Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare. A Conventional Romantic Poem?

Term Paper, 2017

13 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Gender and the Role Women

3. A different Way of Representing a Mistress
3.1 Shakespearean Sonnets – Young Man & Dark Lady
3.2 Sonnet 18 compared to Sonnet 130
3.3 Use of Stylistic Devices to clarify the mortality and his love – Sonnet 130

4. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

In the earlier ages, many authors in the Elizabethan period followed the tradition of the famous poet Petrarch, who described a “mistress” as an idealized woman, a beauty a lot of women cannot acquire. The description of a “mistress” was in Petrarch’s love poems similar. A human being with no blemish was presented to the reader. At the end of the Elizabethan Age, the poems about a “mistress” changed. William Shakespeare, a famous actor and writer, began to write various types of plays and sonnets. In contrast from other authors, Shakespeare switched the gender he wanted to praise. For a long time, the readers at this time were used to reading love poems about a “mistress”. Nevertheless, Shakespeare chose to honour a man than a woman. About 26 sonnets, written by Shakespeare, were about a lady with many different characteristics than it was common at his time.

With the help of a specific rhyme scheme in the pattern of the Shakespearean sonnet and various types of stylistic devices, Shakespeare created a completely different image of a “mistress”. His choice of the poetic devices leads the reader to change their perceptions about a perfect and beautiful “mistress”.

2. Gender and the Role Women

The women in the Elizabethan Age was different than it is today. While a woman during the Elizabethan time had the role of a housewife, a woman today goes to work as well. Although England was under the power of a woman, the community did not treat women equally to men (cf. Gajowski, 53).

People, especially men, had the opinion that a woman cannot rule a whole country (cf. Greenblatt, Logan, 359). For them, she does not have the body of a ruler. Different to the previous kings and queens, the people ‘mystically divided her into two bodies’ (Greenblatt/ Logan, 359); body politic as her mortal body and body natural as her immortal body (cf. Greenblatt/ Logan, 359). Her body politic comprised the body she had when she was in public and during her duty as queen. On the other hand, body natural was the body when she was at home and amongst her privacy (cf. Greenblatt, Logan, 359). The idea of body politics and body natural was only applied to the queen and not the other women living in England; they only had a body natural (cf. Greenblatt/ Logan, 359).

Shakespeare had a different point of view. He wrote various types of Sonnets, more than half of which is written about the “Young Man”. The reason for that was not that Shakespeare thought a woman is unworthy to praise or to write Sonnets about. Although ‘England left their impress upon Shakespeare’s mind, as they did upon the Elizabethan people as a whole’ (Hurstfield, 27ff.), he did not split mankind “into the masculine and the feminine” (Dusinberre, 308), “Shakespeare saw men and women as equal in a world which declared them unequal” (Dusinberre, 308). Nevertheless, he decides to write love poems about a man so we can see his “amused and discerning awareness of Petrarchan excess” (Martin, 123). The poet Petrarch used to write Sonnets about a beautiful “mistress” while Shakespeare depicts the “mistress” in his Sonnets negatively, whilst praising the “Young Man”.

This brought a lot of criticism. Many authors thought that Shakespeare’s Sonnets reflected his personal life (cf. Bergeron, 81). Others were confused about the gender switch in his sonnets (cf. Bergeron, 81). Nonetheless, it is said that his sonnets are all fictional and do not tell a personal story (cf. Bergeron, 84).

3. A different Way of Representing a Mistress

3.1 Shakespearean Sonnets – Young Man & Dark Lady

Lots of poets during the Elizabethan Age followed the tradition of Petrarch and wrote love poems about the “mistress” and her beauty (cf. Jones, 12). The “mistress” was represented as a Goddess and an ideal for every woman at that time. The convention of writing love Sonnets about a “mistress” began “by the humanist-poet Petrarch two and a half centuries before” (cf. Jones, 12). Petrarch’s love poems were “written to a woman named Laura” (cf. Jones, 12).

The change came during the 1590’s when Shakespeare wrote his Sonnet cycle with 154 Sonnets. In 1609, Thomas Thorpe published his Sonnets in London (cf. Jones, 11). All theses sonnets are addressed to two different people. According to Thorpe, the Sonnet cycle can be divided into four parts.

The first part of the cycle, sonnet one to 17, is about the procreation of the “Young Man” “so his beauty will repeat itself and endure, and perhaps attain immortality” (cf. Jones, 11). Sonnets 18-126 are poems about love which are also addressed to the “Young Man” (cf. Jones, 11). The change comes in the third part of the sonnet cycle, in Sonnets 127-152. Sonnet 127 is the first poem in the cycle which is addressed to the “Dark Lady” and not anymore to the “Young Man” (cf. Jones, 12).

