Shakespeare’s "Sonnet 127" and the mysterious "Dark Lady" - An Analysis

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010

13 Pages, Grade: 1,3


1 Introduction

For about thirty years sonnet sequences were popular in England (1580s to the 1610s)[1]. A sonnet is a poem of 14 lines of iambic pentameter with an elaborate rhyme scheme. The poets of these forms of poems wrote in order to express their deep human emotions. Especially, poets in Renaissance revealed the philosophy of humanism. Poets of Elizabethan time are mainly concerned with the subject of love. Thereby, they made use on metaphoric and poetic conventions which were developed by Italian poets of the fourteenth century like Petrarch or Dante. The Petrarchan, or Italian sonnet, consists of two quatrains and two tercets. To emphasize the idea of the poem, the rhyme scheme and structure work together. William Shakespeare reshaped the sonnet structure. The English, or Shakespearean sonnet, consists of three quatrains and a concluding couplet. The effect is like going for a short drive with a very fast driver: the first lines, even the first quatrain, are in low gear; then the second and third accelerate sharply, and ideas and metaphors flash pat; and then there is a sudden throttling-back, and one glides to a stop in the couplet.[2]

Shakespeare used, like Petrarch, the structure of the sonnet to explore multiple facets of a topic in short. He, despite his high status as a dramatist, attracted no attention as a sonneteer[3]. William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in Stratford upon Avon. In 1609 he retracted from the London live in theatre back to the city of his birth. In the very same year the publisher Thomas Thorpe announced the book “Shake-Speares Sonnets Never before Imprinted”. “When [Shakespeare] published his sonnets – or allowed them to be published – in 1609, the sonnet vogue was all but over […]”[4]. About the background and the reliability of this edition prevails disagreement. It is not resolved whether Shakespeare had wanted the publication. It is also uncertain whether the order of the sonnets is right or does it make any sense to rearrange the sequence. Even the division of the sequence into two parts – sonnet one till 126 address a young man and sonnet 127 till 154 address the Dark Lady – is questionable because many of the sonnets have no gender-markers. However, most editors accept the ordering from the 1609 edition[5]. With 154 poems, Shakespeare wrote the longest sonnet cycle of the Elizabethan age. If we comply with the assumption of most editors, the poems one till 126 focuses a young blonde man, and the sonnets 127 till 152 are aimed at a Dark Lady who is the “conceptual antithesis of the young man[6]. The whole sequence ends with two rather insignificant love sonnets which have nothing to do with the previous sonnets. They seem to be from another world as the other 152 sonnets[7]. The two addressees of the poems are not real rather “they are gendered objects of desire[8]. If the two people in Shakespeare’s sonnet cycle are desire, Shakespeare would be the “I” of the sonnets and would write in his point of view and so would give direct approach to events in his life[9]. The sonnets do not “identify any places, times, or persons, and have exactly the protocols of letters between people who already know what they are talking about[10].

In the course of the centuries researchers tried to penetrate the mystery of Shakespeare’s sonnets on a biographical way. First, at the end of the 19th century the researchers averted their eyes from historical and biographical considerations. Thenceforward, they considered the poetics themselves attentively. The researchers recognized the exceptional position of Shakespeare’s poems in sonnet tradition. Shakespeare possessed a particular sense for the form and the bravery to breach the tradition in substance. Shakespeare overcame the borders of the Petrarchan sonnet. His sonnets are continuation as well as overcoming of the Petrarchan tradition. The traditional forms of expression are seized on by Shakespeare but they convert substantially. These modifications mainly refer to configuration[11]. The altered configuration allowed the approach of topics which were not representable in Petrarchan poetry, for example moral problems. Especially, the central topic of Shakespeare’s sonnets is time and the evanescence of beauty[12]. Sonnet 127 might tell that Shakespeare disagrees with the existing ideal of beauty.

2 Formal and substantially aspects of sonnet 127

Sonnet 127 is the beginning of the Dark Lady sonnet sequence which ended with the final sonnet 154. The first sonnet sounds programmatically: The mistress is black and still beautiful, while other women corrupt through plastic deceit[13]. This sonnet is a complaint against cosmetics. The addressed woman is beautiful because of her naturalness and she does not need any artificial improvements[14]. The poem shows that even if the writers´ mistress is no prettiness of her time his love for her is very strong. The 127th sonnet of this sequence might also tell that Shakespeare contradicts with the existing ideal of beauty.

Sonnet 127 consists of 14 lines of iambic pentameter which divide into three quatrains and one couplet. Shakespeare prefers to keep his quatrains district by putting a punctuation point at the end of each. He seldom works with enjambments and prefers to make each line an idea or point. Also, “he is very fond of the clinching final couplet[15]. The quatrains possess the rhyme scheme of an alternate rhyme (ABAB CDCD EFEF) and the couplet is a rhyming one (GG). Shakespeare ever used this traditional sonnet form, which he never varied, except by repeating a rhyme[16]. Every rhyme in this sonnet is also an end rhyme and a perfect rhyme. The consonance of words is mainly masculine, except lines eight and twelve. There the rhymed words are feminine: “disgrace” and “esteem”.

2.1 The first quatrain

In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty's name.
But now is black beauty's successive heir,
And beauty slander'd with a bastard shame.

In the old age” refers back to the reign of Elisabeth. The force of the “now” in line three shows that “the old age” is over and that in these times “black” is “counted fair”. She had fair reddish hair which was considered to be the ideal of female beauty, thus black was not considered beautiful. The statement “black was not counted fair” is paradox, because “black” is a colour and it is not fair or light. “Black” is dark and even “in the old age” it would have been dark. The term “black” here means dark and brunette. In Renaissance literature and sonnets the ideal of female beauty is blonde. “In time, in Shakespeare’s sonnets, the rebirth of the Renaissance turns into the death of remorse…”[17]. There is a pun because “fair” does not only mean “blonde” or “light”; the term “fair” also means beautiful, attractive, honest or pleasant, so the speaker is referring to this meanings and qualities of “fair[18]. “Black” did not have the esteem of being beautiful and was not called beautiful. The line “if it were [beautiful] it bore not beauty’s name” is a contradictory, because it declares that if black was beautiful, it was not beautiful. The reader has to add the notion that if black considered being beautiful it nonetheless was not given the denomination. The blackness of the lady probably is a symbolic of mourning for the abasement of true prettiness[19]. Blackness is even praised in a biblical collection of love poems - The Song of Solomon:

I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon. Look not upon me because I am black, because the sun hath looked upon me: my mother’s children were angry with me, they made me the keeper of the vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept. 1.5-6.


[1] See: Warley, p.5

[2] Spiller, p. 159

[3] Ibid., p. 50

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p. 51

[6] Warley, p. 5

[7] Spiller, p.52

[8] Warley, p.126f.

[9] See: Edmonson, Stanley, p.52

[10] Spiller, p.52

[11] See: Borgmeier, p.206

[12] Ibid., p208

[13] See: Brandl, p.23

[14] See:

[15] Spiller, p.53

[16] Ibid.

[17] Fineman, p. 48

[18] See: Borgmeier, S.192

[19] See:

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Shakespeare’s "Sonnet 127" and the mysterious "Dark Lady" - An Analysis
University of Erfurt
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Shakespeare’s, Sonnet, Dark, Lady, Analysis
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Sarah Nitschke (Author), 2010, Shakespeare’s "Sonnet 127" and the mysterious "Dark Lady" - An Analysis, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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