The Eye of the Beholder

Today, a friend and I were discussing ideals of beauty throughout history. Case in point: Cleopatra. She is, after all, perhaps the classic example of varying interpretations of what is beautiful. Knowing that she was considered attractive in her own time, we today portray her as tall and slim. In reality, it has been suggested that she was short and plump. Such a description hardly seems to evoke a pinnacle of beauty. Few cases could point more clearly to the transient and subjective nature of beauty. It is difficult to comprehend why and how cultural perceptions can change so dramatically, and yet there can be no doubt that it has.

Such a discussion leads me to what is perhaps one of my favourite Shakespearean sonnets. In Sonnet XVIII, Shakespeare creates an eternal depiction of a beautiful man or woman through his reliance on the everlasting nature of the written word:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.
One of the things which makes this sonnet most interesting is that it is, I believe, intentionally vague in its description. While ideals of beauty will change, the idea of beauty is constant. Each reader is free to envision his or her own perception of the young man or woman to whom this sonnet is addressed. Shakespeare’s impression of the lasting nature of the written word is equally fascinating, but more on that another time perhaps.
Sincerely, Abigail Quinnley
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One Response to The Eye of the Beholder

  1. Boris Grasic says:

    The tittle says it all.
    It is still today. Even when I think about when go out with my friends, it rarely happens that we all agree whether a woman is beautiful or not.

    So yes, I believe that there is quite big of a chance that Cleopatra actually was plump. In ages long ago, it was thought that the healthiest woman was the plump one, because they were considered more fit to bear a healthy child.