Tone of Sonnet 130: Deconstructing Beauty and Love in Shakespeare’s Poetry

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Tone of Sonnet 130: Deconstructing Beauty and Love in Shakespeare’s Poetry

William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 stands out for its unconventional tone, challenging the traditional notions of beauty and love. This essay will analyze the tone of the sonnet, exploring how Shakespeare employs irony and realism to subvert the typical idealized descriptions of love prevalent in his era. The essay will examine the poem’s language and imagery, discussing how they contribute to its overall tone and message. It will argue that Sonnet 130 is a powerful statement on the nature of genuine love and beauty, celebrating the imperfections that make relationships real and enduring. The piece will also consider the sonnet’s place within Shakespeare’s larger body of work and its relevance to contemporary understandings of love and attraction. Additionally, PapersOwl presents more free essays samples linked to Poetry.

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Introduction to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130

Shakespeare’s sonnets cover matters of the passage of time, love, infidelity, jealousy, beauty, and mortality. Shakespeare was first published in 1609 in a Quarto titled “Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” Only 13 copies of the 1609 edition have survived. There were no other printings. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” is one of the most famous. It is a parody of traditional love poetry. In the Early English Books online, there are two available editions.

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The first edition, “Shakespeare Sonnets Neuer before Imprinted,” was published in 1609, and it is from the Folger Shakespeare Library. The second edition, “Poems: written by Wil. Shake-speare. Gent,” was published in 1640 by the British Library. The most significant difference between these two editions is that the poem editions published Sonnets 127, 130, 131, and 132 into one poem named “In Prayse of her beauty though black.” Sonnet 127 is the first sonnet in a series of the “dark lady” sonnets. It continues through the final sonnet, 154. This sonnet is called so because the speaker’s Mistress is described as having black hair and eyes and dark skin. In Sonnet 127, the speaker is in love with a woman who is not beautiful in the conventional sense. The speaker explains that because of cosmetics, one cannot tell the difference between true and false beauty, so true beauties have been denigrated and out of touch.

Challenging Conventions: Parody in Sonnet 130

Sonnet 130 is an English Sonnet. The English sonnet has three quatrains, ending with a rhyming couplet. It follows the rhyme scheme of the form abab cdcd efef gg, and it is composed in iambic pentameter. The poem compares his mistress’ appearance to other things and then says how she does not measure up to them. He goes through a list detailing the flaws of her body, her smell, and the sound of her voice. In the end, he describes his real and complete love for her.
The first two quatrains compare the Mistress to nature, the sun, snow, and corals; each comparison ends unflattering for the Mistress. In the couplet, the speaker confesses his love for his Mistress by declaring that he does not make false comparisons as other poets do. The poet demonstrates that his Mistress is the ideal object of his affection because of her genuine qualities. She is more worthy of his love than highly idealizing comparisons between nature and other poets’ mistresses that are absurd.

My Mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun, The speaker introduces the main character in the poem, his Mistress. The speaker immediately opens with his anti-love poem, saying her eyes are not like the sun. He begins with her eyes and will work his way down her body. It would be typical for a lover to compare his mistress’ eyes to the sun by declaring that they radiate and light up the world. Not in this case. Her eyes do not sparkle or are as bright as the sun.
Currall is far more red than her lips red, A stereotypical beautiful woman would probably have red lips. When the reader compares lips to coral, she would be thought of as the most beautiful shiny red thing. The color coral is a pinkish color. The speaker says his mistress’ lips are not even close to the color coral, which is not close to being red. It could be said that her lips are pale. Her lips can be compared to a corpse with no blood flowing through the body and therefore giving no color to the body.

If the snow is white, why then her breasts are dun: In the first two lines, the speaker compares his Mistress to other objects, the sun and coral. In this line, he describes her skin as “dun,” a sort of grayish-brown color. If the reddest red is like coral, then the whitest white is the color of snow. A woman’s skin could be praised as having skin as white as snow. Her breasts received the same treatment as her lips. During Shakespeare’s period, a woman with a pale complexion was considered beautiful, comparing her to Elizabeth I, who was the Queen at this time. If haires are wires, black wires grow on her head: A poet would usually compare his mistress’ hair to something soft, smooth, and shiny, like silk. The speaker compares his mistress’ hair to black wires sticking out of the top of her head. The reader can imagine thick, frizzy, and unmanageable hair when reading this line. Fair hair was as fashionable as pale skin. Women would dye or bleach their hair and would wear their long hair down and pin it up once married.

