Historical Context of Sonnet 130 by Shakespeare

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Historical Context

      The Renaissance: Shakespeare lived and wrote during the Renaissance, a time of great political, cultural, and social change. The influence of the Catholic Church, which had dominated all aspects of life throughout Europe during the Medieval period, was giving way to more secular, less spiritual forces. In religion, the Reformation challenged the absolute authority of the pope in spiritual matters and emphasized the faith and devotional practices of the individual. Along with this dispersion of spiritual authority came a redistribution of political power to individual states, which were throwing off the control of the pope in Rome. Art and culture, too, experienced a reawakening ("renaissance" means "rebirth") as sacred themes in painting, drama, and poetry were replaced by human concerns, such as love, honor, and physical beauty. Writers and painters sought to create new standards, new definitions of what was true, good, or beautiful, based on direct experience rather than on received knowledge or traditions, this impulse can be clearly seen in "Sonnet 130," in which Shakespeare systematically overthrows conventional ideas about love and beauty in favor of more personal, clear-eyed, and down-to-earth definitions. For the speaker of the sonnet, poetic devices and techniques, in use for hundreds of years, no longer seem applicable-indeed, they seem deceitful.

Compare & Contrast

1558: Elizabeth I became Queen of England and ruled until her death in 1603. A Protestant country, England was continually threatened by its Catholic neighbors, France and Spain, and Elizabeth herself survived several assassination attempts made by English Catholics. Fears regarding spying, treachery, and outright attack were pervasive throughout Elizabeth's reign. Today: Elizabeth II has ruled Britain since 1952. The early years of her reign took place during the height of the Cold War, in which Western democratic countries such as Britain and the United States were in a continual state of hostility with the communist Soviet Union and its allies. As in the reign of Elizabeth I, spying, treason, and invasion were a constant source of worry. Since the collapse of communism in the late 1980s, however, Britain has entered a period of relative peace, a condition never: joyed by the first Elizabeth.

1600: A French commercial partnership obtained a monopoly on fur trade in the New World, while the English East India Company was established in hopes of challenging Dutch control of the spice trade. Today: England, France, and other continental countries are moving to form the European Economic Community, a union designed to help European countries compete more effectively in the truly global marketplace, which is dominated by such economic giants as Japan and the United States.

1604: King James I publishes his Counterblaste to Tobacco, describing smoking as "a custome loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harm-full to the braine, dangerous to the lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless". Today: Over fifty million Americans still smoke, despite its being identified as a cause of heart disease, emphysema, and lung cancer. Over 390,000 Americans die each year from the effects of smoking, on 1605: The first newspaper began publication in Antwerp, Belgium. Today: People get news and information from a host of sources and media, including print newspapers, books, and magazines, television and radio broadcasts, cable and satellite services, CD-ROMs, and internet sites.

1609: The Slip Sea Venture, part of a convoy sailing to the aid of starving English settlers in the Virginia Colony, was shipwrecked on an island. Previously unexplored, the island had been called the Isle of Devils and was thought to be inhabited by demons. Today: The Isle of Devils is now called Bermuda. It remains a colony of Great Britain and is one of the oldest members of the British Commonwealth. Because of its pleasant sub-tropical climate, it is a popular vacation destination.

      Women who are described using lofty comparisons, the poet states, are "belied with false compare." His lover, in contrast, is no goddess, she is "nothing like the sun"; and his description of her as a real woman who "treads on the ground" therefore comes across as truer, more realistic.

      Queen Elizabeth I: Shakespeare's rejection of traditional notions of femininity and feminine beauty in "Sonnet 130" can be viewed as a response to a situation very rare for the time; the presence of a woman on the throne of England. Although Shakespeare's sonnets were first published in 1609 (during the reign of James I), at least some were written a decade or more earlier (during Elizabeth's reign) and circulated in manuscripts among the author's friends. For the most part, during Shakespeare's time English society (and that of the rest of Europe as well) was male-dominated. Women were seen as inferior to men. Girls received less schooling than boys; since they were not allowed to pursue a profession, a good education was not considered necessary for them. Domestic skills such as cooking, weaving, and spinning were highly valued in women, and training in these formed the hulk of the education they did receive. The only road open to women was marriage, and in that wives were subservient to their husbands.

      A notable exception to these rules was the English monarch herself. Queen Elizabeth held a position of power and authority universally held elsewhere by men. Moreover, she was widely considered a strong and effective ruler and a brilliant politician. She led her country through dangerous times, continually repelling threats by Spain, France, and other forces hostile to England, This image of a strong, capable woman stood in marked contrast to the prevailing stereotypes of women, and caused heated debates among many of her subjects, including some of her own court advisors. Queen Elizabeth never married, and throughout her reign, she was repeatedly urged to take a husband, who would be made king. This, it was believed, would eliminate the anxiety and uncertainty many felt with a woman monarch, Elizabeth, however, used the prospect of marriage to her as a political tool, holding out the possibility as a means of influencing foreign rulers as well as lords within her own country.

      With such a powerful figure on the throne, accepted views regarding women were beginning to be questioned, even if they were never wholly discarded. In "Sonnet 130" we see Shakespeare taking part in his revaluation, rejecting conventional, idealized descriptions of feminine beauty and beginning to explore alternatives. It is perhaps significant that Shakespeare provides no definite, unified definition of beauty to replace the one he questions, That would be merely to replace one stereotype for another; and in the changing, tumultuous times in which Shakespeare lived, the reassuring certainty that stereotypes can provide would perhaps ring hollow and false.

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