My Mistress’ Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun (Sonnet 130)
William Shakespeare, 1564 - 1616
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 damasked, 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.
Over 400 years ago Shakespeare declared his love to a woman whose eyes were nothing like the sun, who had black wires for hair and bad breath.. what a charmer.
Some say that he was making fun of the poets of the day who compared women to the impossible standard of the beauty of nature. Reading between the lines, he was telling her that he loved her for her genuine qualities, not hyperbole.
What he didn’t make clear in his sonnet is why he loved her. Though we know that his love for her was rare and special we can only guess that he loved her for her spirit; her kindness; the way she made him laugh. Perhaps it was the feel of her next to him in bed; her smell; a certain grace in her movements. All of these things and so many more make a person truly beautiful.
Imagine Shakespeare today, sitting in the front row at Fashion Week as tall hungry runway models prowl past him. His advice to young men and women aspiring to be the muses of today would surely be: sweets and beauties do themselves forsake And die as fast as they see others grow. These lines from Sonnet 12 remind us that external beauty fades..among the wastes of time. Skipping his conclusion that beautiful people should have children to carry on their beauty, we can focus on the part that reminds us that we cannot value ourselves solely for how we look. He says it so beautifully in Sonnet 54: The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem For that sweet odour which doth in it live. The rose may be beautiful but its inner qualities make it more so. He goes on to advise not to live like the canker blooms who’s virtue only is their show, They live unloved and unrespected fade, Die to themselves. He might be a little strong in his opinion that those who have only beauty live unloved, un respected and die alone..
If Shakespeare tried on some of this season’s looks I think he’d be puzzled but impressed. We know that ‘What’s Hot for Autumn 2016’ won't stand the test of time and isn’t supposed to, but what freedom for poor William in his padded doublet that someone had to tie him into, his silk hose and heeled shoes. He would be able to move freely in this season’s luxe sweats he could cartwheel or retrieve a child from a tree in this season’s dungarees, in Givenchy trainers he could run to catch a bus or even choose to walk instead. Though would he believe as did Polonius (in Hamlet) the apparel oft proclaims the man - do clothes really make the man? Aren’t clothes just rose petals, or in other words just cover? For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds (Sonnet 94) Surely our behaviour determines our worth?
In 400 years time people’s idea of physical beauty will have changed, people’s idea of fashion will certainly have changed. Those inner qualities and actions that make a person inherently beautiful - kindness, curiosity and generosity of spirit will still be the same. What do you think? What would Shakespeare think?