The Rejection of Petrarchan Blazon Rhetoric in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130
Sonnet 130 By William Shakespeare is a rejection of the Petrarchan blazon rhetoric, made popular by Italian poet Petrarch in his Canzoniere, in which Petrarch idealizes the beauty of his love subject Laura through an anatomical analysis of her body. By comparing the lady’s body parts to the finest imagery of nature, Petrarch idealizes her peerless beauty and her worthiness to be loved. In this sonnet, Shakespeare reverses the traditional Petrarchan conceit and paints a picture of a woman who possesses none of the fine qualities celebrated in blazon. Rather than describing a fair blonde as an unattainable object of love who must be pursued in a courtly relationship, as in the blazon style, Shakespeare’s female is an earthly and attainable “dark lady” whose appearance is totally incompatible with the blazons’ conventional standards of beauty. In writing this sonnet, Shakespeare seeks not to denigrate the “dark lady” by displaying her physical imperfection, but rather to portray the unrealism of blazons and their exaggerated standards of beauty that can never be met by any mortal creature. In Sonnet 130, Shakespeare celebrates the earthly imperfection of mortals while rejecting the flawless yet unrealistic perfection lauded in blazons.
Sonnet 130 imitates the blazon style through Shakespeare’s anatomical analysis of the female body. Instead of continuing in this blazon track, however, Shakespeare rejects the blazon conceit by claiming that his mistress possesses none of the qualities celebrated in blazons. By dissecting the female body in the blazon style while rejecting the blazon rhetoric, the poet informs the audience that the poem is anti-blazon. Shakespeare begins the sonnet with an outright rejection of a famous blazon analogy, in which the female eyes are compared to the brilliance of the sun. Shakespeare’s proclamation that “my mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” (Shakespeare 112) in the very first line clearly indicates his firmness to break from the established blazon rhetoric. Shakespeare then continues to say that “coral is far more red than her lips’ red” (112), which is his rejection of the blazon analogy that compares the red in the lady’s lips to the natural colour of coral. In blazons, the perfection of the lady is such that her physical features can figuratively bear comparison with the finest natural imageries. Shakespeare shows his lady’s physical imperfection through her incapacity to stand comparison with the imageries of nature. Shakespeare shows that nature possesses much finer qualities than those found in earthly mortals. Mortals are characterized by their earthly imperfection, which can not bear comparison to the perfection found in nature.
Shakespeare announces that “if snow by white, why then her breasts are dun” (112), reversing the blazon rhetoric which compares the female skin to the dazzling whiteness of the snow. Shakespeare describes the colour of his lady’s skin as that of a yellowish tan, which is then regarded as a repulsive skin tone that is associated with the common labourers. By contrasting the whiteness of the snow with his lady’s yellowish skin, Shakespeare once again reverses the conventional blazon conceit. Since the poet has the privilege to feast his eyes upon his lady’s breasts, the audience can conclude that their relationship is sexual. The sexual relationship in this sonnet poses a firm rejection of the Petrarchan blazon, which is known for celebrating the unconsummated courtly love in which the lady is an elusive, unattainable object to be worshipped but not possessed (Murfin 82). The inhuman perfection of Petrarch’s Laura makes her no longer appear as a mortal capable of reciprocating love (Schoenfeldt 78). She has been elevated to the rank of the immortal goddesses who can only be worshipped from a distance, but never obtained carnally. The blazon ladies are unattainable because their exaggerated perfection has elevated them to the ranks of divinity, beyond the realm of mortals. The physical imperfection of Shakespeare’s mistress makes her appear earthly, approachable, and consequently, attainable. In contrast to the semi-divine creatures in blazons, Shakespeare’s mistress has the human capacity to enter into a consummated relationship, as is suggested by the poet’s intimate description of her breasts, and his later description of the scent of her breath, both of which are manifestations of the lovers’ physical intimacy.
