Sonnet 131

Shakespeare Sonnet 131

Thou art as tiranous, ſo as thou art,
As thoſe whoſe beauties proudly make them cruell;
For well thou know’ſt to my deare doting hart
Thou art the faireſt and moſt precious Iewell.
Yet in good faith ſome ſay that thee behold,
Thy face hath not the power to make loue grone;
To ſay they erre, I dare not be ſo bold,
Although I ſweare it to my ſelfe alone.
And to be ſure that is not falſe I ſweare
A thouſand grones but thinking on thy face,
One on anothers necke do witneſſe beare
Thy blacke is faireſt in my iudgements place.
In nothing art thou blacke ſaue in thy deeds,
And thence this ſlaunder as I thinke proceeds.

Titling the mistress a proud and cruel tyranness was a petrarchist commonplace. 1 Shakespeare’s mistress is “tiranous” with the futher intensifier, “so as thou art;” it is her nature so to be. She is as tyrannous as all similiar mistresses, whose haughty beauty makes them cruel (Petrarch’s “crudele”). She is cruel, because she well knows that to the poet’s heart, which is infatuated with her (“deare doting”), she is the most translucent (“fairest”) and most valued (“precious”) jewel. Again casting the mistress as a jewel was standard among sonneteers. 2 If Shakespeare had in mind here the same image as Sonnet 27.11-12 with its “iewell” that “Makes blacke night beautious, and her old face new,” then the “most precious Iewell” is associated with blackness and the manes, the shades of the night, which are seen as hags and which are scarcely “fairest,” fair-complexioned or beautiful.

Yet, claims the poet, some who look on the mistress (“that thee behold”) say that her face lacks the force to make an unrequited lover breathe out his groans (“the power to make loue grone”), sighs and groans being the stock response of plaintive lovers. They say this “in food faith,” the phrase being either an interjection or a statement sincerely made so that it cannot constitute a slander. The poet, in response, is full of propriety not daring publicly to accuse them of error (“To say they erre, I dare not be so bold”), even if he will swear privately to himself that it is (“Although I sweare it to my selfe alone”). To reassure himself that what he swears is true, he gives voice to a thousand groans (“I sweare / A thousand grones”), the customary number of sighs or groans deriving from Petrarch’s “mille sospiri.” 3 His groans, totally focussed on the mistress’ face (“but thinking on thy face”), follow quickly one on another (“One on anothers necke” was a 16th century expression meaning ‘one after another’) in bearing witness that, “Thy blacke is fairest,” with its clear echo of the Song of Solomon, “I am blacke . . but yet fayre” (1.4; BB). His groans in bearing witness preempt the place of his judgement (“in my iudgements place”).

The couplet is more heavily toned: “In nothing art thou blacke saue in thy deeds.” The mistress is dark in her actions only and not in her being and it is from her foul deeds, the poet presumes (“I thinke”), that there arises “this slaunder,” the falsehood contained in line 6 that, “Thy face hath not the power to make loue grone.” If it is a slander, then those who expressed the view cannot have been “in good faith,” because slander requires malice; “in good faith,” then, can only be an interjection on the part of the poet, similar to that beginning Sonnet 141, “In faith.”


131.1. Compare Spenser Amoretti 10.4-9: “See how the Tyrannesse doth ioy to see / the huge massacres which her eyes do make: / and humbled harts brings captiues vnto thee / . . But her proud hart doe thou a little shake.”

131.2. Compare Spenser Amoretti 15.7-9: “if Saphyres, loe her eies be Saphyres plaine, / if Rubies, loe hir lips be Rubies sound: / If Pearles, hir teeth be pearles both pure and round.”

131.3. Petrarch 131.2.