Sonnets for Advent 21: Sonnet 130

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In this single poem Shakespeare turns the entire Petrarchan tradition on its head. Instead of praising an unobtainable beauty in romantic and conventional ways, Shakespeare looks beyond surface appearances to what’s really there in the person he loves. Her eyes are not full of sunlight, neither are her lips the best shade of red; her breasts are brown rather than snowy white, and she has thick, wiry, black hair. She doesn’t have roses in her cheeks and her breath does not smell of perfume; when she speaks he doesn’t hear music; she is not in any way like a goddess. Through this via negativa we are encouraged to imagine the mistress treading simply on the ground – and yet, at the same time, she is above all the other women who poets write about in artificial ways. I wonder what the reaction would be if we turned to the person we loved and spoke honestly about all the attributes they don’t have?

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 damasked, 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.

Click on the post below to hear Sonnet 130 read by Richard O’Brien, a poet and student on the Shakespeare and Creativity course at The Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham.

You might like to visit a similar Shakespeare for Advent project led by students at the University of Tubingen by clicking here.

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
  • Andrea Campana

    Sonnet 130 is about the Virgin Mary in comparison with “ordinary women.” The poem addresses the evils of lavish praise bestowed by an obsequious court on a corrupt monarch, who compares herself with the Virgin Mary and inspires a moon goddess cult following, while her Protestant ministers denigrate the Madonna. The sonnet uses irony and operates on two levels to reflect how Protestants and Catholics alike disparaged the Virgin Mary’s comparison to other women. Protestants pointed to the lack of scriptural basis for the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, while the Jesuit John Floyd and other Catholic theologians claimed the birth of Jesus without the physical traumas suffered by “ordinary” women distinguished Mary as a woman not descended from Eve. Protestants attempted to deflate an image of Mary they felt was overblown and to discredit her perceived dominance over Jesus, saying she was no better than other women, while offended Catholics pointed out that other women included “strumpets.” Sonnet 130 is a mock censure of the Virgin Mary written as a parody. Through the false denigration of the speaker’s true mistress, the Virgin Mary, Sonnet 130 mockingly imitates Protestant preachers who had compared her to ordinary women. At the same time, the sonnet denigrates the virgin cult of the Queen and the false comparison of Elizabeth to a goddess. The word “goddess” in the poem confirms this intent. Also, importantly, Rosary beads of the upper echelons of Catholic society were made from precious coral, while the “black wires” mentioned in the poem allude to the cult of Mary’s hair during the medieval and early modern periods.

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