William Shakespeare and Lord Byron’s Expressions of Love

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Comparing and Contrasting William Shakespeare and Lord Byron’s Expressions of Love

 William Shakespeare and Lord Byron both write about beauty and their love for a woman in their respective poems, “She walks in Beauty” and “My Mistresses’ Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun”. There are many stylistic similarities between the two poems; however, the poets differ in the way they express their love. Both poems take inspiration from Petrarchan style poetry, though the way they employ it differs greatly. Shakespeare’s poem does not overflow with multiple metaphors as does Byron’s. In fact, one can easily argue Byron’s excessive use of hyperboles is not true love. He merely uses it to seduce the woman. Although there are many stylistic similarities between William Shakespeare’s “My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun” and Lord Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty”, Shakespeare’s depictions of love in his poem is far more realistic than Lord Byron’s depictions of love.

Lord Byron wrote “She Walks in Beauty” in 1814 at the young age of twenty-six, after seeing the stunning Mrs. Anne Beatrix Wilmot. One historian states “The poem of praise ‘She Walks in Beauty’ was inspired by the poet’s first sight of his young cousin by marriage, Anne Wilmot. Byron’s cousin wore a black gown that was brightened with spangles” (“She Walks”1). This black gown brightened with spangles is the source of Byron’s light and dark motif, which plays an important role in the poem. Byron writing this poem praising Wilmot after one sight of her further proves the idea that his love for her is not realistic and is merely an expression of lust. Growing up, Byron had a very unstable upbringing which wreaked havoc on his adult life. Byron also had an extensive history of romantic scandals. Thomas Hodgskin writes “Byron fled the country in 1816 because his wife, Annabella, was leveling three accusations at him as part of divorce proceedings: as well as incest, he was charged with homosexuality and heterosexual sodomy” (1). Byron’s long history of marriage affairs further proves the point that his extreme use of compliments in his poem is merely a way to seduce the woman. Historian Thomas M. Disch writes “Byron’s love lyrics are pure blarney, part of the apparatus of seduction of the nineteenth century’s most accomplished make-out artist”, thus, supporting the claim that Byron’s love expression is superficial compared to Shakespeare’s (591).

William Shakespeare published “My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing like the Sun” in 1609 at the age of forty-five. The topic of this sonnet, a woman of anonymous nature, is featured in many of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Shakespeare published a series of sonnets, which gained fame due to his portrayal of the women, and his expression of life throughout the sonnets.  One scholar writes “The sonnets are Shakespeare’s early lyric expression of his perceptions of friendship, of love, of growth through experience, of sin and expiation, of his notions of mutability, plenitude, and reputation, of poetry and the craft of the writer” (Strathmann 3). In earlier sonnets, he describes the woman as “dark-haired with fair youth” (Fraser 5). On the topic of the relationship between Shakespeare and this mysterious woman, Shakespearean Scholar Arthur Acheson writes

I believe, from what I find in the Sonnets, that our poet’s connection with [a] woman

commenced at almost the same period as his acquaintance with Southampton, in about

1593, … I believe, also, that he genuinely loved her, and was fired with the passion and

intensity of his love. If ever a man lived who sounded the human heart to its depths, and

gauged its heights, that man was Shakespeare, and such knowledge as he had, and shows

us of life, may not attained by hearsay, nor at second hand (18).

 Unlike Byron, Shakespeare had a stable marriage; however, the beginning of his marriage was somewhat suspicious. Historian R. Brian Parker writes “Anne Hathaway was eight years older than her bridegroom, twenty-six to his eighteen; and though she is described as “maiden” in the bond, in fact, she was already three months pregnant. Her first child, Susanna, was born at the end of the following May” (44). While the nature of their marriage was suspicious, Anne Hathaway and William Shakespeare remained married until his death in 1616. Opposite of Byron, Shakespeare was not known for numerous romantic scandals, thus, supporting the claim that Shakespeare’s love is true and the opposite of Byron’s love, which is merely lust.

Although the poets differ in the underlying meaning of their love, there are still significant similarities between the two poems. To start, both are comparing their love for a woman by speaking of her beauty. Another similarity is both poets use of nature to compare their respective women’s beauty. This becomes evident in the first lines of each poem. In the first stanza of his poem, Byron uses three elements of nature to compare his lover’s beauty. He writes “She Walks in Beauty, like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies…/Thus mellowed to the tender light/Which heaven to gaudy day denies” (Byron 1-6). He begins by comparing her beauty to night, which was inspired by the brightened black dress Wilmot wore. Wilmot’s beauty compares to the sky, and she shines like the “starry skies” (Byron 2). Through this, we see how Byron follows the Petrarchan style of poetry, which often involves comparing a woman’s beauty to nature. Opposite of Byron, Shakespeare writes “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” (1).  He believes that she does not shine brightly in the presence of the sun. He then states other contradictions between his mistress’ beauty and nature. He writes “Coral is far more red than her lips’ red” (Shakespeare 1). Although Shakespeare describes his mistress’ imperfections, he believes her flaws are what make her beautiful. Byron essentially describes the woman’s beauty as superior to nature’s beauty. Conversely, Shakespeare points out the contradictions between his mistress’ beauty, and nature’s natural beauty. He continues to write “I have seen roses damasked, red and white, but no such roses see I in her cheeks” (5-6). Shakespeare does not intend to insult his mistress. Instead, he is merely states that she does not possess beauty beyond the beauty of nature.

