Compare and contrast the representation of the beloved in Shakespeare's Sonnet 20 ('A woman's face') and his Sonnet 130 ('My mistress' eyes').

In the hands of a master such as Shakespeare, the conventions of the sonnet form are manipulated and transformed into something unique and originally emphasised. Both sonnets in one way or another subvert the conventions of the base Petrarchan sonnet; though they are about love, the traditional topic of sonnets, whilst in Sonnet 20 the object of desire is unattainable and there is no evidence of the level of affection being requited, the target is male, and the target of the poet's affections in Sonnet 130 is the poetic voice's current mistress. It also seems important to note that love in neither of these cases is of the generic youthful female Aryan stereotype, and in the latter case we are left in little doubt this is most definitely calculatedly to be so. Shakespeare's sonnet collection runs the gamut of a host of playful tweaks of the usual, routine sonnet; each break from convention serves not only to emphasise his particular point of the moment, but enrich the reading experience for those familiar with genre as it stood before Shakespeare's diversification.

Sonnet 130 belongs to the 'dark mistress' group of the Sonnets, and is well-known and often selected for anthologies. This may possibly be because it conveys two opinions particularly beloved of Shakespeare—the purpose of this sonnet (indeed a number of the pieces of Shakespeare's sonnet arc cover this issue) is to challenge the conventional image of beauty of the era, which held pale skin and golden, wiry tresses to be the desirable zenith of female beauty. It is also, perhaps more importantly, seeking to challenge the almost wilfully insincere flattery demonstrated in the largely derivative sonnets in circulation in the author's time; Shakespeare replaces this with a genuine regard and affection as strong as any poet ever claimed in exaggeration.

The poetic voice's mistress is of nature; no supernal gifts are hers. It is even strongly indicated that she is beneath the highest forms of beauty nature has to offer (her eyes are "nothing like the sun", "coral is far more red" than her lips, no "roses see I in her cheeks".) But this is to stray beyond the confines of the original subject, the rest of the verse argues, because the love the voice has for its lover is "as rare" as any other; beauty does not have to draw such clichéd parallels with nature to be thought of in the mind of a lover as surpassing everything around it. In reference to this repeated theme, in the introduction to the Penguin Classics printing of the Sonnets (though in reference specifically to sonnet 84), editor John Kerrigan concludes:

'"Which hyperbolic poet", Shakespeare asks, "which most-sayer, can exceed this sublime truism, that 'you alone are you'. For you comprise the only things which, in honesty, you can be compared with"'.

This sonnet serves to invoke a strong sense of realism in love, arguing that as strong an intensity of emotion as may be held, may be held, without the need for delusions of grandeur, taking the view that trying to reconcile two essentially different and diverse things as equal is to do true justice to neither. The beloved in this case thus represents more the need for a character developed to challenge stereotype than an actual real-life woman, and seems in this way less real than the young man who is the focus of many of the earlier numbered Sonnets.

Sonnet 20 is from the section of the Sonnets which demonstrate an older man's love and affection for a younger man (this is made clearer in this particular poem by the use of the phrase "master mistress", literally, the object of the poet's affections is androgynous. It praises masculine traits of character over feminine; for example, the young man is not fickle (he is unacquainted with "shifting change") nor has he proved himself to be like a "false" female (misogynistic attitudes at the time of Shakespeare concentrated on deprecating the inconstant and unfaithful aspects of womanly character.) His is not an artificially induced beauty ("Nature's own hand painted" his good looks; they are not the result of makeup or lotion; this, however, also has two related, consequential, implications—firstly that his own effort did not go into creating his pulchritudinous visage, and secondly that said glory would be unattainable to any mortal.)

Nature is an important theme throughout the rest of the poem; it puts forth the flattering argument that the young man was created as a woman until Nature (a typically female anthropomorphic personification) fell in love with her own creation and made it male so as to take him as her own lover. Where Shakespeare later in Sonnet 130 disdains to compare female beauty with that of a deity ("I grant I never saw a goddess go"), the young man's is crafted by such a force. Male, and more-so androgynous, beauty is thus set out by Shakespeare to be superior to that of females. This sense of androgyny is carefully created—the Penguin printing notes that Sonnet 20 is "the only poem in the volume to use feminine rhymes throughout", a fact not easily recognised unless specifically sought.

This affection demonstrated in Sonnet 20 is not a knowing love. Rather the poetic voice claims that "me of thee [has been] defeated"—that he has been deprived of the object of his affections only by the singular fact of the younger man having been born a male. Nor is there any suggestion that the poetic voice wishes to gain sexual pleasure from a relationship with his desire. There is even the suggestion that as Nature "pricked [him] out for women's pleasure", that women actually deserve the young man's sexual ability and appetite; that the poet merely seeks affectionate regard ("Mine be thy love, and thy love's use their treasure.") It is a far more platonic, and yet no less genuine love than that demonstrated towards the dark mistress in Sonnet 130. It is simply, as Coleridge splutters indignantly, "aloof from appetite"—his attitude is evidence enough that if Shakespeare set out to challenge conventional stereotypes, he certainly accomplished that. Deliberate ambiguity being second nature both to Shakespeare and his era's vocabulary, the language in the middle range of the sonnets (of which Sonnet 20 is an excellent example) can be read at many levels of meaningful interpretation—more often the case than the more straightforward and direct verses typified by Sonnet 130 (the one immediately before it being a likewise good example.)

The two sonnets, then, are both highly dissimilar, and intrinsically linked by classification of genre and by their place in a greater scheme of focused, organised writing intended by Shakespeare to challenge conventional thinking on the nature of love and specifically how the sonnet form may be used to address those feelings and situations. Close examination of the two specified sonnets does not show a great deal of similarity in content or angle between them; however, this is in itself revelatory—Shakespeare shows how diverse a spectrum of writing the sonnet form may encompass, without losing any of the essential essence of poetry. In more cursory ways the two sonnets share the basic traits of the genre; they deal with extremes of emotion (in these cases deep and respectful love), and these feelings are dealt with in an intelligent, articulate manner which befits the controlled nature of the sonnet.

Ultimately, then, the sonnet mode of poetry is more inclusive than exclusive—given the necessary factor of an object or objectified personality, a skilled writer such as Shakespeare may use the form to describe that subject to any degree of intensity. Where these two poems are at their most similar, though, is in how each manipulates the expectations of the genre to provoke the interest of the reader. Looking at Shakespeare demonstrates how flexible the sonnet genre truly is, and how quickly it might become boring if allowed to become static and repetitious.


The Sonnets and A Lover's Complaint, Penguin Classics, 1999

1. pg25, The Sonnets and A Lover's Complaint, Penguin Classics, 1999
2. pg199, lb
3. from our lecture handout, The Sonnets: Some Issues of Genre and Context