‘A whitely wanton with a velvet brow’ and ‘raven black’ eyes, Shakespeare’s Dark Lady is shrouded in mystery. She appears towards the end of the sequence of Shakespeare’s sonnets (from Number 127); her identity is still unknown in spite of years of research, speculation and wild guesses. As the World Shakespeare Festival (and Shakespeare’s birthday) is upon us, let’s have a look at some of these conjectures and at some of the sonnets.
The original contender for the Lady was Queen Elizabeth I, on the grounds that the sonnets were addressed to her, closely followed by Anne Hathaway. However, such exquisite poetry – Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate – seemed to call for someone less prosaic than a patron or a wife. In the late 19th century, Gerald Massey cited Lady Penelope Rich in The Secret Drama of Shakespeare’s Sonnets ; author Ian Wilson perpetuated this ‘beautiful courtesan as Dark Lady’ theory in the 20th century.
Next came the obsession with darkness. Just what was dark about The Lady? Her hair, her eyes, the colour of her skin, the blackness of her soul? The brunette argument saw off fair-haired Mary Fitton, one of Queen Elizabeth’s maids of honour, and the racial card was played in favour of one of London’s negro prostitutes, Luce Morgan. By the 1970s ( the Shakespeare industry is nothing if not long-lasting), historian A. L. Rowse was proposing the mistress of the Lord Chamberlain, Emilia Bassano Lanier, and in 1997 Jonathan Bate, in The Genius of Shakespeare, found yet another contender, the unnamed sister of a rival poet. The latest opinion that I have seen swings the pendulum back to Rowse’s Emilia, whose portrait, in miniature, is held in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. (English Studies, Oct. 2006)
We don’t know, so should we care? After all, there are people out there who can’t even agree on the identity of Shakespeare himself ( the ‘he was really Edward de Vere / Chrisopher Marlowe’ brigade.) Let’s allow the poetry to speak for itself – listen carefully!