Comparing the Beloved in Shakespeare's Sonnet 20 and Sonnet 130
In the hands of a master such as Shakespeare, the conventions of the sonnet form are manipulated and transformed into something unique and originally emphasized. Both sonnets in one way or another subvert the conventions of the base Petrarchan sonnet; though they are about love, the traditional topic of sonnets, whilst in Sonnet 20 the object of desire is unattainable and there is no evidence of the level of affection being requited, the target is male, and the target of the poet's affections in Sonnet 130 is the poetic voice's current mistress. It also seems important to note that love in neither of these cases is of the generic youthful female Aryan stereotype, and in the latter case we are left in little doubt this is most definitely calculatedly to be so. Shakespeare's sonnet collection runs the gamut of a host of playful tweaks of the usual, routine sonnet; each break from convention serves not only to emphasise his particular point of the moment, but enrich the reading experience for those familiar with genre as it stood before Shakespeare's diversification.
Sonnet 130 belongs to the 'dark mistress' group of the Sonnets, and is well-known and often selected for anthologies. This may possibly be because it conveys two opinions particularly beloved of Shakespeare — the purpose of this sonnet (indeed a number of the pieces of Shakespeare's sonnet arc cover this issue) is to challenge the conventional image of beauty of the era, which held pale skin and golden, wiry tresses to be the desirable zenith of female beauty. It is also, perhaps more importantly, seeking to challenge the almost wilfully insincere flattery demonstrated in the largely derivative sonnets in circulation in the author's time; Shakespeare replaces this with a genuine regard and affection as strong as any poet ever claimed in exaggeration.
The poetic voice's mistress is of nature; no supernal gifts are hers. It is even strongly indicated that she is beneath the highest forms of beauty nature has to offer (her eyes are "nothing like the sun", "coral is far more red" than her lips, no "roses see I in her cheeks".) But this is to stray beyond the confines of the original subject, the rest of the verse argues, because the love the voice has for its lover is "as rare" as any other; beauty does not have to draw such clichéd parallels with nature to be thought of in the mind of a lover as surpassing everything around it. In reference to this repeated theme, in the introduction to the Penguin Classics printing of the Sonnets (though in reference specifically to sonnet 84), editor John Kerrigan concludes:
'"Which hyperbolic poet", Shakespeare asks, "which most-sayer, can exceed this sublime truism, that 'you alone are you'. For you comprise the only things which, in honesty, you can be compared with"'.
This sonnet serves to invoke a strong sense of realism in love, arguing that as strong an...