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English Literature

William Shakespeare: Sonnet 130

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Sample task

Examine how Shakespeare portrays love in Twelfth Night.

Examine the way love is presented in, for example, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 and/or Walsh’s A Woman to Her Lover. Refer to other poems from the poetry selection in your response.

What is your response to the pieces of literature you have read? Make links between the ways the writers have considered and presented the theme.

In both Twelfth Night and Sonnet 130 Shakespeare satirises a certain kind of relationship, and the kind of love poetry that characterises it. His almost insulting insistence on the ordinariness of his lover in Sonnet 130, that her "eyes are nothing like the sun" and that her breath "reeks", satirises the over-the-top praise of most love poetry, which might suggest she speaks like music, her skin is snow-white, that she is a "goddess". The description that opens Sonnet 130 is reflected most in Orsino’s description of ‘Cesario’ in Act I Scene iv. When ‘Cesario’ goes to woo Olivia, the speech that ‘he’ makes highlights the ridiculousness of this kind of adoration. He begins with "Most radiant, exquisite and unmatchable beauty", but is forced to a stop because he doesn’t even know if he is addressing the right person, because he "never saw her". The irony emphasises the satire of the way in which men woo women.

It becomes apparent at the end of Sonnet 130 that this is a much more sincere love than any of the over-the-top love poetry or relationships that Shakespeare has been satirising. To exaggerate would be to use "false compare" and to tell lies about his love – who is "as rare" as any of the women who have inspired such love. This sincerity is reflected in a different relationship in Twelfth Night, that of Orsino and Viola. Although Orsino has not known that his ‘man’ Cesario is really a woman, the relationship they have is much more sincere and based on truth and friendship, which means that when he realises the truth of the situation he asks her to marry him. Both the love depicted in Sonnet 130 and the relationship of Orsino and Viola would surely have the approval of the narrator of Christina Walsh’s A Woman to Her Lover, who wants "co-equal love" based on truth, rather than any kind of idealisation that makes the woman into an "angel" or a "doll".

The protagonist of The Capon Clerk by Sheenagh Pugh is a woman who is a muse to a poet, hugely frustrated because he uses her as inspiration, but who refuses to have any kind of relationship with her for fear of losing her as an inspiration for his poetry. His real love and real interest is his own poetry, and the name he is making for himself. This (much more modern) poem rather reflects Orsino’s own character in Twelfth Night: he is more interested in listening to music and Feste’s sad songs than going to make Olivia marry him. Viola partly wins Olivia’s heart by saying what she would do if she were Orsino, the first thing being to come and make camp outside Olivia’s house. This speech draws the reaction from Olivia: "you might do much".

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