The ‘Fair Youth’ and the ‘Dark Lady’ in Shakespeare’s sonnets and their relationship to the Poetic Persona

Term Paper, 2016

12 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2.1 The “Fair Youth” Sonnets
2.1.1 Characterisation of the ‘Fair Youth’
2.1.2 Relationship to the Poetic Persona
2.1.3 Summary
2.2 The “Dark Lady” Sonnets
2.2.1 Characterisation of the ‘Dark Lady’
2.2.2 Relationship to the Poetic Persona
2.2.3 Summary

3. Conclusion

4. Works Cited

1. Introduction

Nowadays sonnets, or probably even lyric in general, are not very popular anymore. That was quite different in the Elizabethan era when sonnet-writing was widespread during the so called “sonnet vogue” at the end of the 16th century. A lot of sonnets were written during that time by poets like Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser or of course William Shakespeare, whose sonnet sequence contains 154 sonnets in total. Some of Shakespeare’s sonnets are still very well-known today and are read and analysed by students in schools or universities.

To get a better understanding of these poems, an important aspect one should be concerned with is the addressee of each sonnet. Shakespeare had two major addressees for his sonnets: The “Fair Youth” – respectively the “Young Man” – and the “Dark Lady” whose identities are still a matter of speculation even today.

The first part of Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence, namely sonnets 1 – 126, is directed to the “Young Man”, while sonnets 127 – 154 are written to the “Dark Lady”.

But how are these figures – the young man and the dark lady - portrayed by the poetic persona? What does this portrayal tell the reader about the relationship between persona and addressee? Are these relationships of a similar nature or do they differ in some aspects?

In this paper I am first going to deal with the “Fair Youth” sequence: There will be a short characterisation of this figure before I will concern myself with the relationship to the poetic persona. After a brief summary of these results the “Dark Lady” sonnets will be examined in the same manner while regarding the results about the “Young Man” I achieved before. These points will be executed by looking at several sonnets in detail. For the “Fair Youth” section these are going to be sonnets 18, 20, 26, and 116; for the “Dark Lady” sonnets I will deal with sonnets 127, 130, 129, and 144.

At the end I will recapitulate the ascertained outcomes in a conclusion.


2.1 The “Fair Youth” Sonnets

Shakespeare addressed the first half of his sonnet sequence to a young man, also referred to as the “Fair Youth”. One can excerpt certain characteristics from the way this young man is presented in the sonnets as well as find out about the nature of the man’s relationship to the poetic persona.

2.1.1 Characterisation of the ‘Fair Youth’

The “Fair Youth” is a young man who is portrayed with feminine qualities in many of Shakespeare’s sonnets directed to him. This applies to both his looks as well as his characteristics as is especially apparent in sonnet 20 and in this quote of the first lines thereof:

A woman's face with nature's own hand painted, Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion; A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted With shifting change, as is false women's fashion”

(Shakespeare et al. 42)

In this paragraph the poetic persona starts by praising the young man for his beautiful face that is naturally so, other than women’s who have to “paint” their faces in order to come close to his beauty (Shakespeare et al. 132). Although beauty was up until then merely used to describe women it is here a characteristic that is applied to the young man (Innes 108).

The persona then goes on talking about the young man’s characteristics in comparison to those of women: he has only the positive attributes of the female gender, for example is he on the one hand as soft and compassionate as women are, so he has “A woman’s gentle heart” (Shakespeare et al. 42) . On the other hand, though, he does not have the negative facet that so often comes with a woman’s nature. That is, they often seem to be moody or, changing their minds.

In sonnet 20 one can find another meaningful phrase that describes the man’s character:

“A man in hue all hues in his controlling, Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth.” (Shakespeare et al. 42) The expression “A man in hue” could have the meaning of a man who is in a good “form” or “shape” or who has pleasant looks (Shakespeare et al. 133) .

