Sonnet 130 Themes

The two main themes in Sonnet 130 are the subjectivity of perception and the use of poetic conventions.

  • The subjectivity of perception: The speaker of the sonnet describes his beloved in ways that contrast with traditional depictions of conventional beauty.
  • The use of poetic conventions: The sonnet questions the usefulness of conventional metaphors and similes in poetry. The speaker knows his love is unique and powerful, despite her not embodying unattainable poetic ideals.

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Flattery vs. Truth

In “Sonnet 130,” Shakespeare challenges his readers to think about the relationship between flattery and truth. It is easy to flatter another person to impress them and to win favor. Still, Shakespeare suggests that such behavior does not correspond with truth.

The poetic conventions of Shakespeare’s day leaned heavily on flattery. Women were often compared to goddesses. Poets extolled their ladies’ features as the highest beauty, beyond the sun, the flowers, or the most exquisite natural wonders. But this is a false praise.

Shakespeare’s speaker focuses on the truth instead of flattery. His “mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” (line 1). There are no roses on her cheeks (line 6). Her breath does not resemble the finest perfume (line 8). She is no goddess floating in the air; she walks solidly on the earth (lines 11-12). This is all truth. It exposes the silly flattery of the poets, their “false compare” (line 14), and shows how it fails to capture the reality of a human woman.

The speaker presents the whole truth at the end of the sonnet. Even if his mistress is far from perfect, he loves her anyway. His love is true; he loves his lady for who she is rather than for an ideal she can never meet.

Real Love

“Sonnet 130” reflects on the meaning of real love. It implies an important question: Does real love depend on the appearance of the beloved, or does it go deeper? The flattery practiced by the poets of Shakespeare’s day seems to suggest that appearance is central to love. Shakespeare’s sonnet counters this.

The speaker’s mistress may be attractive, but she is not perfect. She does not correspond to the poetic ideal of female beauty. Her breath “reeks” (line 8), and her hair is like “black wires” (line 4). She has flaws, but the speaker seems to say, “So what?” His love does not depend on her looks.

The speaker declares, “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare” (lines 13-14). Others, the speaker suggests, have claimed to love this lady, yet they merely flattered her. They made her into something she was not, which is not real love.

The speaker’s love is real, and it is rare. He loves a true woman with all her imperfections. She is not perfectly beautiful, and she does not need to be. His love is deeper than that. He loves her as a real person, not a false ideal.

Femininity

Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130” playfully shatters the idea of femininity promoted in his day. For most poets, women were hardly human. They were near-goddesses who were expected to be perfect (or to hide their flaws when they were not). They were set up on a high pedestal to be admired and nearly worshiped.

Yet the speaker in this poem thinks too much about his mistress to view her femininity in this unrealistic way. There is more to her than idealized beauty. In line 9, for instance, the speaker says that he “loves to hear her speak.” Her voice is not as pleasing as music, but the speaker seems to imply that it need not be. His mistress has important things to say. Her ideas and her expression of those ideas count.

Being a woman is much more than having a beautiful face and body. The flattery the poets use does not praise a woman. It may even insult her, for it emphasizes only part of her womanhood and perhaps not the most important part at that. On the other...

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hand, the speaker seems to insult his beloved, but in the end, he understands her true femininity.

The Poetic Art

At its heart, “Sonnet 130” reflects poetic art. What should poetry do, and how should it do it? Shakespeare does not directly answer these questions, but he does suggest a response. Poets, Shakespeare implies, should seek and speak the truth. That truth may not always be pleasant or flattering. Perhaps sometimes, it may be difficult or insulting. But ultimately, poetic art must focus on what is real, not false.

Shakespeare’s speaker tells the truth about his beloved. He uses beautiful language and creates an intriguing poem that appeals to readers but does not sacrifice reality. This, the poet implies, is what should happen. Poetry is about beauty and truth, and the two should not be separated if the poetry is to fulfill its authentic role.

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