The “Dark Lady” is shown different to other “mistresses” in other poems. With her dark character, she “arouses lust, fond devotion, enduring love, and bitter hostility in the poet” (cf. Jones, 11). The fourth and last part contains two sonnets which retell a Greek myth. The figure in the myth is a young angelic boy who represents love and “is a strong motif in the sonnets” (cf. Jones, 12).

The distinction between “Young Man” and “Dark Lady” can be seen in two famous Sonnets written by Shakespeare, Sonnet 18 and Sonnet 130.

3.2 Sonnet 18 compared to Sonnet 130

While the poets at this time chose to praise a lady, Shakespeare chose to praise a man instead (cf. Greenblatt, Logan, 539). Sonnet 18 is an optimal example for the description of the “Young Man” while Sonnet 130 is an example for the description of a “mistress”.

Most of the Shakespearean sonnets are written in the same form. Sonnet 18, as well as Sonnet 130 consists of 14 verses. The first twelve verses make up three quatrains with four verses each. The other two verses are the closing couplet. The Sonnet has an end-rhyme, which means that the last word in a verse rhymes with another last word in a different verse. However, there are differences in rhyme scheme between the three quatrains and the closing couplet. While the quatrains have the alternate rhyme, the closing couplet is a rhyming couplet. Alternate rhyme means the last word of the first and third verse rhyme with each other in the same way that the second and fourth verse rhyme (abab cdcd efef). In contrast to that, the closing couplet consists only of two verses which rhyme with each other (gg).

In addition to that, it is noticeable that the metre is iambic pentameter. This type of metre is used by Shakespeare as well as in all of his Sonnets and also sometimes in his plays. The name iambic pentameter consists of the feet and the number of feet in a poem (cf. Nünning, 2014, 58). In Sonnet 130, each verse begins with an unstressed syllable and ends with a stressed one. There is always an alteration between unstressed syllable and stressed syllable. This type of foot is called ‘iamb’ (cf. Nünning, 58). This changing occurs five times, meaning that one verse in this Sonnet has five stresses. The number shows that the metre is a pentameter (cf. Nünning, 58).

The form and the metre of this poem have certain effects on the reader. First of all, it is easier to read a Sonnet when it is divided. For the reader it is less difficult to read and understand a poem with three quatrains and a closing couplet than to read and understand a poem with one stanza à 14 verses. Another thing to mention is that because of the division of the poem in quatrains and couplet, the content is better to understand. This kind of form can be seen in Sonnet 18, as well as in Sonnet 130.

Sonnet 18 begins with the question whether the author should compare the addressee to summer (cf. Sonnet 18, verse 1). It does not become clear whether or not the addressee is a man or a woman. By reading the first verse of the Sonnet, the reader gets the impression that it is a love Sonnet. A summer day can be linked to a nice and beautiful day. The next verse gives the answer to the question. The author describes the addressee as more lovely and constant. He says that the addressee is more beautiful than a nice summer day (cf. Sonnet 18, verse 2).

In the following verse he criticizes such a day by saying that a summer day can also be windy, and it can destroy buds (cf. Sonnet 18, verse 3). Here, the use of adjectives is noticeable. The third verse of the Sonnet contains two adjectives with completely different meanings. ‘Rough’ is used to describe the natural phenomena wind while ‘beloved’ is used to describe buds (cf. Sonnet 18, verse 3). The imagination of a perfect summer day does not contain wind; this is why it is described with a negative sounding adjective. Different to that, buds are common in summer, especially in May; this is why the author uses a positive sounding adjective to describe this. The end of the first quatrain, the fourth verse of the Sonnet, the author begins to criticize the summer directly. It is the first time that he directly lists a negative aspect about the summer without comparing it to something else. He says that the summer is too short and there will come a day marking summer’s end (cf. Sonnet 18, verse 4).

The second quatrain continues with the negative description of summer. The following verses tell the reader that the sun can be too hot (cf. Sonnet 18, verse 5) or it can be annoying if the sun goes beyond the clouds (cf. Sonnet 18, verse 6). The negative perception emphasizes that the speaker is not satisfied with the sun in whatever position it is. Looking at the following verses of the second quatrain, the author states that everything beautiful will lose its beauty and nothing will remain as beautiful as it was before (cf. Sonnet 18, verse 7, 8).

The next quatrain is different to the previous two because here, the author only talks to the addressee. In the first two verses he guarantees that the addressee’s youth and beauty will remain forever (cf. Sonnet 18, verse 9, 10). In the next two verses, he tells him that he will never die. The verses of the Sonnet will make him eternal (cf. Sonnet 18, verse 11, 12). This idea of someone who never loses his beauty or never dies can be connected to the idea that summer and sun is only temporary. The link leads to the thought that the addressee has obtained a higher position than the sun, the largest thing in universe. While there are sunrises and sunsets in the world, the addressee is always there and will never disappear like the sun does at night.

This idea is stressed by the closing couplet in which it says that as long as mankind can read, this poem will live and with this poem, the addressee as well (cf. Sonnet 18, verse 13, 14).

