Analysis of Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare

Updated on January 8, 2020
chef-de-jour profile image

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare | Source

William Shakespeare And A Summary of Sonnet 130

Sonnet 130 is an unusual poem because it turns the idea of female beauty on its head and offers the reader an alternative view of what it's like to love a woman, warts and all, despite her shortcomings.

  • It parodies other sonnets of the Elizabethan era which were heavily into Petrarchan ideals, where the woman is continually praised and seen as beyond reproach. In this sense sonnet 130 is an anomaly, a unique poem that flouts the rules of convention and breaks new ground in the process.

Shakespeare must have known what he was doing when he wrote this sonnet because he ridicules an art form he himself was a master of. Being the 'upstart Crow' that he was, he couldn't help but mock the other writers who were sticking to the Petrarchan model. Writers such as Edmund Spenser in his Epithalamion and Sir Philip Sidney in Astrophil and Stella.

Sonnet 130 carries within it similar themes to those traditional sonnets - Female Beauty, The Anatomy and Love - but it approaches them in a thoroughly realistic way; there is no flowery, idealistic language.

  • The mistress's imperfections are praised and by so doing it could be argued that the speaker is being more honest. True love isn't reliant on some illusive notion of perfect beauty.
  • The speaker accepts that his lover isn't a paragon of beauty but a real woman with wiry black hair, off-white breasts and a stinking breath.
  • There is no poetic falsity on display.

Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets in total, with sonnets 127 - 154 addressed to the mysterious 'Dark Lady', a possible real-life lover of the poet. So sonnet 130 belongs to a subset of poems that delve into this relationship, expressing pain, delight, anguish and playfulness.

It is clear from these 28 sonnets that the speaker was deeply in love with this woman, yet torn emotionally because she lied, was deceitful and cruel. By accepting her faults:

In faith, I do not love thee with mine eyes,

For they in thee a thousand errors note; (from Sonnet 141)

he is able to confess his alternative love. By usurping Petrarchan ideals and highlighting the mistress's 'errors', the speaker arguably succeeds in strengthening the bonds of that love.

Sonnet 130

Sonnet 130
Sonnet 130

Line By Line Analysis of Sonnet 130

Sonnet 130 stands alone as a unique and startlingly honest love poem, an antithesis to the sweet conventions of Petrarchan ideals which were prominent at the time.

  • Shakespeare doesn't hold back in his denial of his mistress's beauty. It's there for all to see in the first line. When Shakespeare was writing this sonnet it was all the rage to compare a lover's eyes to the sun and sunlight - Shakespeare completely negates this, using the phrase 'nothing like' to emphasise the fact that this female's eyes are not bright. They were, according to a line in sonnet 127, raven black.

The second line focuses on the mistress's lips and informs the reader that they are not that red, not as red as coral (the marine corals), again the perfect colour for the perfect female.

These first two lines are caesura-free, there is no natural pause for the reader, and the iambic beat is dominant.

In lines three and four the anatomy of the mistress is further explored in unorthodox fashion. In Shakespeare's time the ideal woman was white, slender, blonde haired, red-lipped, bright-eyed and had silky smooth white skin.

Not so the woman of sonnet 130. Her breasts are a dull grey-brown colour, not snow white. And she has dark hair that stands out like wires. Imagine that, comparing your lover's hair to strands of thin metal.

Note the comma in both lines, a parallel, so the reader has to pause, breaking the rhythm, telling us that this is no ordinary poetic journey.

The first quatrain is all about the appearance of the mistress, what she isn't like.

The second quatrain takes the reader a little deeper and in the paired lines five and six the notion that this mistress is not your ideal female model is reinforced. She doesn't have rosy cheeks, even if the speaker has seen plenty of natural damask roses in the garden.

If the classic, lovely and fragrant English Rose is absent, at least this mistress has no pretence to a sweet smelling breath. Her breath reeks, which may mean stinks or may mean rises. Some say that in Shakespeare's time the word reeks meant to emanate or rise, like smoke. Others claim it did mean smell or stink. Certainly in the context of the previous line - some perfume - the latter meaning seems more likely.

Sonnet 130 becomes more abstract as it progresses. The third quatrain introduces the reader to the mistress's voice and walk and offers up no extraordinary claims. She speaks and walks normally. She hasn't a musical voice; she uses her feet to get around.

This is nitty gritty reality Shakespeare is selling the reader. No airs and graces from his mistress.

  • So to the final couplet, a full rhyming affirmation of the speaker's love for the woman, his mistress. Not only is the speaker being blatantly honest in this sonnet, he is being critical of other poets who put forward false claims about woman. He's not prepared to do that, preferring instead to enhance his mistress's beauty, deepen his love for her.

In being brutally open, candid and unconventional, the speaker has ironically given his mistress a heightened beauty, simply because he doesn't dote on her outward appearance.

Sonnet 130 - Metrical Rhythm

Whilst the dominant rhythm is that of the steady iambic pentameter, as seen in line 9 for example:


Other lines are ambiguous and it is up to the reader to decide where the stresses/beats fall. For example in line 12 there is an alternative to the orthodox:

My MIStress, WHEN she WALKS, treads ON the GROUND.

MY MIStress, when SHE walks, TREADS on the GROUND.

There is a subtle but noticeable difference in rhythm between these two. Preferences?

More Analysis of Sonnet 130 - Internal Rhyme and Metre (Meter)

Sonnet 130 is an English or Shakespearean sonnet of 14 lines made up of 3 quatrains and a rhyming couplet, which binds everything together and draws a conclusion to what has gone before.

