How might one interpret Shakespeare's Sonnet 131 ("Thou art as tyrannous, so as thou art")?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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William Shakespeare’s sonnet 131 might be interpreted as follows:

  • The woman whom the speaker addresses has tyrannical control over the speaker, even appearing as she does (“so as thou art” [1]). This last phrase implies that the woman is not attractive in any typical or conventional way, but she is attractive to the speaker nonetheless.
  • The woman has as much control over the speaker as do those women whose physical attractiveness leads them to treat men cruelly because of their pride. (The stereotype of the woman whose cruelty derives from pride in her beauty is a common one in love sonnets of this period.)
  • The woman knows that the speaker, in his devoted heart, considers her to be “the fairest and most precious jewel” (3).
  • The speaker has to be honest and say that some people who behold the woman do not believe she is beautiful enough to inspire the pains associated with love.
  • The speaker will not be so bold as to contradict these people by telling them that they are mistaken, even though he privately swears that they are indeed mistaken.
  • As confirmation that the speaker’s private opinion is correct, the speaker reports that he groans a thousand times when he thinks about the woman’s face. These groans, which follow one another in rapid succession (“One on another’s neck”) testify to the fact that the speaker considers this woman’s dark complexion the most beautiful complexion, at least in his opinion.
  • There is no way in which this woman is deeply dark except in her actions, her deeds, and her black deeds are probably the reason that people criticize her physical appearance:

In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds, 
And thence this slander, as I think, proceeds. (13-14)

This poem is intriguing for a number of reasons, including the following:

  • The speakers in many earlier sonnets by other writers (such as Petrarch) had praised the physical beauty of women with blonde hair and light complexions. The speaker of Shakespeare’s sonnet unconventionally praises a woman with dark hair and a dark complexion.
  • Few speakers in earlier sonnets by other writers would have told their mistresses that other people considered their mistresses physically unattractive. The fact that Shakespeare’s speaker is willing to do so suggests both his honesty and his independence.
  • The beautiful blonde women extolled by the speakers of many other poets’ sonnets were typically depicted as virtuous. Shakespeare’s speaker implies that his mistress is not virtuous, yet he seems to be attracted to her nonetheless.

In all these ways, then, Shakespeare crafts a poem that is significantly unconventional. Shakespeare demonstrates his poetic originality by rejecting many of the traditions and stereotypes associated with sonnets written by earlier writers.

 

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