Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130” is unique in its unglamorous portrayal of the so-called “Dark Lady” to whom it is addressed. In it, the narrator offers us a startlingly generous list of differences between the Dark Lady and your stereotypical beauty: she has ugly lips, a bad complexion, frizzy hair, colorless cheeks, smelly breath, an unmelodic voice, and a funky gait.
Giggles aside, what makes this description more compelling than Shakespeare’s other sonnets – particularly those in the “Fair Youth” series – is the fact that the narrator mentions the Dark Lady’s breath, voice, and gait. Big whoop, you say? In the world within the poem, this woman breathes, speaks, walks, and lives as her own autonomous entity, which is much more than can be said for the youth to which most of Shakespeare’s other sonnets are dedicated. Check out “Sonnet 18,” for example, which insists that the youth only lives thanks to the awesomeness of the poem itself: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this and this gives life to thee.” Ouch.
In spite of the Dark Lady’s unattractiveness, the narrator then claims that she is “as rare / As any she belied with false compare.” And he doesn’t mean rare in the endangered-species sense, either. But before you start to ooh and aah over the romantic turn in “Sonnet 130,” consider the fact that in Shakespearean English, the word “belied” can mean to be both falsely represented and sexually mounted. In other words, the narrator might well be accusing all those other romantic love poems of using flattery to get their addressees in bed. Which is pretty ironic coming from – what else! – a romantic love poem.
This have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too cleverness is typical of Shakespeare’s poetry. In “Sonnet 21” of the Fair Youth series, the narrator claims that “it is not with me as with that Muse” to use tired love platitudes or praise the addressee untruthfully; instead, he insists that even the most shameless, overblown portrayal couldn’t begin to describe the guy. Way to simultaneously mock and utilize your poetic rivals! In “Sonnet 53,” the narrator praises: “Describe Adonis, and the counterfeit / Is poorly imitated after you.” Since Adonis was a classic Greek symbol of beauty, the narrator is saying that even a description of the most beautiful thing imaginable couldn’t hold a candle to the youth. In other words, the narrator not only pays a real whopper of a compliment, but also slyly acknowledges the fact that descriptions are usually deceitful – and that poets are a bunch of liars.
As the Fair Youth sonnets continue, the narrator’s inspiration begins to wane. (To be fair, he DOES write over 100 poems for the guy.) Where in “Sonnet 38” he once scoffed, “who’s so dumb, that cannot write to thee, / When thou thyself dost give invention light?” by “Sonnet 101,” he angrily asks his Muse, “Because he needs no praise, wilt thou be dumb?” Uh huh, blame it on the Muse. To distract from his failure to perform, the narrator insists that the youth “needs no praise” to begin with. Have you ever gotten a birthday card from a cheapskate friend or relative saying that because you were already so blessed, you didn’t need an actual present? Shakespeare has officially become that cheapskate.
Let’s just hope the Dark Lady and the Fair Youth weren’t careful readers.