In Shakespeare's sonnet 130, "My Mistress' Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun," how can the theme of gender roles be identified?

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Gender is obviously a significant issue in William Shakespeare’s sonnet 130 (“My misstress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”). Gender roles are important to the poem in a number of different ways, including the following:

  • Line 1 refers to the mistress as if she belongs to the speaker, thus implying his greater power in their relationship and in their society.
  • Beginning in line 1 and throughout much of the rest of the poem, the speaker mocks the kind of hyperbolical praise that previous male poets had routinely offered their own mistresses. In a sense, then, this male poet challenges other men, even as he suggests that most women do not really deserve the kind of exaggerated praise they traditionally receive. The speaker of this poem, therefore, carves out a special niche for himself: he is a male poet who will speak truthfully both about women and about other men.
  • Throughout much of the poem, the speaker focuses on the lady’s body and her various physical attributes – the kind of focus that was (and still is) typical of many males when evaluating females.
  • By claiming that he praises his mistress honestly and realistically, rather than holding her to an impossibly (even ridiculously) high standard of evaluation, the speaker may seek to make his poem appealing to women who are weary of being praised in unrealistically stereotypical ways.
  • By claiming that he praises his mistress honestly and realistically, the poet may win the approval of other male poets who themselves have grown tired of stale conventions in the writing of love poetry.
  • By tackling a conventional subject with such obvious wit and good humor, the speaker implies his self-confidence in any number of ways – a fact that might make him appealing to women as well as to his poetic competitors.
  • Although this speaker occupies the conventional position of the male spectator who directs his “gaze” at his mistress, he jokes about the position and has fun with it. He fails to take it seriously – or at least not completely seriously. He thus plays the stereotypical role of the assertive, cocky male.
  • At the same time, the speaker also combines his cockiness with apparent sincerity and gentleness in the poem’s concluding couplet:

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare

As any she belied with false compare.



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