Conspicuous is also the use of personal pronouns in this Sonnet. The lyrical persona only comes up in the first verse of the Sonnet where he asks if he should compare ‘thee’ (Sonnet 18, verse 1) to a summer’s day (cf. Sonnet 18, verse 1).

Having a look at verse 6 of this Sonnet, the personal pronoun ‘his’ is used. Upon first glance, the reader gets the thought that this poem is written to a man. This pronoun is used to characterize the sun which is mentioned in the line before (cf. Sonnet 18, verse 5). The whole poem therefore does not let on who the addressee of this poem could be, however the historical background does.

As mentioned before, the author talks to the addressee in the third quatrain directly. Here he uses ‘thy’ (Sonnet 18, verse 9) and ‘thou’ (Sonnet 18, verse 10, 11, 12) in order to address him. It is noticeable that this is not a conversation but more a monologue because the author talks to the addressee, but he does not respond.

Not only the form but also the use of the stylistic device ‘metaphor’ shows how the “Young Man” is represented in this poem.

The metaphor “By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed” (Sonnet 18, verse 8), signifies the main idea of the poem. In this metaphor, the source domain is gardening, and the target domain is time. The idea is that if someone trims a hedge, something goes away; Death also takes the time away. The life of a person lies in the hands of time, and is wasted away until he dies, but as long as this poem can be read by mankind, the “Young Man” is immortal. The author thus gives the “Young Man” an endless life and emphasizes that his beauty will always be there and never ends.

In contrast to that, Sonnet 130 is written about the “Dark Lady”. This becomes clear upon reading the first verse of the poem, “My mistress” (Sonnet 130, verse 1). According to Martin, this poem is “a clever piece of literature satire” (Martin, 123) as well as “an affirmation of the dark woman’s unconventional yet very real attractiveness” (Martin, 123). The poem is an ironic way to show the Petrachan conventions. In the Elizabethan age, these conventions were used to describe the beauty of a woman. Shakespeare used them to clarify that there are still many things on earth that are more beautiful, and his “mistress” cannot be compared to any of them. The author compares her with several things like the sun and the snow and portray her less beautiful than these things. Reason for this is that his “mistress” is represented as a natural and real woman. As opposed to other poems from this time, she is not a “conventional poetic mistress” (Martin, 78). The main ideas of this Sonnet are that the “mistress” is not a goddess, she is mortal, and she can lose her beauty with the passage of time (cf. Martin, 78). Shakespeare depicts his “mistress” as a real woman and not an immortal one. Throughout the Sonnet, there is a different communicative situation between the addresser and the addressee. In the following verses of the poem, the lyrical persona denotes his experience of what beauty is described to and what his “mistress” does not have. From verse two to twelve, the author compares her external beauty, the beauty which everyone can see. Nevertheless, in verse thirteen and fourteen, he points out that her outer beauty does not matter and that she is not comparable with anything. There is no hint in this Sonnet about where the addresser and the addressee could be situated.

Looking at the personal pronoun “I” (cf. Sonnet 130, verse 5ff), the reader gets the feeling that these comparisons are only seen by the lyrical persona. Only he has the feeling that his “mistress” has nothing in common with the positive things he compares her to.

An important thing to mention is that the lyrical persona always refers to his mistress by “My mistress” (cf. Sonnet 130, verse 1, 8, 12) or with the pronouns “her” (cf. Sonnet 130, verse 2ff, 6, 8) and ‘she’ (cf. Sonnet 130, verse 12). It conveys the impression that the “mistress” does not play an important role in his life.

The change comes in the last verses when the lyrical I calls his mistress as his love (cf. Sonnet 130, verse 13). By calling her “my love” (cf. Sonnet 130, verse 13), the author creates the effect that the “mistress” is matchless for the lyrical I. It highlights her value and special position in his life.

By looking only at the quatrains, one gets the impression that the Sonnet emphasis that everything is much better than the “mistress”. But the closing couplet, which is the ‘turning point’ in this Sonnet, tells us that none of these comparisons in the poem are good enough to capture her beauty.

Apart from the form of the sonnet, the rhyme plays also an important role. The alternate rhyme in the quatrains illustrate the distant between the “mistress” and the lyrical I. As every second verse rhymes, it conveys the idea that everything the lyrical persona compares with the “mistress” stands between him and her. The rhyming couplet at the end of the poem highlights that, although the “mistress” is not as beautiful as the sun, the snow etc. (cf. Sonnet 130 verse 1, 3), she is still exceptional for him and not comparable with anything else (cf. Sonnet 130 verse 13, 14).


Excerpt out of 13 pages


Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare. A Conventional Romantic Poem?
University of Wuppertal
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Shakespeare, Poem, sonnet 130, Sonnet 18, Role of Women, young man, dark Lady
Quote paper
Rashna Jennifer Qadria (Author), 2017, Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare. A Conventional Romantic Poem?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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