What Does Sonnet 130 Mean?

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:

  1. “My love is really pretty ugly, but that doesn’t matter because I love her anyway.”
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

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10 thoughts on “What Does Sonnet 130 Mean?

  1. I think you want to get out of the “she’s ugly but I love her anyway” idea. “I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare” is the key: “I think my love is just as good as all those others whom [other stupid poets that I’ve just made fun of] lie about by making false comparisons.”

  2. Thanks, Intertext. I think you’re certainly right that it doesn’t mean anything close to “she’s ugly”, I put that in there mostly because I think that it’s the sort of thing that people think they understand when they first read it.

    It hadn’t dawned on me before but it occurs that the entire poem might well be summed up in those last two words, “false compare.”

  3. My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;

    Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?

    It’s the set-up only to be knocked down.

    He sounds as though he is doing one thing, but really he is doing something else.

    Pretty good at that was old Shakspeare.

  4. I agree. I think the big point of it is “false compare.”

    I see it as a jibe at flattering poems, and in a sense that (assuming Sonnet 130 was written for someone in particular) would be more flattering.

    Sort of “to give you exaggerated praises is to diminish what you really mean”

  5. I agree with intertext, if he stoops to become the Petrarchan lover, finding his lover to be more beautiful than beauty, it does not make his love for her any stronger, it’s just complete exaggeration for no logical or valuable reason. Sonnet 130 could also be poking fun at the other poets Shakespeare 'competed', if you will, with and he is saying that your silly comparisons mean nothing and say nothing of true love, they only speak of exaggerated beauty.

  6. my professor suggested that he might be talking about a man. There was talk about Shakespeare having male lovers, and in this case if you read it careful, it makes perfct sense.

    "if hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head..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"

    sounds like i man to me..

  7. re: the "sounds like he's talking about a man" theory, I wouldn't put much stake in that. There are plenty of other instances where Shakespeare clearly uses masculine address and shows no need to hide the fact that he's speaking to a man.
    I think, had he needed to go that route, he would still have only gone as far as direct address ("Your eyes are nothing like the sun…") rather than to completely switch over to female pronouns like he does.

  8. When Shakspeare talks about a man its him grieving about his son Hamet who died when he was 12 years old. He actually wrote the play Hamlet after his son. It's so sad:(

  9. I would also vote for option 2.

    Sonnet 130 is the perfect example for a total inversion of the Petrarchan catalogue of beauty. In Petrarchan love poetry, the female object of desire is fragmented into body parts, which is something Shakespeare imitates only that he does not compare her to what he is supposed to compare her according to the tradition of love poetry. He plays with the readers' expectations and the woman he constructs in the poem is not Petrarca's inaccessible and highly idealized Laura, but a "real" woman. Therefore, he can show that traditional (Petrarcan) love poetry does not have anything to do with actual love but with a set of conventions. Shakespeare breaks with them and indirectly shows that he is much more creative, and maybe also authentic, than Petrarca.

  10. i think that Shakespeare is definately challenging petrachean beliefs with this direct subvertion of our expectations of an early 1600s sonnet; however i think the last two lines are refering to a 'goddess' mentioned in line 11 and by declention the impossible beauty Petrach creates. 'any she belied with false compare' is suggesting that the woman she would usually, and wrongly, be compared to is as rare as shakespeare's love as no such woman actuslly exitsts as Petrach suggests.

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