February 15, 2013

Genuine Love

The many posts about love which annually accompany Valentine's Day brought to mind my favorite Shakespearean sonnet.  In the world of Anglophone literature, Shakespeare is touted as particularly romantic, both in his poetry and in his plays.  I'm uncertain which criteria was used, but About.com decided to list Sonnets number 18, 116, 29, 73, and 1 as Shakespeare's '5 most romantic'. 

Sonnet 18 – which begins with the lines "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate." – is frequently alluded to in romantic situations which arise in television shows, movies, or literature.  In my opinion, however, this is not Shakespeare's most romantic sonnet. 

In fact, the sonnet I find to be his most romantic, many have critiqued as bordering on cruel, being completely disparaging.  This would be Sonnet 130:

    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 damasked, 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.

The arguments people use to claim that this sonnet is unkind center around the first 12 lines.  Indeed, Shakespeare does in those lines thoroughly contradict the idyllic and exaggerated flattery common to romantic declarations of his time and beyond.  In the first 12 lines, he strips his mistress down to her real, natural self, but then, in the concluding couplet, he affirms his love for her exactly as she is.  That is what makes me believe this to be his most romantic work.


Sonnets 118 and 130 represent two contradictory schools of thought when it comes to love:
  1. True love makes someone see his/her beloved as ideal – perfect. (118)
  2. True love is when someone sees a person exactly as s/he is – with all of his/her earthly flaws – and loves that person. (130)
    • I purposefully am not adding the words 'despite those flaws' or 'anyway' or 'still', because it is not about loving someone for their positive qualities while tolerating their negative qualities, but about seeing the entire person as is and loving that entire person, with all of those qualities combined.

I am firmly (and quite evidently) in the second camp.  What about you?

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