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William Shakespeare

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun

Some questions to challenge you!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 3 March 2014
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This is an easy sonnet which is a parody on the typical love poems of the times where the woman was compared in the most exaggerated terms to goddesses, with lips of rubies, cheeks of rose petals, hair of solid gold, etc. The poet dispenses with all this nonsense, claiming that his mistress is just a very ordinary person but that he nevertheless loves her dearly despite her seeming imperfections.


William Shakespeare, commonly known simply as "The Bard", was born in April 1564. Although he lived a mere 52 years, he has won himself the reputation for being the greatest of all English poets and playwrights.

He grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon where, at the age of 18, he married Anne Hathaway with whom he had three children. Modern scholars love to question whether or not he was actually gay - such is the energy- sapping research of these scholars.

The Bard established a most successful career for himself in acting and in writing for the stage. Ultimately he became the part-owner of The Lord Chamberlain's Men, a theatrical company which eventually came to be known as The King's Men.

In his early years in theatrics, Shakespeare focussed his attention on writing comedies and histories. Only later did he produce a series of tragedies such as Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear, the works for which he is preeminently known.

Although he wrote two lengthy narrative poems as well as several other shorter poems, his reputation as a poet was established through his amazing collection of sonnets - 154 in all. Indeed, his particular style of sonnet, commonly known as the Elizabethan form, is also referred to simply as "the Shakespearian sonnet".

In about 1613, he returned to Stratford-upon-Avon and died there in April 1616. Scholars would later come to question not only his sexual stance but also whether or not it was he who actually wrote all the work attributed to him.

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

"My Lady's hair is threads of beaten gold;
Her front the purest crystal eye hath seen;
Her eyes the brightest stars the heavens hold;
Her cheeks, red roses, such as seld have been;
Her pretty lips of red vermilion dye;
Her hand of ivory the purest white;
Her blush AURORA, or the morning sky.
Her breast displays two silver fountains bright;
The spheres, her voice; her grace, the Graces three;
Her body is the saint that I adore;
Her smiles and favours, sweet as honey be.
Her feet, fair THETIS praiseth evermore.
But Ah, the worst and last is yet behind:
For of a griffon she doth bear the mind!"

Bartholomew Griffin, 1596
  • When one reads the above sonnet, one is struck by its extreme contrast with Shakespeare's version. What is wrong with Griffin's descriptions? (4)

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  • How has Shakespeare changed things? (4)

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  • What then is so wrong with saying, "My mistress' eyes are like the sun"? (4)

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Look at the three quatrains of this sonnet. Do you notice any subtle change in the comparisons between the first quatrain and the second and third? (4)

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"If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head."
  • If one compares this line with one in Griffin's poem above ("My Lady's hair is threads of beaten gold"), one actually finds a close similarity: they both speak of their mistress' hair being of wire. How is this possible? (4)

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"I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks."
  • What is a damasked rose? (4)

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  • Why would Shakespeare use the metaphor "damasked rose" rather than a plain red rose? (4)

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"And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks."
  • Was the poet belittling his lady-love when he said that her breath "reeks"? (4)

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"And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare."
  • Apart from the fact that Shakespeare wrote it, how does one know that this is a Shakespearian or Elizabethan sonnet? (6)

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  • What is the conclusion found in this rhyming couplet? (4)

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