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Essay on Race and Gender in William Shakespeare's `Dark Lady

In: Shakespeare free essays

Essay on Race and Gender in William Shakespeare's `Dark Lady Sonnets'

What makes William Shakespeare's writings so interesting is the fact that his works reflect the convictions, as well as the dilemmas of the period in which they were written. One prime example of this is his Sonnets (1609). Specifically, in the `Mistress' sequence (127-152), commonly known as the `Dark Lady Sonnets,' the speaker in the poems simultaneously praises the physical beauty and overtly debases the dignity of the dark-skinned female whom is the subject of the sonnets. Furthermore, thinly disguised misogyny permeates the poems belonging to the sequence. Thus, by way of combining discourses about race and gender in the `Dark Lady Sonnets,' Shakespeare encapsulates the racist and misogynistic sentiments of seventeenth century England.

Scholars and critics have debated for centuries whether the `Dark Lady' is indeed African or of African descent. Many believe that the mistress is not a dark-skinned beauty, but rather a white-skinned woman with jet-black hair. Others, however, have attached a black identity onto the woman whose `brests are dun' and has `black wiers grown on her head.' Unfortunately, we will never know who and/or what the mistress was, which is a fact that Dympna Callagan articulates: `we do not really know what she looks like, and whether she is of African descent or simply dark-haired.' Even so, Marvin Hunt asserts: `If any given candidate for the dark lady is shown to have been fair-skinned Caucasian…then she cannot, carrying a white value, signify the mistress of the Sonnets.' In consequence, scholarly readers like Wilhelm Jordan in 1861, for instance, suggested that the anonymous female was `a married woman from the West Indian colonies, of Creole descent with an admixture of African blood.' Similarly, in 1933, G.B. Harrison proposed that the `Dark Lady' is Lucy Negro of Clerkenwell.

Nonetheless, if we place Shakespeare's Sonnets within the wider historical context, the argument that the woman in question is darker-complected than many would like to believe becomes increasingly convincing. More specifically, the early modern period is characterized as a time when groups from different parts of the world were coming into greater contact with each other for the first time. Accordingly, by the turn of the seventeenth century, a sizable proportion of England's population was from Africa or of African ancestry. Elizabethan Englishmen and women found blacks' physical and cultural differences fascinating and, as George Best recognizes, miscegenation became commonplace during the period. Thus, as Callagan argues,

…we must admit the possibility, especially since there were Africans in England at this time, that the woman Shakespeare or his imaginative alter ego both loved and reviled was actually black.

In addition, Shakespeare's writings, as well as the literary works produced by others during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries reflect that many white, European writers and artists not only found the differences between themselves and their African counterparts intriguing, but also viewed them as physically attractive and alluring and worth documenting. Callagan insists that Shakespeare's interest in the dissimilarities between whites and blacks is obvious because ethnic issues were the focus of several of his productions including, The Merchant of Venice, Titus Andronicus, and Othello, which were all composed before the Sonnets were published. Likewise, he maintains, `Shakespeare was still preoccupied by the stark contrast between black and white beauty into the seventeenth century'. Hunt acknowledges that in the period under discussion, `there was a full-fledged cult of lyric poetry praising black beauty in explicit terms.' For instance, Welsh poet, George Herbert's, `A Negress Counts Cestus, a Man of a Different Color,' describes `an uncontaminated racial other in the figure of the female speaker.' He emphasizes that Herbert's piece and many others written around the same time, which expressed admiration for the beauty of black women:

did not employ the strategy of lightening the dark lady, washing the Ethiope white, since to do so would be to eliminate her difference, a difference that is essential to the desire manifested in these poems.

Therefore, it is very reasonable to assume that the `Dark Lady' of the Sonnets is in fact a black woman, which Martin Seymour-Smith further stresses:

It is not difficult to imagine that a negress…would have attracted a body of “admirers,” consisting of men both of literary and social position. Nor is it unlikely that in this event some kind of “mystique” might have been built up around her.

The `Dark Lady Sonnets' begin with Sonnet 127 in which the poet sings the praises of his dark-skinned mistress, thereby overturning the contemporary conventions of female beauty and creating an aesthetic portrait of blackness. In the first quatrain, the speaker declares that blackness has inherited beauty from the characteristic `faire' women who possess golden hair and ivory white skin:

In the ould age blacke was not counted faire,

Or if it weare it bore not beauties name:

But now is blacke beauties successive heire (Sonnet 127.1-3, p. 104.)

Then, in the sestet, the poet verbalizes that his mistress's dark eyes and black eyebrows are so stunning that they have become the model of beauty:

Therefore my Mistersse eyes are Raven blacke,

Her hairs so suted, and they mourners seeme,

At such who not borne faire no beauty lack,

Slandring Creation with a false esteeme,

Yet so they mourne becomming of their woe,

That every toung saies beauty should looke so (Sonnet 127.9-14, p. 104.)

Hence, Sonnet 127 reverses the norm because rather than waxing lyrically about the attractiveness of a woman's blonde tresses and fair complexion, like in a standard Petrarchan sonnet, the poet is `claiming beauty for a woman who is “black” but simultaneously creating an aesthetic contrary to the orthodoxies of the genre in which he is writing.' Accordingly, Callagan remarks, `this sonnet is quite literally… “beauty's successive heir.”' Sonnet 130 likewise justifies the mistress's charm and, more importantly, the fundamental beauty of blackness by suggesting that regardless of the fact that the dark-lady is nothing like the traditional lighter-complected women whom poets eulogize in their verses, she is `as beautiful as any woman misrepresented through extravagant, and hence false, comparisons:'

My Mistres eyes are nothing like the Sunne,

Currall is farre more red, then her lips red,

If snow be white, why then her brests are dun;

If haires be wiers grow on her head;

I have seen Roses damaskt, red and white,

But no such Roses see I in her cheeks,

And in some perfumes is there more delight,

Then in the breath that from my Mistres reekes.

