How would you compare the speaker of "Sonnet 130" and his feelings about love with Romeo and his?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It is an interesting challenge to compare two men’s feelings about love when both are written by the same author, William Shakespeare, and one of the two examples represents the playwright’s more playful or comical side while the other is drawn from one of his best-known tragedies, Romeo and Juliet.  "Sonnet 130" is universally recognized as a satirical contribution to literature designed to mock the love sonnets of those who came before him, mainly Francesco Petrarca, the 14th Century Italian poet.  Whereas one would normally approach a sonnet with the expectation of heart-felt ruminations regarding lost or unattainable love, Sonnet 130 clearly demonstrates the author’s attempt to satirize the concept of a love sonnet.  Towards that end, his “narrator” describes his mistress with less than tantalizing or complimentary phrases:

“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.”

As “dun” has been commonly translated as “dull greyish brown,” or some such derogatory shade of color, the use of such a word to describe a feminine feature more commonly described as “milky white” illustrates the depths to which Shakespeare was willing to sink to denigrate “my mistress.”  Contrast that approach with the sincerely heart-felt descriptions provided by the playwright in Romeo and Juliet, the tragedy involving the love between a doomed pair of teenagers.  In Act I, Scene i of the play, Romeo is depressed.  His unrequited love for Rosaline – about whom he laments her commitment to virtue with the comment “She is too fair, too wise, wisely too fair, To merit bliss by making me despair: She hath forsworn to love, and in that vow Do I live dead that live to tell it now” – results in his and his cousin Benvolio’s decision to crash the Capulet’s formal ball, during which he spots Juliet.  His instant affection for Juliet is evident his description of the young woman:

“O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!  It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear; Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!  So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows, As yonder lady o’er her fellows shows.  The measure done, I’ll watch her place of stand, And, touching hers, make blessed my rude hand.  Did my heart love till now? forswear it, sight!  For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.”

Shakespeare’s description of Juliet, as observed through the character of Romeo, is clearly intended to convey the more traditional form of physical beauty that one would expect from a love story, especially one involving competing clans that present an insurmountable obstacle to that love.  It’s contrast with the description of the mistress in "Sonnet 130" could not be more apparent.  To reiterate, contrast the following description of the mistress’ breath – “And in some perfumes is there more delight Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks”– with the description of Juliet uttered by the love-struck Romeo: “beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear.” 

Clearly, the sentiments represented in the sonnet and the play are vastly different.  In the case of "Sonnet 130," the narrator is hardly enamored of his love interest, and his description conveys contempt for her physical appearance and personal hygiene, yet he apparently values her availability.  In the case of Romeo’s attraction to the fair Juliet, the description he provides and the depth of his love that becomes apparent as the play progresses bespeaks the finest sentiments of mankind.  The two men are at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to true romance. 

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Shakespeare's Sonnets, there is a progression of maturity in the persona of the lover as at first he is the selfish young man who views love in the vortex of his own rushing feelings. But, by the time Sonnet CXXX is reached, the lover is older and more mature and finds that physical beauty is not paramount in real love. Much more realistic is this antimetaphoric lover who rejects the traditional Petrarchan form, admitting that his love is not beautiful yet he is endeared to her anyway--

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--

than is the idealistic, metaphoric, and infatuated Romeo who employs the forms of courtly love in speaking of his nascent passion for young Juliet, whom he has known for less than a day and perceives her as some ethereal being:

But soft!  What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou her maid art far more fair than she....

See how she leans her cheek upon her hand!
Oh, that I were a glove upon that hand,
That I might touch that cheek! (2.2.2-23)

Certainly, Romeo's perception of love is as a "violent delight," as Friar Laurence calls it, from an impetuous and idealistic youth, while the speaker of Sonnet CXXX, who subjects beauty and love to deductive reasoning, is a mature, rational man without illusion and violent passions.

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Romeo and Juliet

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