In the world of the sonnets, the convention of beauty played a major role. Writers would tell of their beloved’s beauty. In doing so, they sought to preserve the love they had for the beloved and make their poems a memorial of the beauty of their beloved. Through their use of word play, they were able to convey an image of beauty that represented the one they loved.
Writers would talk about how beautiful their beloved was and describe them using metaphor and similes. Also, they would sometimes try to make the one they loved seem to be something they were not by adding onto their beauty even though in reality the person might not be that way. Another thing was that they tended to use nature to portray their beloved and show that person’s splendor. The convention was also played with as the writer went with the world’s image of beauty which was conventional.
William Shakespeare was a sonneteer. As is seen throughout the majority of his work, he tended to “follow the crowd” in the themes he chose to write about. At the same time, he chose to stand apart by adding his special twist to the subject that was popular. One subject that was in style was the convention of the writer telling of his beloved’s beauty. Shakespeare uses this convention and adds his own take on beauty. This is seen in his writings on the beauty of a man and the dark lady.
Shakespeare was unique in that he wrote his poems of “love” to a man. Though many have tried to name the person behind the poem, in the end it is left to basic speculation and opinion. It is undeniable thought that Shakespeare wrote Sonnets 1-126 to a man. This is seen in his Sonnet 33, “Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth” (line 13). In his writings, the normal sonnet theme of love and beauty is portrayed just as the other sonneteers during his time used it to portray their love to their beloved.
One way Shakespeare depicts his beloved is through the use of perseverance. He uses the theme of the lover (writer) telling their beloved that their beauty will be conserved for all eternity in the form of their sonnets. This is seen especially in his Sonnet 55. Here Shakespeare says that his beloved be immortalized and live longer than all the monuments in the world. Whereas the monuments are “dead” and not alive, the beloved lives through the words Shakespeare writes. “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments/Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme” (1-2). The words that Shakespeare uses will never die; therefore, the beauty of the beloved will be preserved throughout time.
Another way Shakespeare shows his beloved is by comparing his beauty to nature. In his Sonnet 18, Shakespeare compares his beloved to a summer’s day. While talking to his beloved, he says, “Thou are more lovely and more temperate” (line 2). This gives the reader a picture that though summer days are viewed in pleasure, viewing Shakespeare’s beloved would be even more pleasant. Also, in Sonnet 33, Shakespeare compares his beloved to the sun: “Even so my sun one early morn did shine,/With all triumphant splendour on my brow” (9-10). In doing so, Shakespeare was able to compare his beloved to something in nature everyone sees as well as to show the splendor of his beloved.
A third way that Shakespeare uses to show his beloved is by comparing him to others. Though Sonnet 20 causes us to question the sexual preference of Shakespeare, it should be noted that Shakespeare is showing how beautiful his beloved compares to women. He starts of saying, “A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted,/Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion” (1-2). He goes on to say that though his beloved is a man, he is better because he is not a woman and therefore doesn’t carry the personality characteristics of women. Doing this he shows that his beloved is beautiful not only on the outside, but also on the inside. He also mentions how beautiful his beloved is by saying that even Nature who created his beloved fell in love with him: “Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting” (line 10). Therefore, by using Nature as a witness to his beloved’s beauty and showing that his beloved did not share the personalities of women, he showed that his beloved was superior to others in both outward and inner beauty.
Shakespeare was also unique in that he wrote his sonnets to a “dark lady.” Just like the man to whom he wrote, the identity behind this dark lady is mysterious. Yet, his Sonnets 127-154 deal with this dark lady. The distinctiveness Shakespeare makes that other sonneteers don’t is that he tends to describe this beloved of his in terms that seem unpleasing. In plain English, he calls her ugly, but at the same time is in love her. Her ugliness may in reality be that she is not the “social norm” and her physical traits do not match the classical view of beauty. At the same time he describes her, Shakespeare shows that the beloved does not have to be a royal or high-class lady. Instead he demonstrates that the beloved can be the “common” woman. Also, he shows that he does not have to lie by making her to be someone else just to portray how beautiful she is or that he loves her.
One way that Shakespeare portrays the dark lady is through her physical characteristics. The sonneteers of that time used the conventional form of women; their beloveds all had blonde hair and blue eyes. Shakespeare’s description of his beloved in Sonnet 127 shows that she had black hair and eyes: “Therefore my mistress” eyes are raven black,/Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem” (9-10). He goes on to say that at the same time, though she is not the conventional beauty, her unique beauty stands as a testament to others who see her. In Sonnet 130, he also gives a catalogue of her physique by comparing her to the classical beauty that most sonneteers use to describe their beloveds. In his contrasts, he says that she does not have bright eyes, red lips, white skin, blonde hair, rosy cheeks, nice breath, a pleasant voice, and a good walking stride. Instead she is the complete opposite and could be considered to be ugly. Yet, Shakespeare continues after disgracing his beloved by showing why he loves her: “And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,/As any she belied with false compare” (13-14).
Another way that Shakespeare portrays the dark lady is through her personality characteristics. The sonneteers tended to portray their beloveds as people who were without fault in their personality. In Sonnet 138, Shakespeare shows us that his beloved is very different from others in that she lies: “I do believe her though I know she lies” (line 2). But instead of being repulsed he goes on to say that he himself lies, and though he should be revolted, he is in love and will therefore ignore it. Also in Sonnet 144, Shakespeare shows that his beloved dark lady is technically evil: “The worser spirit a woman coloured ill” (line 4). To show how evil she really is, he tells the reader that in an attempt to corrupt his soul, he starts to tempt the “angel” instead of him. This shows that she is not conventional (she does not stick to the conventional means of tempting the man himself, but tempts the angel who seeks to guide him), and at the same time shows that she has an evil personality.
In conclusion, Shakespeare stays with the “in-crowd” by writing sonnets of love and beauty, but at the same time puts a twist on them by writing to a man and a woman who is deemed by society to be ugly. By using these two people, in a sense, he shows that conventional beauty is not the same as what exists in reality. While proving that men and ugly women are beautiful, he also stands out from the sonneteers and gain attention from his readers. At the same time, he also shows that beauty is something that is both physical and personality based. Also, he shows how the sonneteers of his day stuck close to the conventional aspects of beauty and ignored the faults of their beloveds. Therefore, Shakespeare uses his love(s) to break the mold that the sonneteers had yielded to.