Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 is a satire and commentary on other contemporary sonnets in which the subject, generally a woman, is compared to unparalleled beauty. His comment in doing this is that a lover’s beauty is does not need to be explained using comparisons which are so unrealistic that they become absurd. Rather, Shakespeare’s narrator in Sonnet 130 references the his lover in terms which are honest, in order to drive the point that beauty and love do not need to be unrealistic or perfect in order to be significant.
Sonnet 130 opens with the lines “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;/ Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;” which is a direct confrontation with the numerous sonnets which open with fantastic comparisons. Right away, Sonnet 130’s narrator comments not of lack of beauty, but that his lover’s eyes and lips are less vibrant than other natural objects which men enjoy unrealistically comparing women against.
Sonnet 130’s narrator goes on to explain other departures from perfection. If read from the vantage point of someone expecting analogies to beauty which are so unrealistic they may appear surreal, they will invariably find Sonnet 130’s narrator to be harsh. However, if one reads from a realistic perspective, the narrator isn’t commenting on what his love lacks so much as pointing out that typical poetic comparisons are grossly unrealistic. He stipulates that if white is defined by the color of snow, then his lover’s breasts cannot be accurately defined as such; “If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;”, rather, her skin is tanned or even slightly grey. Though this may not seem such a departure from perfection in our modern day, it is important to note that during Shakespeare’s period of history, beauty was in pallor. However, even as this is so, it was naive to believe even the most beautiful women were actually totally pale; many would apply white powder or other types of make up to deceive their viewers.
Likewise, blonde hair was typically valued above darker hues, and soft hair was certainly superior to any other texture. However, hair was still infrequently totally yellow (in many cases women would even bleach their hair) and is not made of clouds or of cashmere. As Shakespeare’s narrator comments “If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.”, or that hair is of a quality which is not totally smooth or soft. In further elaborating upon his lover’s skin, Sonnet 130’s narrator says her cheeks are not rosy “I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,/But no such roses see I in her cheeks;” and that her breath reeks in comparison to perfume; “And in some perfumes is there more delight/Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.” However, as is Shakespeare’s point, it would be ridiculous to expect a woman’s cheeks to match the redness of a rose and strange to assume one’s breath could be superior to a liquid manufactured to mimic the smell of flowers.
As Shakespeare goes on to identify which sort of comparisons he would not draw, it becomes even more clear that he is not insulting his lover rather than demonstrating his point. The narrator of Sonnet 130 says that while he adores his lover’s voice he realizes a symphony creates a superior sound; “I love to hear her speak, yet well I know/ That music hath a far more pleasing sound;”. Furthermore he explains that while he has never personally witnessed a goddess, he knows his lover is not mystical; “I grant I never saw a goddess go;/ My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:”.
Shakespeare’s last lines solidify his thesis. The couplet closing Sonnet 130 reads “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare/ As any she belied with false compare.”, which means that despite his inability to justly compare his lover to objects of more vibrant color and intensity, he believes she is just as significant and lovely as any other woman who has had absurdly unrealistic sonnets written about them.