As many of us will remember from high-school English classes or those obligatory surveys of the greats of world literature, the poet and playwright William Shakespeare dedicated a series of sonnets to a mysterious “dark lady.” Like Shakespeare himself, the identity of this poet’s muse has long been debated, not least because the Dark Lady sonnets (nos. 127–154) are somewhat mixed in their portrayal of their subject. So mixed, in fact, that one of the scholarly arguments insists that the Dark Lady was in fact a young man (a serious stretch, in my view—why can’t a dark-haired lady, beautiful or not, attract love?).
Still, what is one to make of lines such as these, from Sonnet 130, which may be the most famous of the group? “My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun; / Coral is far more red, than her lips red: / If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; / If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.” (Quotations from Allpoetry.com.)
Not a description likely to warm the heart of any beloved, even with the final two lines to soften the blow: “And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare, / As any she belied with false compare.”
The next one begins: “Thou art as tyrannous, so as thou art, / As those whose beauties proudly make them cruel,” another charge hardly offset by the next two lines—“For well thou know’st to my dear doting heart, / Thou are the fairest and most precious jewel.” We have to hope that the Dark Lady had a sense of humor equal to her musical skills, extolled in Sonnet 129.
It’s fun to imagine the kind of woman who would have appealed to Shakespeare, as well as how she might have experienced the poet’s love and responded to these simultaneously gorgeous and problematic lines. In my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction I discuss the life of Emilia Bassano Lanyer, one of the more credible candidates for the position of Dark Lady and the protagonist of Charlene Ball’s wonderful new novel of the same name. So tune in and listen. We swear you’ll enjoy it more than high-school English.
As usual, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.
Emilia Bassano loves many things: music, poetry, Latin, herbs. Born to a family of Italian musicians living in sixteenth-century London, Emilia benefits from early fostering in the household of a countess, where she acquires a love of books along with a top-flight education. A terrible assault leaves Emilia convinced she can never marry, and she becomes the mistress of a much older nobleman—Lord Hunsdon, the son of Mary Boleyn and King Henry VIII. Lord Hunsdon offers security, comfort, love, and protection from being dubbed a “masterless maid,” an illegal status in Elizabethan England. Emilia repays him with affection and respect, but it is when she meets the poet and playwright William Shakespeare that she discovers her passion: not only for the poet but for poetry itself.
In Dark Lady, Charlene Ball builds on the true story of a remarkable woman, one of Europe’s early feminists as well as the possible model for the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets—reimagining and enhancing Emilia’s biography with her own copious knowledge of the period and the literature. The result is a fascinating glimpse of a world that at times appears reassuringly past and at others all too jarringly present.