The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0326  Monday, 22 June 2009

From:       Sam Small <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:       Thursday, 18 Jun 2009 11:37:32 +0100
Subject:    Sonnet 130 and Film

I have just made a new film of Sonnet 130 to be entered for the online 
Virgin Short Film Festival. I shall post a link when it's finished. 
Please don't be too harsh -- I'm a new boy on the block.

One of the reasons for choosing 130 was its apparent simplicity. But the 
more I read it the less so it becomes. As with all film making you take 
a simple position and stick to it, which is what I have done. But I 
don't think I have illustrated the lines with false or ignorant images; 
perhaps others will be the judge of that.

The poem has always been taken as a light hearted tilt at 
Petrarch/Spencer verse. But when we look at the violent rants of Sonnets 
129 and 131, we must begin to consider something altogether much darker 
than our Will's poking fun at past sonneteers.

In this famous poem we are all too familiar with, the list of 
comparisons but two need to be illuminated. I noticed when Googling that 
almost all writers get these two things totally wrong. The "black wires" 
referred to are a reference to very fine gold thread used in fine 
clothing. It was called gold wire. Previous poets referred to blond 
beauties as having hair like gold  -- or fine gold thread -- or gold 
wires. Shakespeare's joke is that if his mistress' hair are also like 
threads -- or wires -- then they are black wires. Interestingly, black 
wires would have been impossible in Elizabethan times as not many pure 
black substances could be spun into thread. So the comparison is odd. 
But it cannot be measured against the modern meaning of "wire" as thick 
copper electrical connectors.

Secondly, the word "reeks" is, today, offensive. In Shakespeare's day it 
was merely another word for smell or odour. It was a totally neutral 
word. The line could actually mean "no smell at all" -- possibly at 
worst smelling of her last meal. But certainly not like perfume.

The poem has been praised by many as a declaration of honest love -- a 
clear protest at over-romantic love-making -- a down-to-earth 
illustration of the triumph of inner love over outer image. But if we 
again scan the book ends of 130 with 129 and 131, we cannot escape the 
powerful and acidic objection to his fettered slavery to this allegedly 
dark hearted woman. This misreading of the poem has been, for some time, 
propagated by the current cult of the inner beauty. It is a creed that 
states that it's ok to be fat, spotty and greasy as long as you say that 
you are beautiful inside. I would say that a beautiful inside would want 
to take care of the mortal coil that keeps it alive.

It is for this rejection that I say that Shakespeare's tone in the poem 
is deceiving. The clue is in the problematic last two lines. In the 
first 12 lines he is desperately telling himself that his woman is 
really very ordinary -- not like a Petrarch goddess -- and almost 
congratulates himself that the effort rings true. It is as if between 
sonnet 129 and 131 that he is trying to make reason triumph over the 
fever and blindness of his obsession. But in summing up the whole 
thought structure of the poem, the last couplet states that when his 
woman compares, she does it falsely. Exactly what she is comparing is a 
matter of conjecture. In the film, I state that it is between the poet 
and young man -- but could be any two things or people.

Another important point is that had Shakespeare been having an affair 
with a white skinned Scandinavian girl with gold hair, he would not have 
been able to write this poem. And are we to assume he chose a dark 
skinned girl so he could write the poem?  The truth is that he became 
obsessed with a woman and she happened to be dark in appearance. 
Shakespeare merely made something of this coincidence.

Perhaps the greatest misreading in this and all the sonnets is the 
character of the poet himself. His utterances for and against the dark 
lady, the young man and the rival poet are all taken at face value. We 
are to believe that the poet's perceptions and observations are accurate 
and absolute. Perhaps Shakespeare's writing genius goes way beyond that 
crude assessment. The poet is a character in this entire panorama of 
human passion and failings. The poet is very often wrong in his 
judgement, violent in his criticism of other people, impatient with 
loved ones, deceptive with lovers and aimlessly clutches at moments of 
perceived happiness. The poet in the Sonnets might well be Shakespeare's 
greatest invention -- A lot like all of us.


S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List
Hardy M. Cook, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
The S H A K S P E R Web Site <http://www.shaksper.net>

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