Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 471

The ostensible subject of this sonnet is the so-called dark lady of the later sonnets, a woman with whom the speaker of the poems is having a passionate sexual affair. The first 126 sonnets are addressed to a man, in whom the speaker denies having sexual interest. (See Sonnet 20,...

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The ostensible subject of this sonnet is the so-called dark lady of the later sonnets, a woman with whom the speaker of the poems is having a passionate sexual affair. The first 126 sonnets are addressed to a man, in whom the speaker denies having sexual interest. (See Sonnet 20, where the speaker notes that the male beloved has “one thing to my purpose nothing.”) These sonnets to and about the man attempt to consider the dimensions of platonic love, “the marriage of true minds” (Sonnet 116), without the compromising motive of sexual desire. In contrast, the sonnets addressed to the dark lady suggest that once sex enters into the relationship, the possibility of achieving a higher, platonic love is virtually lost. Indeed, the speaker and the dark lady engage in quite a sordid affair.

Although the poem focuses on this woman, its main subject is perception itself and the methods by which poets represent love. Poets often concern themselves with the nature of their art and, in creating new ways of seeing human experience, question the validity of the poetic conventions of their predecessors. This poem prompts some very fundamental questions about poetic devices. What does metaphor actually tell about the objects on which it focuses? If poetry attempts to bring one closer to what is true in the human experience, why is it that most poetic conventions are falsehoods? Love is not a rose, beloveds are not heavenly goddesses, lovers do not die from being rejected by their beloveds. As the character Rosalind, in Shakespeare’s play As You Like It (c. 1599-1600), remarks in response to the “poetic” language of her lover: “men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.”

In Sonnet 18, when the poet asks of the male beloved, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” the answer—no—calls attention to the inadequacy of conventional metaphors and similes to describe accurately not the beloved, but the subjective nature of love. In the case of Sonnet 18, however, such comparisons are insufficient, the lover suggests, because they are not superlative enough. Here, he suggests the opposite: They are too superlative to give a realistic picture of his beloved. Such metaphors and similes are, after all, mere lies—poetic lies, perhaps, but lies nevertheless. Although clearly in love with the woman, this lover seems poignantly aware of the way she really looks, beyond his love-inspired subjectivity.

Sonnet 130 provides logic instead of metaphor, objectivity instead of hyperbole. In one very important sense, this focus on actual physical appearance seems appropriate to the affair between the speaker and the dark lady: Throughout the sonnets that represent this affair, Shakespeare continually stresses the point that their relationship is based primarily, almost exclusively, on physical appearance and physical attraction—on what Sonnet 129 calls “lust in action.”

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