Thursday, May 17, 2012

William Shakespeare's 'Dark Lady'

Was William Shakespeare in love with a dark-skinned mistress behind his wife's back?
William Shakespeare's sonnets from 127-152 are popularly known as his 'Dark Lady' sequence, being dedicated to a problematic female muse whom Shakespeare both insults and adores by turns. But what precisely does 'Dark Lady' signify, and was there ever such a person?

Court beauty, Mary Fitton
Experts tend to disagree on her identity. Some believe Shakespeare's mystery woman must have been a dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty - possibly even Mary Fitton, one of Elizabeth I's maids of honour in the late 1590s, whose apparent promiscuity makes her a likely candidate for some of his more insulting sonnets about her lack of faithfulness.

Others take Shakespeare's descriptions of his mistress more literally, i.e. that she was exotic and darker-skinned rather than simply an English brunette. The poet Emilia Lanier has been considered as one possible candidate for this - a notorious Tudor beauty, Emilia was descended from Venetian Jews, and may even have inspired one of Shakespeare's most famous plays, The Merchant of Venice, and perhaps the character of Rosalind in Love's Labour's Lost.

Possibly a portrait of Emilia Lanier, nee Bassano, a courtly poet and one of the candidates for Shakespeare's 'Dark Lady' - it should be remembered that Tudor women often painted their skin to look fashionably pale

Another possibility is the shadowy figure of Lucy Morgan, one of Elizabeth's lesser-known ladies at court, whom some historians have associated with a 'Lucy Negra' of more dubious fame in Tudor times. According to contemporary records, Lucy Morgan married a Thomas Parker in the late 1500s. This would also fit, given how angrily Shakespeare refers to his Dark Lady's cruelty, i.e. that she teased him and would not return his love, but loved another instead.

It could be that Shakespeare was deliberately writing anti-romantic sonnets in this sequence, and that a dark-skinned mistress merely made a strong contrast with the pale beauties of Elizabethan fashion. After all, Sonnet 131 finishes with the assertion, 'In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds', which would seem to negate his previous references to her darkness.

But the case for his Dark Lady being nothing more than a literary device is weak, given the sheer number of sonnets that mention her - and their emotional vehemence. Besides, darker-skinned peoples and those of African descent were far from unknown in Tudor England, as demonstrated by a 1575 painting by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder which depicts a group of black musicians and entertainers performing before Queen Elizabeth herself.

Of course, none of this proves the assertion that Shakespeare's mistress was dark-skinned, nor that she even existed outside the poet's admittedly fertile imagination. But since we have no absolute proof that she wasn't dark, or even actually 'Moorish', nor any way of determining her identity for sure, it's certainly both fun and exciting to speculate who Shakespeare's Dark Lady was - and what their fiery relationship might have been like!

Victoria Lamb is the author of The Queen's Secret:
Lucy Morgan, a black singer and entertainer at the court of Elizabeth I, is enlisted to spy on Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and uncovers a plot to assassinate the Queen.

Currently available from in Hardback and Kindle editions. Paperback edition due out in July 2012. Also available from Berkley in the US from early 2013.


  1. Now I'm thinking the next speculative movie about Shakespeare should center on the identity of the Dark Lady. Wouldn't that be fun?

    Thanks for an interesting post--great way to start my day!

  2. Thanks, Jane. Glad you enjoyed it. And with any luck a future film about this might even be based on my own books! My trilogy about Shakespeare's 'Dark Lady' begins with Lucy Morgan as a young girl at court in The Queen's Secret. It's pretty action-packed so would make a good film, IMHO. LOL! Vx


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