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Sonnet 130 Shakespeare Essay Questions

  • 1

    Modern scholarship divides the sonnets into two main groups: the fair lord sonnets (1-126) and the dark lady sonnets (127-154). Do you agree with this division?

    A: An answer to this question may wish to focus on the fair lord sonnets, as they offer more room for creativity. It is also worth questioning whether any subdivisions might be identified within the aforementioned divisions? Finally, what do these sorts of divisions mean for the scholar? Do they simplify too much, or are they useful tools for analysis?

  • 2

    Choose one of the three recurring characters in the sonnets - the fair lord, the rival poet, or the dark lady - and argue the case for his or her real-world identity. Adopt a candidate who has already been proposed, assessing the evidence for yourself - or posit a new possibility.

    A: This question demands careful historical research, coupled with close literary analysis. Techniques of comparative literature will come in handy; for example, when weighing the validity of the Christopher Marlowe claim, it behooves the student to not only study Marlowe's life and place in history, but his work as well - and the ways in which Shakespeare's writing might draw from, comment on, or question his.

  • 3

    Discuss the conflict between Platonic love and carnal lust captured in the figures of the fair lord and the dark lady, respectively.

    A: "Love" is a multifaceted term, and Shakespeare explores it in all its permutations in his sonnets: love as friendship, love as family, love as devotion, love as affection, love as lust, love as sex. How does the poet express his love for the fair lord differently from how he expresses his love for the dark lady? And does he value one kind of love over another?

  • 4

    The rival poet enters the scene to stir things up with the narrator's fair lord. How would you characterize the poet's reaction to the thought of losing his fair lord to another?

    A: A close analysis of the text on hand is crucial for this essay. The student should pick a reaction - jealousy, perhaps, or disdain - and support it with specific textual evidence. Perhaps the reaction suggests a broader emotion or mentality: pride (wounded in this case), greed (thwarted), helplessness...

  • 5

    Critics are divided over whether Shakespeare's sonnets really do contain expressions of homoerotic desire. What do you think?

    A: There is of course no right answer here, but any argument must again pay close heed to the particulars of the text. Is the narrator's love for the fair lord purely one of friendship, or is it in fact something else? A consideration of what exactly homoeroticism meant and constituted in Shakespeare's day - how it might be expressed in so repressive a society, how it might be tacitly acknowledged - is likewise necessary.

  • 6

    Frequently throughout the sonnets the poet criticizes himself for his inadequacy. Find at least three examples of such self-criticism, and interrelate them in the context of the sonnets as a whole.

    A: The rival poet certainly inspires feelings of inadequacy, but there are other instances to look for as well. More important, what does such self-criticism mean? Can it be read as autobiographical - truly personal, even confessional, writing? Or is Shakespeare simply adopting a guise? (Of course there can be no definitive answer to that, only speculation...)

  • 7

    Discuss the theme of unfaithfulness in Shakespeare's sonnets.

    A: Specific questions to consider here are: Who is being unfaithful to whom? How can one characterize the narrator's reaction to his learning of his loves' infidelity? And how is infidelity portrayed? As an incurable sin - or as something to be understood?

  • 8

    Several of the sonnets are rife with financial imagery. Find as many examples of this imagery as you can, and try to account for their distribution within the sonnets.

    A: Ask yourself: what does the poet wish to achieve by describing the sonnets' characters and events with the language of money and finance? Consider Shakespeare's time: the modern notion of economics is slowly taking shape, more and more sophisticated forms of trade are emerging, and a "philosophy" of money is not far away...

  • 9

    The color black is used frequently in the dark lady sonnets to characterize the woman's dark identity. What other instances of color symbolism appear in the sonnets? Find at least three examples of color symbolism and explain them.

    A: Shakespeare's language is markedly tactile, imbued with specific imagery; thus, color (as well as sound, smell, feel) plays a major role in his poetry. Any colors may do in this essay, but in every case the student should use specific passages to support his or her claims.

  • 10

    Sonnets 153 and 154 are often said not to fit in with the overall sequence. It has also been suggested that they are in fact two drafts of the same sonnet due to their similarity in content and form. Do you agree with these statements? Support your hypothesis by attempting to explain why Shakespeare may have written these sonnets in the first place.

    A: As with earlier questions, the student must consider both the text at hand and the historical context to fashion a fully realized argument.

  • 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.

    Summary: Sonnet 130

    This sonnet compares the speaker’s lover to a number of other beauties—and never in the lover’s favor. Her eyes are “nothing like the sun,” her lips are less red than coral; compared to white snow, her breasts are dun-colored, and her hairs are like black wires on her head. In the second quatrain, the speaker says he has seen roses separated by color (“damasked”) into red and white, but he sees no such roses in his mistress’s cheeks; and he says the breath that “reeks” from his mistress is less delightful than perfume. In the third quatrain, he admits that, though he loves her voice, music “hath a far more pleasing sound,” and that, though he has never seen a goddess, his mistress—unlike goddesses—walks on the ground. In the couplet, however, the speaker declares that, “by heav’n,” he thinks his love as rare and valuable “As any she belied with false compare”—that is, any love in which false comparisons were invoked to describe the loved one’s beauty.

    Read a translation of Sonnet 130 →


    This sonnet, one of Shakespeare’s most famous, plays an elaborate joke on the conventions of love poetry common to Shakespeare’s day, and it is so well-conceived that the joke remains funny today. Most sonnet sequences in Elizabethan England were modeled after that of Petrarch. Petrarch’s famous sonnet sequence was written as a series of love poems to an idealized and idolized mistress named Laura. In the sonnets, Petrarch praises her beauty, her worth, and her perfection using an extraordinary variety of metaphors based largely on natural beauties. In Shakespeare’s day, these metaphors had already become cliche (as, indeed, they still are today), but they were still the accepted technique for writing love poetry. The result was that poems tended to make highly idealizing comparisons between nature and the poets’ lover that were, if taken literally, completely ridiculous. My mistress’ eyes are like the sun; her lips are red as coral; her cheeks are like roses, her breasts are white as snow, her voice is like music, she is a goddess.

    In many ways, Shakespeare’s sonnets subvert and reverse the conventions of the Petrarchan love sequence: the idealizing love poems, for instance, are written not to a perfect woman but to an admittedly imperfect man, and the love poems to the dark lady are anything but idealizing (“My love is as a fever, longing still / For that which longer nurseth the disease” is hardly a Petrarchan conceit.) Sonnet 130 mocks the typical Petrarchan metaphors by presenting a speaker who seems to take them at face value, and somewhat bemusedly, decides to tell the truth. Your mistress’ eyes are like the sun? That’s strange—my mistress’ eyes aren’t at all like the sun. Your mistress’ breath smells like perfume? My mistress’ breath reeks compared to perfume. In the couplet, then, the speaker shows his full intent, which is to insist that love does not need these conceits in order to be real; and women do not need to look like flowers or the sun in order to be beautiful.

    The rhetorical structure of Sonnet 130 is important to its effect. In the first quatrain, the speaker spends one line on each comparison between his mistress and something else (the sun, coral, snow, and wires—the one positive thing in the whole poem some part of his mistress is like. In the second and third quatrains, he expands the descriptions to occupy two lines each, so that roses/cheeks, perfume/breath, music/voice, and goddess/mistress each receive a pair of unrhymed lines. This creates the effect of an expanding and developing argument, and neatly prevents the poem—which does, after all, rely on a single kind of joke for its first twelve lines—from becoming stagnant.

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