My Mistress' Eyes are Nothing: William Shakespeare - Summary and Critical Analysis

My Mistress' Eyes are Nothing by William Shakespeare is an anti-metaphorical sonnet, unlike the other popular sonnets of Elizabethan times. It uses the language of irony to satire. In the first quatrain the poet states that his mistress eyes can never be compared with the sun. He finds coral more reddish than her lips.

William Shakespeare

The breasts of his beloved are very dun when compared by the whiteness of snow. He wishes that black wire has grown upon her head. The first stanza (quatrain) is based on physical descriptions by using ugly metaphors. In the second quatrain the poet states that he doesn’t find the cheeks of his mistress as soft as rose. Even the smell which comes out from her breath is not as delightful as any perfume. In the third quatrain the poet states that he finds music sweeter than her speech, when she walks, she does not appear like a goddess. Then finally the couplet turns the whole argument upside down when the poet says that his beloved is nevertheless as rare as those beloveds who are “belied” with false, unreal and exaggerated metaphors.

The entire sonnet can be taken as a powerful satire upon the rival poets of Shakespeare who employed unnecessarily metaphors with exaggeration. When we analyze the sonnet in a deeper level, it has a philosophical tone that the inner beauty is important than outer beauty. The sonnet is a great satire upon the Elizabethan love lyric who, employed hackneyed symbols and the exaggerated metaphors to address their beloved and try to prove more beautiful than the nature and its beauty. Shakespeare is of the opinion that accepting only the positive aspect of the beloved is not love but accepting the negative aspects too is the real love that gives the importance to the inner beauty than external beauty.

The tone of the sonnet is satirical as well as philosophical, which is written in iambic pentameter following the rhyme scheme abab, cdcd, efef, and gg. The ideas are developed in three quatrains and the conclusion is embedded in a couplet. The sonnet is skillfully composed by Shakespeare using the understatement of irony.

Like the typical sonnets of the time, this sonnet is also mainly about love. But the equally important subject and theme of the poem is also the revolt against the hackneyed symbols and the exaggerated metaphors of the Elizabethan love lyric, the form that too many poets of his time had imitated and overused. Here, Shakespeare parodies some standard comparisons commonly used by Elizabethan sonneteers. This includes ‘sun like eyes’, ‘coral red lips’, ‘snow white breasts’ and ‘hair like golden wires’. These apparently create a negative impression of the beloved, yet they are down-to-earth realistic and sincere on the one hand, and on the other they are meant to be satirical on the other poets. The realistic description and refusal to exaggerate his beloved by the poet suggests that beauty and love should not be limited to set phrases but are variable things; what matters to a true lover is not the outward beauty but the charm of the personality. But, while also conveying such unusual ideas and his attitude about love, Shakespeare also manages to satirize the stale metaphors used by other poets of the time.

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