SONNET 130 - My Mistress' Eyes Are Nothing Like The Sun
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.
William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130
Teaching the writings of William Shakespeare to tenth graders is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. I’ll never forget how proud I was when my 2nd period class sustained a meaningful discussion on who was more devious, Lady Macbeth or Macbeth, for nearly fifteen minutes with minimal interruptions or steering on my part. Some of the comments were downright hilarious, but on point. One of the kids I knew to pay attention for the first ten minutes of class, then read a newspaper he tucked into his lap for the next hour and twenty minutes until the bell rang, was a spirited participant in the discussion. He shocked us all when he interrupted one of his intelligent, but overbearing classmates to defend Macbeth with this pearl of wisdom: “Macbeth ain’t so bad, he’s just whipped, Yo. That Lady Macbeth must be one fine woman.” The discussion then turned to which hot actress would make the best Lady Macbeth. In case you’re wondering, the gentlemen in the class opted for Jennifer Lopez---keep in mind this was 2003-04. There are times in the classroom when you literally see your students learning. Their eyes widen, then compress into a squint; they move forward an inch or two; they motion and gesticulate with their arms; they tilt their heads to the side; they are eerily quiet. These are only a handful of the countless subtle signs that learning is taking place.
When I taught Sonnet 130 to my tenth grade classes I didn’t know what to expect. If all went according to plan, I’d put this most unusual of love poems into modern context. To accompany the poem, I played a recording of Artichoke, a track by the singer-songwriter Gabriel Mann. The song begins: “My, my you’re just like pie / When I call you on the phone. / You say hello and that’s the crust / the filling is yet to come.” Mann continues to compare his love to an egg (“you’re all slimy on the outside and yolky in the middle…wait a minute, that’s not right, what I really meant is that I love you in the morning”) and eventually an artichoke. This seemed to be the perfect primer for my students. They appreciated the quirkiness of the song and the unorthodox ways that the singer professed his love. At this point there was no turning back, it was time to drop them into the deep end of Shakespeare. I was hoping they wouldn’t drown in the choppy, archaic waters.
Now seems about the perfect time to dust off that old lesson plan and drop a little knowledge on you in the same way I educated those students. Ladies, imagine a man that describes your eyes as less than great, your lips as less than red, your hair as black wires, and your breath as stinky. He sounds like a winner, right? Ready for this smooth-talker to take you out on a date? Gentlemen, imagine saying all those things to a woman you love or are attempting to win over. Any other guys out there already feeling the sting of a slap across your face and the chill of a cold drink poured over your head? In the time that William Shakespeare wrote this poem, love sonnets praised a woman’s hair, lips, eyes, rosy cheeks, and skin color, among other features. How dare he write an ironic send-up of those treasured types of poems? And yet, Shakespeare was poking fun at himself; he wrote many sonnets praising a woman in the wispy, romantic way he parodies in Sonnet 130.
So after twelve lines of highlighting his mistress’ faults, Old Will saves face with a dashing couplet. I’m paraphrasing here, but basically he says it doesn’t matter that his love is not the perfect embodiment of any of these timely conditions and conventions of beauty because she is, after all, “rare / as any she belied with false compare.” It was at this point that the students in my class went crazy. One would say “What does that mean?” oozing with exasperation, while other students would call out their interpretations of the final lines. It was funny to hear some of their ideas on what “bellied” and “false compare” meant. I told them it can mean many things to many people, similar to the way that love can mean many things to many people. If I had this poem to teach over again I would have expanded on this idea a little further. I would have told those students I love the Chicago Cubs, does that mean that other everyone loves the Cubs? No, of course not, actually I wouldn’t wish loving the Cubs upon my worst enemies (I’m kidding…This is our year, mark my words). The point is this: the reasons we love people or things in our life are unique to us, just as Shakespeare’s love for this woman is unique to him. We don’t have to love because of the iconic, accepted mores that one associates with love. We love because we find value, companionship, devotion, attraction, and a pinch of the unexplained, or dare I say mystery. We love for our own reasons and those are the only reasons good enough.