I love to heare her speake, yet well I know,

That Musicke hath a farre more pleasing sound:

I graunt I never saw a goddesse goe,

My Mistres when shee walkes treads on the ground.

And yet by heaven I thinke my love as rare,

As any she beli'd with false compare (Sonnet 130. 1-14, p. 105.)

Further, in Sonnet 132, the poet avows that black is beautiful:

…I sweare beauty her selfe is blacke (Sonnet 132. 13, p. 106).

Nevertheless, at the same time that he places his dark-skinned lady on a pedestal, the poet also degrades his mistress. Katherine Duncan-Jones contends that `the so-called dark lady sonnets constitute a poetic equivalent of the beating up of whores that was such a popular holiday pastime for young men of high status.' Whilst it is a rather bold statement, Duncan-Jones observation is justifiable on multiple grounds. Foremost, the poet identifies his mistress as cruel and oppressive:

Thou art as tiranous, so as thou art,

As those whose beauties proudly make them cruell (Sonnet 131. 1-2, p. 106.)

I'st not ynough to torture me alone,

But slave to slavery my sweet'st friend must be.

Me from my selfe thy cruell eye hath taken,

And from my selfe thou harder hast ingrossed (Sonnet 133. 3-6, p. 107.)

For thou art covetous (Sonnet 134. 6, p. 107).

In addition, John Blades proposes that when the poet refers to the mistress's hair as `black wiers' in Sonnet 130, he is insinuating that she is a `madwoman or a freak.' Similarly, the dark woman is associated with both Hell and disease:

…none knowes well,

To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell (Sonnet 129.13-14, p. 105.)

In things right true my heart and eyes have erred,

And to this false plague are they now transferred (Sonnet 137. 13-14, p. 109.)

My love is as a feaver longing still,

For that which longer nurseth the disease,

Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill (Sonnet 147. 1-3, p. 114.)

Furthermore, the poet portrays the mistress as licentious:

O but with mine, compare thou thine own state,

And thou shalt finde it merrits not reproving,

Or if it do, not from those lips of thine,

That have prophan'd their scarlet ornaments,

And seald false bonds of love as oft as mine,

Robd others beds revenues of their rents (Sonnet 142. 3-8, p. 111.)

Most significant however, is the fact that the dark-skinned mistress is nameless. Hunt recognizes that most blacks who came to England during the early modern period were slaves and only the far and few Africans who were baptized and given a Christian name in England enjoyed the status of free black men and women. Accordingly, Hunt argues that the poet's mistress is a slave and to substantiate this claim, he turns to the first sonnet in the sequence where the poet says,

Sweet beauty hath no name no holy boure (Sonnet 127. 7, p. 104.)

In this line, Hunt reasons, `we might detect perhaps if not Shakespeare's mistress herself then the liminal sign of a slave woman who, unbaptized, was also unnamed.' Thus, he says, `what we might observe…is a shadow discourse on the circumstances of black people at the time of the sequence, many of whom were slaves. In support of the contention that the mistress was a slave brought from Africa is the fact that throughout the `Dark Lady Sonnets,' the poet repeatedly uses the possessive pronoun `my' when talking about his lover. Two prime examples of this are: `my Mistersse' (Sonnet 127. 9, p. 104) and `my love' (Sonnet 138. 1, p. 109). Blades puts forward that this,

…demonstrates that he thinks of her protectively, perhaps selfishly, but above all manipulatively…As a whole [it] stresses the subjective nature of his perception of her.

Conclusively, besides overtly degrading the black woman who he is infatuated with, the poet also emphasizes the fact that she is a slave, which in turn, highlights the racial discrimination Elizabethans held towards blacks.

Besides revealing the racist views of English men and women during the early modern period, the `Dark Lady Sonnets' also bring to light the misogynist attitudes of Elizabethan men. In particular, many men grew in opposition to women's use of cosmetics during the period under discussion. Callagan notes that during the Elizabethan era, women would:

plaster on…a fairly lethal concoction of white lead and egg white, enhanced with rouged cheeks and lips…[and] this image of beauty - golden hair, lily white skin, teeth like pearls, cheeks like roses, and lips like coral [became] the dominant one in the cultural consciousness of medieval and Renaissance Europe.

In consequence, Robert Witt points out, in Sonnet 127 the poet proclaims that because contemporary women use excessive amounts of cosmetics to appear fair, true or `sweet beauty' has essentially become nonexistent:

For since each hand hath put on Natures power,

Fairing the foule with Arts faulse borrow'd face,

Sweet beauty hath no name no holy boure,

But is prophan'd, if not lives in disgrace. (Sonnet 127. 5-8, p. 104.)

Thus, Callagan holds, Shakespeare `taps into one of the most common themes of misogynist discourse in the period.'

The `Dark Lady Sonnets' not only cast light on Shakespeare's personality, but also captures the racist and sexist attitudes of many living during the Elizabethan era, which is perhaps why we still find the poems of interest in the twenty-first century. Regardless, there still remain some unresolved issues. Foremost, we have to contemplate whether the dark-skinned mistress was indeed Shakespeare's mistress or if she is simply an artistic creation designed to illustrate seventeenth century prejudice against blacks and women and correspondingly, we must ponder Shakespeare's motives for his attack against the aforementioned groups.

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