I haue seene Roses damaskt, red and white, But no such Roses see I in her cheeks, During the Elizabethan era, a perfectly beautiful woman had blush red cheeks on her smooth, silky white skin. This line illustrates a bouquet of red and white roses. These lines illustrate the beautiful contrast that blush red cheeks make against the silky white skin. They also provide imagery of the touch of a rose. A rose is soft, silky, and delicate. The speaker has seen these beautiful, flawless roses, but his Mistress does not remind him of them at all. And in some perfumes, is there more delight, Then, in the breath that from my Mistress reeks. The speaker states that some perfumes smell better than his mistress’ breath. A poet would compare his mistress’ breath to mint or something delightful to smell, but the speaker states that her breath stinks. I love to hear her speak, yet well, I know,

That Musicke hath a far more pleasing sound: After all the criticism, the speaker admits that he really does love to hear her speak. Then, he adds that music is “more pleasing” than the sound of her voice. I grant I never saw a goddess go, My Mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground. The speaker is stating that his Mistress is not a goddess at all. She does not fly or soar or float along. She walks like a normal person on the ground. A pretentious poet might say, “My mistress walks like a goddess,” but the reader would know that it is fanciful to compare. No one has ever seen a goddess. And yet, by heaven, I think my love is rare, As any, she belied with false compare. The speaker thinks that his love is as wonderful as any woman who was ever misrepresented by an exaggerated comparison. These last two lines are where the speaker changes his tone. They drive his main point to the conclusion that, unlike other poets, he does not need to embellish comparisons. He tells his Mistress he plainly and simply loves her for who she is.

Deconstructing Beauty: Unconventional Comparisons in Sonnet 130


The word mistress is Middle English from the Old French mistress, from master “master.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word in the form that Shakespeare used, “A woman loved and courted by a man, a female sweetheart.” The current use of the word is “A woman other than his wife with whom a man has a long-lasting sexual relationship.” Among similar senses of the word in Old French and Middle French are “A woman who is in charge of a child or young person” (c1330), “A woman head of family or household” (c1483), “A female patron” (c1450), “A woman who has the power to control” (c1577), “A woman loved and courted by a man” (c1425). By the late 19th century, this usage was generally avoided as liable to be mistaken for sense, “A woman other than his wife with whom a man has a long-lasting sexual relationship.


The word dun is Old English of Germanic origin. A horse with a coat of a greyish-yellow or sandy color with a darker stripe along the back and a dark mane and tail. It is a dull, dingy brown color, specifically a dull greyish-brown color typical of the coats of donkeys, mice, and other animals. The specific sense is predominant in modern English, but application to other shades of brown, especially where dullness or dinginess is the noticeable characteristic, can be widely found until at least the 19th century.


The word tread is the Old English from “tredan” to Middle English “treden” and Germanic “treten.” In the 14th century, either under Norse influence or by assimilation to verbs of Class IV (Brecon, bræc, broken), the past participle trodden (later trodden, trod, trod) began to be substituted for the original treden, although the latter in its shortened form tred. Tread survived with some to the 17th century and is still in use. At the end of the 14th century, trodden was found in the plural of the past tense, and from the 16th century, “trade” also trod in the singular. The sense of the word transively is “to pace or walk on (the ground).”

Subverting Idealization: Real Love in Sonnet 130

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130’s theme is love. In order to express his love, the speaker had to talk about it, define it, and examine it. The sonnet is a satire of poetic conventions in which his mistress’ eyes are compared to the sun, her lips with coral, and her cheeks with roses. The speaker says his Mistress is nothing like this conventional image but is as beautiful as any woman. He does not mention anything about her personality but focuses on the imperfections of her appearance. Shakespeare mocks the obsession with looks and demonstrates how ridiculous it is for a woman to live up to an ideal of perfect beauty.

Joanne Woolway depicts in her article “An Overview of ‘Sonnet 130’” how Shakespeare shows the speaker’s love for his Mistress in unexpected means by placing himself above the usual poetic practices of “courtly” love. Joanne discusses a form of poetry that was “briefly popular” in the sixteenth century, “Blazon.” ( She explains that Blazon is a term used to describe heraldry, the design, display, and study of armorial bearings. This Practice was usually done through poetry and was used to depict the female body. It would begin with the hair and work its way down, focusing on specific features such as the eyes, ears, lips, neck, breasts, and so on. This form of depiction was great for the style of courtly love poetry that was popular during Shakespeare’s era. “[I]t allowed writers to project an idea of an idealized and distant woman whose features they could admire from afar” .


  1. Woolway, Joanne. ‘An overview of “Sonnet 130”.’ Poetry for Students, Gale. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 28 Nov. 2018.
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Tone of Sonnet 130: Deconstructing Beauty and Love in Shakespeare's Poetry. (2023, Aug 24). Retrieved from