The Bard in the Sonnet


Last week it was my birthday. (Yay! Happy birthday to me!) One of my presents was The Arden Dictionary of Shakespeare Quotations gifted to me by a dear friend. My fascination with the Bard is no secret; my inner nerd leapt at the chance to leaf through this treasured latest addition to my collection.

Shakespeare was a genius. The wordsmith had an uncanny ability to express the inexpressible in the most magical way. Though, I can never decide which of his works I like the best, one of my undeniable favorites is “Sonnet 130”:

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 damask’d, 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.

Here’s a little background: Originally created in Italy and most famously used by the Italian poet Petrarch (who gave us the Petrarchan sonnet), sonnets were a popular form of poetry during the Renaissance. Like many English poets, Shakespeare appropriated the form and created his own version, the Shakespearean (or English) sonnet. The sonnet follows a strict form. It is written in iambic pentameter and consists of 14 lines, the last two of which form a rhyming couplet. Traditionally, the persona (the voice of the poet) of the sonnet is in love with an unattainable idealized lady which he describes in detail according to the convention of the time.

Sonnets are beautiful and musical poetry. Among other issues, sonnets also present the standards of beauty for women at the time, standards that are impossible to reach and cruel to aspire to (that sounds awfully familiar…).

For me “Sonnet 130” is perhaps the most characteristic of Shakespeare. The reason I like it so much is because it takes all these conventions and carefully deconstructs them one by one within the convention itself! It manages to be funny, beautiful and insightful as well as undermine a whole establishment at the same time. In a creative, comical and satiric way Shakespeare deconstructs the idealized version of the Renaissance lady by presenting a real woman as the subject of the poem. As per the convention, the beloved is still broken up into body parts (eyes, lips, cheeks, hair etc.), but these parts are still more real than any part of the idealized beloved of the traditional sonnet.

The point the sonnet tries to make is revealed in the volta (the turn between the rest of the poem and the last two lines in the Shakespearean sonnet), where the persona declares that, although his beloved is not perfect and is as far from the conventional beauty as can be, his love for her is as real as she is. Shakespeare takes the form of the ultimate expression of love of his time and reveals it to be hollow. One cannot love what does not exist; all the beloved ladies of the sonnets are so perfect and idealized, they cannot possibly be real.

Love, of any kind, be it romantic love, brotherly/sisterly love, the love shared by close friends or the love a parent shows his/her child, is unconditional. Love means acceptance. Loving someone for who they are and not seeking to change them. Loving someone despite their flaws, but also because of them. Or as the Bard himself wrote in “Sonnet 116”:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

And because poetry is meant to be recited, I will leave you with Tom Hiddleston’s version of “Sonnet 130”.


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