Shakespeare Sonnet 131: "Thou art as tyrannous, so as thou art"

Updated on April 21, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford --aka "William Shakespeare"

Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 131

The speaker in sonnet 131 addresses the persona that is responsible for this group of sonnets (127-154) being labeled "the dark lady sonnets." Clearly, the speaker is addressing a person who has a "face" and a "neck," unlike the supposed "young man sonnets" (18-126), which never offer any evidence of referring to a human being.

The "Dark Lady" sequence focuses on a woman as it continues to maintain an ambiguity as to whether the "dark" refers to her coloring—complexion, hair, eyes— or only to her behavior. The speaker does seem to reveal that she is on the darker complexioned side of the spectrum, but also that she is quite a stunning beauty whose swarthiness does not diminish her beauty. He implies that she is as beautiful or perhaps more lovely than the standard fair-haired beauty that seems to be the popular yardstick for feminine beauty at that period of time.

Thou art as tyrannous, so as thou art

Thou art as tyrannous, so as thou art
As those whose beauties proudly make them cruel;
For well thou know’st to my dear doting heart
Thou art the fairest and most precious jewel.
Yet, in good faith, some say that thee behold,
Thy face hath not the power to make love groan:
To say they err I dare not be so bold,
Although I swear it to myself alone.
And to be sure that is not false I swear,
A thousand groans, but thinking on thy face,
One on another’s neck, do witness bear
Thy black is fairest in my judgment’s place.
In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds,
And thence this slander, as I think, proceeds.

Reading of Sonnet 131

Commentary

First Quatrain: Beautiful but Cruel

Thou art as tyrannous, so as thou art
As those whose beauties proudly make them cruel;
For well thou know’st to my dear doting heart
Thou art the fairest and most precious jewel.

In the first quatrain, the speaker accuses the lady of tyrannical behavior that resembles that of those beautiful women who become cruel because of their beauty. She thinks she has the upper hand in the relationship, because she knows that he is captivated by her beauty and holds her in high regard.

The speaker admits that he has a "doting heart" and that to him she is "the fairest and most precious jewel." Such a position leaves him weak and vulnerable, making him accept her cruel behavior out of fear of losing her. Because she is aware of his vulnerability, she is free to cause him pain with impunity.

Second Quatrain: Conflicted by Beauty

Yet, in good faith, some say that thee behold,
Thy face hath not the power to make love groan:
To say they err I dare not be so bold,
Although I swear it to myself alone.

Even though the speaker has heard other people say that there is nothing special and particularly beautiful about this woman, he continues to think otherwise. He has hard people say that she does not have "the power to make love groan." According to others, she is incapable of motivating the kind of reaction that other really beautiful woman may engender.

And the speaker does not have the courage to argue with those who hold those negative opinions. Yet even though he will not rebut those complaints to the faces of those who hold them, he "swear[s]" to himself that they are wrong and thus continues to hold his own view as the correct one.

Third Quatrain: Intrigued by Coloring

And to be sure that is not false I swear,
A thousand groans, but thinking on thy face,
One on another’s neck, do witness bear
Thy black is fairest in my judgment’s place.

To convince himself that he is right in thinking his lady a beauty, he insists that when thinking of "[her] face," he may groan with love a thousand times. He refers to her blackness as the "fairest in [his] judgment’s place."

The speaker holds the dark features of the "dark lady" in highest regard, despite the prevailing standard of beauty reflected in the opinions of other people who criticize her negatively. As he compares the complexion and hair of lighter skinned women to his "dark lady," he finds that he remains more intrigued by her coloring.

The Couplet: Beauty Is as Beauty Does

In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds,
And thence this slander, as I think, proceeds.

The speaker then asserts that any negativity associated with blackness results only from the woman’s behavior. Her physical beauty does not contrast in the negative to blondes and other fair-haired women, but her callous and indifferent behavior renders her deserving to the "slander" she is receiving. He will not uphold the ugliness of her deeds, even though he is attracted to her natural, dark beauty.

A Brief Overview: The 154-Sonnet Sequence

Scholars and critics of Elizabethan literature have determined that the sequence of 154 Shakespeare sonnets may be classified into three thematic categories: (1) Marriage Sonnets 1-17; (2) Muse Sonnets 18-126, traditionally identified as the "Fair Youth"; and (3) Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154.

Marriage Sonnets 1-17

The speaker in the Shakespeare “Marriage Sonnets” pursues a single goal: to persuade a young man to marry and produce beautiful offspring. It is likely that the young man is Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, who is being urged to marry Elizabeth de Vere, the oldest daughter of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Many scholars and critics now argue persuasively that Edward de Vere is the writer of the works attributed to the nom de plume, "William Shakespeare." For more information regarding Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the real writer of the Shakespearean canon, please visit The De Vere Society, an organization that is "dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford."

Muse Sonnets 18-126 (Traditionally classified as "Fair Youth")

The speaker in this section of sonnets is exploring his talent, his dedication to his art, and his own soul power. In some sonnets, the speaker addresses his muse, in others he addresses himself, and in others he even addresses the poem itself.

Even though many scholars and critics have traditionally categorized this group of sonnets as the "Fair Youth Sonnets," there is no "fair youth," that is "young man," in these sonnets. There is no person at all in this sequence, with exception of the two problematic sonnets, 108 and 126.

Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154

The final sequence targets an adulterous romance with a woman of questionable character; the term “dark” likely modifies the woman’s character flaws, not her skin tone.

Two Problematic Sonnets: 108 and 126

Sonnet 108 and 126 present a problem in categorization. While most of the sonnets in the "Muse Sonnets" do focus on the poet's musings about his writing talent and do not focus on a human being, sonnets 108 and 126 are speaking to a young man, respectively calling him "sweet boy" and "lovely boy." Sonnet 126 presents an additional problem: it is not technically a "sonnet," because it features six couplets, instead of the traditional three quatrains and a couplet.

The themes of sonnets 108 and 126 would better categorize with the "Marriage Sonnets" because they do address a "young man." It is likely that sonnets 108 and 126 are at least partially responsible for the erroneous labeling of the "Muse Sonnets" as the "Fair Youth Sonnets" along with the claim that those sonnets address a young man.

While most scholars and critics tend to categorize the sonnets into the three-themed schema, others combine the "Marriage Sonnets" and the "Fair Youth Sonnets" into one group of "Young Man Sonnets." This categorization strategy would be accurate if the "Muse Sonnets" actually addressed a young man, as only the "Marriage Sonnets" do.

The Two Final Sonnets

Sonnets 153 and 154 are also somewhat problematic. They are classified with the Dark Lady Sonnets, but they function quite differently from the bulk of those poems.

Sonnet 154 is a paraphrase of Sonnet 153; thus, they carry the same message. The two final sonnets dramatize the same theme, a complaint of unrequited love, while outfitting the complaint with the dress of mythological allusion. The speaker employs the services of the Roman god Cupid and the goddess Diana. The speaker thus achieves a distance from his feelings, which he, no doubt, hopes will finally liberate him from the clutches of his lust/love and bring him equanimity of mind and heart.

In the bulk of the "dark lady" sonnets, the speaker has a been addressing the woman directly, or making it clear that what he is saying is intended for her ears. In the final two sonnets, the speaker is not directly addressing the mistress. He does mention her, but he is speaking now about her instead of directly to her. He is now making it quite clear that he is withdrawing from the drama with her. Readers may sense that he has grown battle-weary from his struggle for the woman’s respect and affection, and now he has finally decided to make a philosophical drama that heralds the end of that disastrous relationship, announcing essentially, "I’m through."

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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