It is a common saying that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. In line with this thought, it is evident that beauty as defined by two different people will not be entirely the same. There may be some similarities but at the end of the day, there will also be some uniqueness in each persons portrayal of beauty. Shakespeare and Petrarch are considered literary legends in their own rights and from different generations. Their work still lives because their ideas and thoughts have been passed on to us through writing. Their sonnets have attracted comparisons in various topics, one of them being the aspect of beauty. As we shall see, both Shakespeare and Petrarch have similarities as well as differences in their perception of beauty. In this context, we can term beauty as being relative.
Both writers have a similarity of comparing beauty to nature, for instance the radiant rays of the sun and the summer. This symbolism is adapted by both to depict how valuable the nature was and in turn how they valued the beauty being described. Petrarch uses the character of Laura and in describing her, we get to know his idea of beauty. Shakespeare also uses a character in his literature. He at first makes reference to a youthful lady then later on bases his focus on the dark lady. Whereas Petrarch uses praise in describing Lauras beauty, Shakespeare is reserved to portraying the dark ladys beauty not to physical characteristics but instead to what he feels. It is evident that Petrarch chooses to describe Laura in such a way that her physical beauty is unquestionable. He creates the picture of a goddess in the mind of the reader.
Shakespeare on the other hand describes his mistress not in the most appraising manner. He in fact goes on to describe that the dark lady had eyes which were far from comparison with the sun. It is common for eyes to be compared to the shine of the sun yet Shakespeare still finds beauty in his mistress. Despite knowing that music provided far much better sound, Shakespeare loves to hear his lovers voice implying she did not have the finest of voices. Roses usually symbolize the epitome of natural beauty and it is not uncommon to find lovers presenting a rose flower to their loved ones to signify love. Often, a womans beauty is likened to the rose flower. As for Shakespeare, when he looked into his mistress, he saw no likening of either a red or white rose in her face and still, she had something over him. His lover never had the smoothest and flowing hair. Instead, he describes her hair as being more of long black wires. The choice of words in description of beauty is unique since Shakespeare does not focus on praising her the way Petrarch did. Despite not being the picture of a goddess, the dark ladys beauty and rare qualities as per Shakespeares mentality are not questionable (Fineman, 1984).
It is important to note that all through, Petrarchs definition of beauty is in reference to an imaginary figure while Shakespeare sort of gives immortal traits to his mistress who is the perfect definition of beauty to him. They both go on to indicate that beauty is replaceable even if the replacement was not exactly similar to the initial. For instance, Shakespeare made references to a youthful lady at first before moving on to the dark lady. Petrarch on the other hand reserves his praise and beauty only to Laura who he was later separated from. Shakespeare also lost his beautiful one. The loss of their adored ones leads to a shift in worship of earthly beauty to much more venerated beauty. Petrarch chooses the Virgin Mary from the Bible as his ultimate definition of beauty. This brings out beauty not only as being physical and erotic but also as having a certain level of spirituality. Shakespeare also shows that beauty can be separated from oneself either through death or creation of physical boundaries. He then dedicates beauty and love to Cupid, the Roman god of love.
From comparison of beauty according to literary work by Petrarch and Shakespeare, we can draw conclusions that Petrarch was more inclined to physical beauty from how he describes Laura then later on chooses to substitute her with the Virgin Mary who as from the Bible is physically admirable and pure in thought. Shakespeare in his own unique manner seems to define beauty in the context of love. According to him, physical beauty and exceptional looks are not his greatest concerns provided that love exists. To him, whatever we feel love for is automatically fit to be described as being beautiful. For this reason, his description of the dark lady is not the greatest in terms of physical looks but still, none could be compared to her. At the end, he also lays his adoration to the ancient Roman god of love as a substitute for his mistress.
Fineman, Joel. "Shakespeare's" Perjur'd Eye"." Representations 7 (1984): 59-86.
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