ is white, the skin of Shakespeare’s mistress is “dun” (l. 3). The eyes of a woman should shine like the sun, however, the eyes of Shakespeare’s mistress “are nothing like the sun” (l. 1). Furthermore, the ‘Sonnet Lady’ is often depicted as a goddess, which explains the comparison with the godlike, smoothly walks. The mistress of the ‘lyric I’ in Sonnet 130 “treads on the ground” (l. 12) and is therefore not a goddess at all.

A direct comparison can be made with Edmund Spenser’s Sonnet 15 from Amoretti and Epithalamion written in 1595. Spenser, like Petrarch, praises his lady in this poem. Sonnet 15 says: “if gold, her locks are finest gold on ground” (l. 11). The golden hair fits the cliché. Shakespeare’s lady has the opposite of shining, golden hair, namely “black wires” (l. 4).


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An Analysis of Shakespeare's Sonnet 130. The concept of love and beauty
Bergische Universität Wuppertal  (Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Introduction to Literary Studies
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
511 KB
Sonnet Shakespeare Literary Studies
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Anonym, 2017, An Analysis of Shakespeare's Sonnet 130. The concept of love and beauty, München, GRIN Verlag,


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