Byron and Shakespeare also both take inspiration from Petrarchan style poetry. Petrarchan sonnets are characterized by their ideation of the writer’s object of love to the point of worship. Many critics have described Shakespeare’s “My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun” as an anti-Petrarchan poem, as it essentially satirizes the Petrarchan sonnet. Scholar Terri Bourus writes

That Shakespeare used Petrarchan love conventions is apparent, but it is when he upsets

those conventions, mixes them up, and turns them upside down that his art is witty, most

fun, and most imaginative. Charney has made a valuable contribution to Shakespeare

studies with this provocative examination of Shakespeare’s representations of the human

condition and its dependence upon those most common and yet most elusive of all human

emotions (105).

During the time where courtly love was predominant, poets began to use its traditions in their Petrarchan sonnets. While writing Sonnet 130, Shakespeare essentially ignores the usual conventions of Petrarchan poetry by departing from the idea of idealizing the object of love. On this topic, one scholar writes “the idea of a plain, non-idealized regard for the beloved” (Matz 500). In his poem, Shakespeare writes “I grant I never saw a goddess go/ My mistress, when she walks, treads on ground (11-12).” He is essentially saying that his mistress does not have any qualities that deem her a goddess. She walks on the ground just like every human. This goes against the Petrarchan tradition where poets often compared their respective woman to a goddess, as a goddess is above a human woman. This stands as another way that Shakespeare goes against Petrarchan conventions, thus, making his sonnet Anti-Petrarchan, opposite of Lord Byron’s poem.

 Both poets also employ the use of the light and dark motif. Shakespeare writes “If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun/ If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head (3-4).” Byron employs the use of light and dark and writes “And all that’s best of dark and bright/ Meet in her aspect and her eyes (3-4).” Byron uses this motif to describe not only the woman’s physical beauty but also her internal beauty. Shakespeare employs this motif as a way to point out his mistress’ flaws. He does not do this purely to criticize her. Instead, he compares her flaws to light and dark as a way to show that external beauty does not matter more than internal beauty. This contrasts greatly with Byron’s poem, which focuses mostly on external beauty and only hints towards the woman’s internal beauty.

The main difference between Shakespeare’s “My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun” and Lord Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty” is the way they express their love and admiration for their respective woman. Byron’s poem is filled with over exaggerated metaphors to compliment the woman, while Shakespeare uses a more realistic approach to woo his lover. In fact, one could say that Byron writes in a reverent tone. The reader sees this through his great admiration, in which he is essentially worshipping the woman. In comparison, Shakespeare writes in a frank tone. He is straightforward and blunt, as he does not fill his poem with hyperboles to talk his way into a woman’s heart. Another difference is the way the poets use the light and dark motif. As stated earlier, both writers compare the women to light and dark; however, Shakespeare uses it to describe his lover’s flaws. Byron employs it as a mechanism to make the woman seem even more perfect, almost to the point where she seems inhuman. The way he describes her gives her goddess-like characteristics, completely opposite of the way Shakespeare describes his mistress. This makes the contrast between the two writers’ expression of love very evident.

From reading William Shakespeare’s “My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun” and Lord Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty”, one can easily see the contrast between the two poets’ expressions of love. Shakespeare’s love is far more realistic than Byron’s love. In fact, Byron’s love starts to appear somewhat superficial when compared to Shakespeare’s love. Shakespeare does not rely on following any courtly traditions. For Shakespeare, his lover’s flaws are what makes her beautiful to him. Conversely, Byron fills his poem with hyperboles and metaphors to woo his desired woman. He even goes as far as to say that her beauty is far greater than nature’s natural beauty. Although Shakespeare does not overflow his poem with compliments, we see his true love for his mistress in his last two lines. He writes “And yet, by Heaven, I think my love as rare/ As any she belied with false compare (Shakespeare 13-14).” Shakespeare believes that his woman is just as any woman whose beauty has been exaggerated by other poets. In these lines, is where it truly becomes evident that Shakespeare’s love shines above that of Lord Byron’s.

Shakespeare’s depictions of love in “My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun” is far more realistic than Lord Byron’s depictions of love in “She Walks in Beauty.” Although there are many stylistic similarities between the poems, such as the use of nature, taking inspiration from Petrarchan poetry, and the use of the light and dark motif, there are also differences. To start, Byron employs the use of Petrarchan traditions, while Shakespeare essentially mocks Petrarchan techniques. The most significant difference is their expressions of love. Byron highly exaggerates the woman’s beauty, while Shakespeare does the complete opposite. He points out her flaws but states that her flaws are what makes him love her even more. Comparing these poems side by side, one can easily see an example of true love and an example of lust disguised by love.

Works Cited

  • Acheson, Arthur. Shakespeare and the Rival Poet: Displaying Shakespeare as a Satirist and Proving the Identity of the Patron and the Rival of the Sonnets. Kessinger Publishing, 2009.
  • Bourus, Terri. The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, vol. 35, no. 2, 2002, pp. 103–105. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1315171.
  • Byron, Lord. “She Walks in Beauty by Lord Byron (George Gordon).” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43844/she-walks-in-beauty.
  • Fraser, Russell. “Shakespeare at Sonnets.” The Sewanee Review, vol. 97, no. 3, 1989, pp. 408–427. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27546084.
  • Matz, Robert. “The Scandals of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” ELH, vol. 77, no. 2,

  • Parker, R. Brian. “‘All’s Well That Ends Well’ and Shakespeare’s Marriage.” Renaissance and Reformation / Renaissance Et Réforme, vol. 25, no. 3, 2001, pp. 43–49. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43445421.
  • Shakespeare, William. “My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Gen.ed. 9th edition. Vol 1. Norton, 2012. 550
  • “She Walks in Beauty.” The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th Ed, Encyclopedia.com, 2019, www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/she-walks-beauty.
  • Strathmann, Ernest A. The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 52, no. 4, 1953, pp. 577–578. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27713611.
  • Disch, Thomas M. “My Roommate Lord Byron.” The Hudson Review, vol. 54, no. 4, 2002, pp. 590–594. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3853312.

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