‘Sonnet 131’ poem is one of William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. It is part of the Dark Lady sequence of sonnets. They deal with the speaker (who is usually considered to be William Shakespeare himself) and his relationship with his mistress, the Dark Lady. This sonnet, like others in the series, is concerned with what’s beautiful and how concepts of beauty are changing.
The speaker’s love for the Dark Lady is remarkable in that she has a beauty that’s described as untraditional. She’s “dark” in complexion, and that’s something that other men in Shakespeare’s time did not admire. It’s unclear who the Dark Lady was or if she even existed at all. She may have been a fictional creation and invited a muse for the poet to write to/about.
Explore Sonnet 131
She has a power of him that the speaker can’t deny. She controls him with her beauty as all the most beautiful women throughout time have controlled the men who loved them. As id expecting someone to push back against this, the speaker adds that he’s aware other men don’t see her beauty in the same way he does. They don’t think she should inspire the affection and devotion he lavishes on her. He doesn’t care about their opinions but continues to express his admiration for her. His love does not provide him with quite enough strength to push back against their slander, though.
Throughout ‘Sonnet 131,’ the poet engages with themes of beauty and love. He addresses his love for the Lady several times, acknowledging that she has a power over him and can control his affections. This is in part because of how she looks. Her beauty is different than that which most men of Shakespeare’s time were interested in. He knows this, but it doesn’t influence how he feels about her. Her beauty is true and so powerful that it makes her tyrannical.
Structure and Form
‘Sonnet 131’ by William Shakespeare is a Shakespearean sonnet. This means that it contains fourteen lines that are divided into two quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one sestet, or set of six lines. They rhyme ABABCDCDEFEFGG as the vast majority of Shakespeare’s sonnets do. Despite the regularity of the pattern, there are always moments where Shakespeare changes things slightly. For example, the word “power” in line six has to be read as a single syllable.
In iambic pentameter, each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed, and the second is stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM.The tenth line is a particularly good example.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 131’. These include but are not limited to examples of:
- Alliteration: the repetition of words with the same consonant sound. For example, “dear doting” in line three and “black” and “black” in lines twelve and thirteen.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point—for example, the transition between lines three and four as well as five and six.
- Metaphor: there is a very clear metaphor or a comparison between two things, without using “like” or “as” in the fourth line. The speaker compares his love to a “precious jewel.” This allows him to emphasize how valuable she is to him as well as how beautiful she is in his eyes.
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 lines of ‘Sonnet 131,’ the speaker begins accusing the Dark Lady of acting tyrannically. She has a power of him that she’s well aware of, and sometimes she likes to use it. Her beauty gives her the ability to control him, just like other women control the men who admire them. He dotes on her, and to him, she is the “fairest and most precious jewel.” He has to accept her as she is, in all her cruelty, or he might lose her.
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.
The next four lines explain how other people don’t feel exactly the same way about the Dark Lady as the speaker does. He might find her as previous as a gemstone, but others don’t think she’s quite as beautiful. To others, she doesn’t motivate their lust and devotion like other women do. When taking the previous sonnets into consideration, it’s likely that the speaker was thinking about the fact that she’s “dark.” She has a different complexion than most “beautiful” women do during his time.
The speaker also notes in these lines that he doesn’t have the strength or willpower to argue against those who speak out against her. He doesn’t rebut their statements, be he knows that they are wrong.
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.
In the third and final quatrain, the speaker says that when thinking of the Dark Lady, he “groans” a thousand times. He’s filled with love no matter how dark she might be. Her “black is fairest in [his] judgement’s place.” These lines attempt to prove the speaker’s love for the Lady even though she’s not traditionally beautiful. He’s fascinated by how she looks and doesn’t care at all about the “slander” she faces. It’s curious that despite his love, he’s unwilling to confront those who describe her negatively.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Sonnet 131’ should also consider reading some other William Shakespeare poems. For example:
- ‘Sonnet 101’ – directed at the speaker’s muse who is failing to provide him with needed inspiration.
- ‘Sonnet 40’ – discusses the speaker’s recent choice to sleep with the Youth’s mistress.
- ‘Sonnet 130’ –is one of Shakespeare’s best-known Dark Lady sonnets.