The rhyme scheme is typical: abab cdcd efef gg and all the end rhymes are full, for example white/delight and rare/compare.

Internal Rhyme

Internal rhymes create resonance and echoes, binding lines and meaning and sounds. For example:






Metre (meter in American English)

The dominant metre is iambic pentameter, five iambic feet per line, non-stressed syllable followed by a stressed in daDUM daDUM fashion. However, there are lines which differ from this steady, plodding beat.

Let's look at the whole sonnet:

My mis / tress' eyes / are noth / ing 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 ro / ses dam / asked, red / and white,
But no / such ro / ses see / I in / her cheeks;
And in / some per / fumes is / there more / delight
Than in / the breath / that from / my mis / tress reeks.
I love / to hear / her speak, / yet well / I know
That mu / sic hath / a far / more plea / sing sound;
I grant / I nev / er saw / a god / dess go;
My mis / tress, when / she walks, / treads on / the ground.
And yet, / by heaven, / I think / my love / as rare
As an / y she / belied / with false / compare.

Iambic pentameter dominates this sonnet and there are a total of 10 purely iambic lines : 1,6,7,8,9,10,11,13 and 14.

Of these, lines 1,6,7,8,10,11 and 14 are unpunctuated, allowing the rhythm to flow.

Line 2 begins with an inverted iambic foot - a trochee - with the stress on the first syllable, which alters the flow somewhat before the iambic beat takes over.

Line 3 is ambiguous. Some scan it as purely iambic, others find an inverted iamb - a trochee - after the comma: If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun.

Line 4 is also not straightforward. There are a possible two trochees after the comma: If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

Line 5 begins with an inverted iamb - a trochee - placing emphasis on the first person I.

Line 12 begins with a strong spondee - two stressed syllables - which reinforces the personal again.

Sonnet 130 - Literary Devices

Sonnet 130 contains several literary devices that enhance the texture of the sound and reinforce certain tropes. For example:


When words beginning with the same consonants are close together in a phrase or line, as in lines:

1 - My mistress

3 - white, why

4 - wires, black wires

5 - roses damasked, red

6 - such roses see

8 - Than in the breath that

9 - hear her

11 - grant....goddess go

12 - My mistress, when she walks


When the same or similar vowels in words are close together in a line or phrase, as in lines:

1 - My/eyes/like

2. Coral/more

3 - then/breasts

4.- hairs/her

5 - have/damasked

6 - see/cheeks

7 - in/is/delight

8 - Than/that

9 - hear/speak....yet well

10 - That/hath

13 - yet/heaven


Repeating words or phrases strengthens meaning and places special emphasis on them. For example, the word red occurs twice in the second line, as does wires in the fourth.

Because this is a love poem this is of great significance because red lips were supposed to be an exclusive attribute of female beauty, whilst wires refers to the Elizabethan fashion of threading golden wires through blonde hair, to increase appeal and looks.

Note the use of the phrase far more in lines 2 and 10 which underlines the importance of the colour red and sound of music, making them stand out from the crowd. The speaker (the poet) is again implying the ordinariness of his lover's looks and voice.

This sonnet is very much an individual's take on the beauty of their mistress. Written from a first person perspective, I and My occur 11 times.

Sonnet 130 - Language

dun - a dingy brown/grey colour

wires - many females wore golden wires in their hair as a hallmark of beauty

damasked - variegated rose of pinky red and white

reeks - stinks or rising from

go - walk

rare - admirable

she - woman

Sonnet 130 - Anastrophe

In lines 6 and 7 the natural order of the words is inversed, a technique known as anastrophe.

But no such roses see I in her cheeks;

And in some perfumes is there more delight

When a line of poetry is changed like this there is often a special emphasis placed on the meaning of certain words and phrases.

Shakespeare used this device to upset the normal flow of language and bring attention to the mid-point of the sonnet.


Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005

© 2018 Andrew Spacey


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • profile image


      13 months ago

      As a ESL learner I always thought the idea was "The Beauty of/about Death, like, His Mistress was dead and He still finds it facinating. But awesome analysis! Greetings from Colombia!

    • profile image


      14 months ago

      Thankyou so much

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      Even Stratfordians admit that exact dating of the "Shakespeare" works is impossible and thus also admit that those plays could have been written much earlier. Here is a useful analysis of the timeline:

    • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

      Andrew Spacey 

      2 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Count me in as a strong Stratfordian, although I find the whole pro-Oxford argument somewhat meaningless. Edward de Vere, their champion, died in 1604 poor chap, which means that he must have written 12 plays in the afterlife, a miraculous feat.

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      Andrew Spacey: Are you a Stratfordian or an Oxfordian?

    • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

      Andrew Spacey 

      2 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Shakespeare's sonnet 130 is beautifully crafted and full of intrigue. Thank you so much for the visit and comment.

    • snakeslane profile image

      Verlie Burroughs 

      2 years ago from Canada

      Hello Andrew, I'm always amazed at the thoroughness of your work. This is an unusual piece, I know I would never have found it, thank you so much.

    • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

      Andrew Spacey 

      2 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Appreciate the visit and comment. Shakespeare's sonnet 130 is a blast.

    • lambservant profile image

      Lori Colbo 

      2 years ago from Pacific Northwest

      This was a very interesting sonnett and I had to chuckle at the reeking breath. You do a good break down here.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)