The images of beauty and love in western poetry are pretty stereotypical, and the Shakespearean sonnet seems to be just as stereotypical a way to tell of a woman’s beauty as are those images. A sonnet has a form that needs to be met in order to call itself a sonnet. The reason that Shakespeare’s poetry is so great, however, is not that it is the standard upon which stereotypes are based, but rather that Shakespeare uses those standard forms to highlight the fact that he does not write stereotypical poetry. In Sonnets 18 and 130, Shakespeare uses the standard form of the poetry to set up expectations of what he is going to say, and writes poetry that breaks those expectations, though they do so in different ways.Both poems use the standard Shakespearean sonnet form, but different imagery to break expectation. One difference between the two poems is that while Sonnet 18 at first appears to use traditional imagery of beauty, Sonnet 130 immediately breaks with what the reader is expecting. Sonnet 18 begins with the couplet: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate” (Sonnet 18, 1-2). Shakespeare’s love is more beautiful and temperate than a summer’s day. The hyperbole would be expected by Elizabethan readers. This is why the opening couplet of sonnet 130 is so strikingly different. It reads: “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun / Coral is far more red than her lips’ red” (Sonnet 130, 1-2). This is definitely not the image of perfection a reader might have expected from the opening lines of a sonnet. In direct contrast to sonnet 18, Shakespeare is saying that his love is not at all as beautiful as the sun. Though sonnet 18 seems to be following the unspoken rules of sonnets, 130 is definitely breaking the expectations of the reader set up by the form of the poetry.
Both poems continue on the theme begun in the first couplet right up through line 12. Though both follow the form of a sonnet, only sonnet 18 seems to be giving readers what they expect. Nature can change at any point so that the day’s fairness is gone. The poet’s beloved is eternal, though, and not even death will be able to take away the beauty. (Sonnet 18, 3-12). This is a standard show of the stereotype of the eternal loveliness and fairness of the subject of a sonnet. In contrast, Sonnet 130 continues to tell the reader just how imperfect is the Poet’s mistress. The poet seems to frown on her hair, smell, voice, breasts and movement. (Sonnet 130, 3-12). Sonnet 130 shatters image of Elizabethan perfection in almost every way possible. Though both poems use the same form, up to this point sonnet 18 has appeared to meet expectations while Sonnet 130 does not.
In the case of both sonnets, the last couplet changes the tone and mood of the poem completely. In Sonnet 130, Shakespeare writes: “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare”. (Sonnet 130 13-14). Here, finally, Sonnet 130 seems to be giving the reader an image of perfect love that the form of the sonnet seems to demand. Though the Poet’s mistress is not perfect, his love for her is. In Sonnet 18, however, the last couplet is where Shakespeare breaks the expectations demanded by the form. He writes: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this and this gives life to thee” (Sonnet 18 13-14). These lines say that it is not his love’s beauty that is eternal, but rather the poem, which will give that beauty voice. The poem gives his love the eternal perfection that he has been praising, not the beauty itself. This couplet almost makes the poem an ode to the power of poetry more than it is to the beauty of the Poet’s beloved. In the final couplet of sonnets 130 and 18, the poems are turned on their heads and the message that each seemed to be carrying up to that point are completely changed.
Shakespeare uses the form of the sonnet to set up expectations of beauty and love that are subverted. In sonnet 18, the poem becomes more about poetry itself than about love, and in 130 Shakespeare breaks all the conventions of perfect beauty. Of the two poems, Sonnet 130 ends up being a more effective love poem. It is the very fact that the Poet loves his mistress despite the fact that she is not perfect that makes the poem so powerful. Despite the fact that it looks far less like a love poem than does Sonnet 18, the message that it sends is far more about eternal love and devotion.

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Shakespeare’s Use of a Sonnet’s Form to Subvert Expectations

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  • Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 18”. Open Source Shakespeare. Web. 4 May 2016.
  • Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 130”. Open Source Shakespeare. Web. 4 May 2016.