I have heard many different interpretations of Sonnet 130. I’m wondering if one of them is “right”. In case you don’t recall, Sonnet 130 is this one:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
Here are some of the intepretations I’ve heard:
- “My love is really pretty ugly, but that doesn’t matter because I love her anyway.”
- Shakespeare is making fun of the tradition of the time, all the comparing to this and that, and basically saying “No, my love does not make me want to compare her to anything, she’s unlike any of those things – but that has nothing to with my feelings for her, either.”
- Shakespeare is referring to a woman that he knows he shouldn’t be with, and he’s trying to convince himself that she’s bad for him by finding everything he can imagine that is the antithesis of the typical love sonnet. In the end he fails, and no matter how many negative things he can list, it doesn’t change how much he’s in love with her.
- It’s a joke, the Shakespearean version of “Just kidding.” “Hey babe, you’re old and ugly. Just kiddin! You know I love you, right?”
I think #2 is probably the closest. That whole theme of “Comparing you to other things just isn’t working for me, because what we have is just on a whole different plane” seems to come through in many other sonnets (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’ day”, anyone?) I appreciate #3 because it was so different from anything I’d heard before. I think #1 and #4 are probably pretty unlikely.
Are there other interpretations I’ve missed?
For those that are interested in such things, there’s a great collection of audio peformances called “When Love Speaks” that I highly recommend. In it, Sonnet 130 is performed by Alan Rickman.
UPDATED OCTOBER 2010: Sonnet 130 actually makes an appearance in my new book Hear My Soul Speak: Wedding Quotations from Shakespeare. One chapter is devoted entirely to sonnets that might make a good ceremonial reading, and I make the case that taken with the right frame of mind, sonnet 130 could well be the best of them all.