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Shakespeare's Sonnets 20 and Sonnets 130

By kmsds May 20, 2014 986 Words

Although sonnets were originally meant to glorify women, William Shakespeare satirizes the tradition of comparing one’s beloved to all things beautiful under the sun, and to things divine and immortal as well. The Shakespearean sonnet, according to Paul Fussel, “consists of three quatrains and a couplet” (Fussell, p. 123).1 Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 is a clear parody of the conventional love sonnet. In fact, it is often said that the praise of his mistress is so negative that the reader is left with the impression that she is almost as unlovable. However, in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 20, the poet displays power emotions indicating and praising a deep sensual love. With his writing techniques, Shakespeare is able to switch the message in his sonnets by using diction. Therefore allowing him to use diction, and use the Shakespearean sonnet format, in order to articulate love—the real and the fantastical—in both sonnets. Starting off with Shakespeare’s most controversial sonnet, Sonnet 20 has caused much debate. Some scholars believe that this is a clear admission of Shakespeare’s homosexuality. The sonnet implies that the poet’s lover is the “master-mistress of [his] passion” (l. 2). He has the grace and features of a woman, but is devoid of the guile and pretense that comes with female lovers. Diction plays a major role in Shakespearean sonnets. Shakespeare introduces Sonnet 20 by stating, “A women’s face with nature’s own hand painted.” “Nature” is depicted as the artist painting, or creating, the young’s man face. Through the use of the word “nature,” the point being made is that the face is as beautiful as that of a woman, but better in that it has none of the defects associated with female beauty; also implying that the face is natural, not disfigured by cosmetics, giving it superiority over a female face, which was so often false and artificial. Whereby the idea of false and artificial is carried over to the fourth line, “With shifting change, as if false women’s fashion.” Further in the sonnet, Shakespeare uses the word “hue” in order to describe appearance. “A man in hue all hues in his controlling, which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth” (ll. 7-8), embraces the manly features of the “master-mistress.” His appearance is so sublimely that of a man that he dominates all who surround him. Although he was first created to be a woman, Nature changed her mind as she created the “master-mistress” and turned him to a man for she herself to adore. To support this claim, Shakespeare adds, “But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure, mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure” (ll. 13-14). “She,” in line 13, refers back the Nature, and “prick’d” relates to a man’s penis. Sonnet 130, one of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets, plays an elaborate joke on the conventions of love poetry common to Shakespeare’s day. Similarly to Sonnet 20, Shakespeare uses diction in order to strengthen his opinion and love for his mistress on Sonnet 130. In the third line of the poem, Shakespeare compares his mistress’ “skin” and “breasts” with “dun;” a brownish color. During Shakespearean time, skin and breasts were often described as whiter than snow. However, Shakespeare compares his mistress’ “skin” and “breasts” in order to remove any thought of purity. Throughout the sonnet, Shakespeare portrays his mistress to be unworthy. “If hairs be wire . . . “ (l. 4) was often compared to golden wires or threads. However, the shock in this line is not in the wires themselves (a sign of beauty) but in the fact that they are black. Through diction, Shakespeare presents an image of his love for the mistress. “Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks,” (l. 8) strongly emphasizes the mistress’ bad qualities. The word “reek” is tended to be associated with steamy, sweaty, and unsavory smells. There seems to be little doubt that Shakespeare could have used a gentler and more flattering word if he wished to imply that his mistress was a paragon of earthly delights. The next two lines of the sonnet, “I love to hear her speak, yet well I know, that music hath a far more pleasing sound” (ll. 9-10), almost expresses the opposite of their exact meaning. Diction, in these two lines, implies that the poet loves to hear his mistress speak; yet music has a better sound. Furthermore, Shakespeare relates his mistress to a “goddess” although she has only been portrayed as the opposite. Finishing the sonnet, Shakespeare states “And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare, as any she belied with false compare” (ll. 13-14). “Rare” in this situation represents a precious, unusual quality, which would be that of Shakespeare’s love for an imperfect woman—his mistress. Both sonnets articulate love; using diction only emphasizes which love Shakespeare expressed. Sonnet 20 empowers a man. By examining the sonnet’s first three quatrains, the reader can depict that Shakespeare praises the “master-mistress” by comparing him to a woman, yet allowing him to not have the flaws women have. However, Shakespeare takes an unexpected shift in the couplet, admitting that his love for the “master-mistress” is only fantastical love, and although women can have nature’s creating physically, he can love him mentally. In Sonnet 130, however, Shakespeare belittles a woman. He uses the first three quatrains to depict the woman, and all her bad qualities. Similarly to Sonnet 20 though, Shakespeare takes an unexpected turn in Sonnet 130’s couplet. Regardless of his mistress’ defaults, Shakespeare professes his “rare” love for the imperfect mistress, since then that was the love accepted, hence “realistic” love. William Shakespeare is able to take his sonnets in whichever direction he pleases. In the Sonnets 20 and 130, diction played a key role in allowing the reader to understand and analyze what Shakespeare probably intended to say. But Shakespeare does make one thing clear, his articulation for love.

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