By announcing that “if hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head” (Shakespeare 112), Shakespeare paints a “dark lady” whose appearance is completely out of type with the conventional standards of beauty upheld in blazons. He compares her hair of “Wires” to the blazon woman’s “threads of beaten gold” (Booth 454). This dark haired lady could not be more different from the idealized blazons who are always pure blondes. The marked differences between the “dark lady” and the pure blonde keenly manifest the poet’s determination to reverse the established blazon rhetoric. Shakespeare then announces that he sees no “rose damasked” (Shakespeare 112) in his lady’s cheeks. He reverses the blazon analogy which compares the natural bloom of the lady’s cheeks to the colour of roses, so as to show that his mistress does not possess such delicacy in her features. Shakespeare announces that “in some perfume is there more delight” (112) than the natural scent “from my mistress reeks” (112), showing that the scent of his mistress’ breath is not at all pleasurable. Shakespeare claims that music, an invention of human ingenuity, produces “a far more pleasing sound” (112) than the human voice of his lady.
By announcing the superiority of perfume and music, two artificial inventions, over the human qualities of his lady, Shakespeare tempts the audience to wonder if he is backpedaling and acceding to the blazon rhetoric by lauding the superiority of artificial matters over the natural qualities of human beings. Yet the next line brings the poem firmly back to its anti-blazon track. Shakespeare declares that “he never saw a goddess go; My mistress, when she walks, treads on the grounds” (112). This line is a direct counteraction to Petrarch’s description that Laura’s walk is “not that of a mortal thing” (Schoenfeldt 78), which elevates her to the realm of divinity. In contrast to Petrarch’s divine goddess, Shakespeare’s lady is unquestionably earthly, who does not glide through the air but literally “treads on the ground” (Shakespeare 112). By claiming that he “never saw a goddess go” (112), Shakespeare shows the absurdity of attributing divine qualities to mortal things. This down-to-earth attitude reflects the poet’s inclination to celebrate the imperfect mortals of the real world, and not the perfect yet non-existent divine beings idealized in blazons.
By far, Shakespeare paints a rather unappealing image of his lady through the reversal of many blazon conceits. While the blazon glorifies a lady’s beauty, Shakespeare’s anti-blazon sonnet pursues the opposite end, which is to expose the lady’s physical imperfections by denying her comparison with natural beauty. In the couplet Shakespeare drastically reverses this unfavourable impression of his lady by announcing that his love is as rare “as any she belied with false compare” (112). The idea of “false compare” (112) refers to the flowery Petrarchan conceit which Shakespeare finds to be false and misleading. By exposing his lady’s physical imperfection, Shakespeare does not seek to denigrate her defects, but rather to expose the falsity of the blazon conceit which sets unreal, exaggerated standards of beauty that can never be fulfilled by any flesh and blood woman. By rejecting the blazon rhetoric, Shakespeare shows his willingness to love the earthly imperfection of other mortals. He claims that his sensual love for an imperfect mortal woman is just as rare as any of the imagined courtly love for a faultless, yet non-existent being.
In this anti-blazon sonnet Shakespeare exposes the falsity of the Petrarchan blazon rhetoric. He reverses the traditional Petrarchan conceit by painting a “dark lady” whose plain physiognomy forms the polarized opposite of the flawless beauty celebrated in blazons. This sonnet shows Shakespeare’s belief that the “dark lady”, the embodiment of earthly imperfection, is more worthy of praise than the flawless yet unrealistic creature lauded in deceptive blazons. Shakespeare shows that the exaggerated standards of beauty in blazons is false and can never be fulfilled by a mortal being. This sonnet celebrates an earthly existence, which allows a pair of lovers to have a consummated relationship, as opposed to the courtly love and the idealized perfection celebrated in blazons.
- Murfin, Ross. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009
- Schoenfeldt, Michael. A Companion to Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2007
- Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 130.” Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Ed. Stephen Booth. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1977. 112.
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