Another reading of this could be that the “man in hue” is a “noble” man who is graceful and elegant in his behaviour and appearance (Shakespeare et al. 42) . The second part of the phrase – “all hues in his controlling” – has even more different meanings. The most plausible one for me is that this very elegant and good looking man fascinates and enchants everyone around him (Shakespeare et al. 133) .

This reading would also fit the next line of the sonnet that says that both men and women feel attracted to the youth and are charmed by his demeanour. This fact also counts for the poetic persona as will be shown in the next chapter.

2.1.2 Relationship to the Poetic Persona

There are different assumptions as how one can interpret the relationship between the poetic persona and the fair youth. Some see it as a homosexual relationship whereas others read it as merely platonic (Innes 145).

What seems quite noticeable though is that the poetic persona is attracted to the young man and even loves him whether platonic or not.

The attraction becomes obvious in the description and praising of the man’s beauty especially in sonnet 18 as already mentioned above.

While in the first seventeen sonnets the persona tries to persuade the young man to marry and father children, the tone changes from sonnet 18 on. This sonnet starts with these famous lines:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate”

(Shakespeare et al. 41)

Here the persona already sounds enamoured and charmed by the man and the tone is light and lovely as it is throughout the whole poem.

In sonnet 20 the persona speaks to the man as “ the master mistress of my passion” (Shakespeare et al. 42). There are different ways as how to interpret this phrase: on the one hand this could allude to a sexual relationship between addresser and addressee referring to the young man as his male lover who evokes passion or love in the persona.

Another possible interpretation reads this ‘passion’ as writing poems or sonnets. In this understanding “master-mistress” would simply mean that a man is addressed the way women are usually addressed in sonnet-writing (Shakespeare et al. 132f.).

At the end of sonnet 20 the persona complains that the young man was not created a woman because by creating him as a man nature added “one thing to [his] purpose nothing” (Shakespeare et al. 42) alluding to the man’s genital which is apparently of no use for the persona.

This line should also make it quite clear that there was no homosexual relationship between the persona and the young man. Since the persona states clearly that a male genital is of no interest for him this relationship presents itself as merely platonic.

The final couplet of this sonnet supports the interpretation of their relationship as platonic:

“But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure, Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.”

(Shakespeare et al. 42)

The persona seems to accept the fact that nature “prick’d [the man] out for women’s pleasure” meaning that the man is supposed to have sexual relations with women instead of the persona. But while women may enjoy the man’s body the persona wishes to have the man’s love on an emotional level.

In this aspect sonnet 116 is quite interesting as well. Keeping in mind that this sonnet still belongs to the “Fair Youth”-sequence the expression “marriage of true minds” (Shakespeare et al. 90) in the first line makes me think of them as soulmates or as people who share a profound bond. A marriage is after all the deepest bond two people can enter although this is most times based on a sexual relationship. A “marriage of true minds” must then only happen on the emotional level: they are probably two people who were made for each other and love each other but in a platonic way. This is a love that cannot be destroyed by anything: there are no changes that could hinder their love but it is like a guidance, something to rely on and to give some kind of safety in difficult times. This love cannot be altered by time but it stays the same until the end.

About all these points that are stated about real love in this sonnet the persona seems to be very sure of as one can see in the final couplet:

“If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”

(Shakespeare et al. 90)

But although they seem to share this special bond there are still differences in the social class between the two figures. These become most apparent in sonnet 26.

The beginning of this sonnet “Lord of my love” (Shakespeare et al. 45) can be taken literally as well as figuratively because the addressee really is a lord (Rowse, S. xiv).

This sonnet shows the reader that the persona has some kind of duty towards the man and serves him which is also the reason for writing this sonnet: he wants to show that he is a loyal vassal and he does not really know how to express this obligation in the right way but hopes that the man understands what he means. Once he will be able to write well enough and be “worthy of [his] sweet respect” (Shakespeare et al. 45) he will finally show how much he loves him. So as one can clearly see the addressee of this sonnet stands above the persona. The persona seems to owe something to the man and has to earn his respect.


Excerpt out of 12 pages


The ‘Fair Youth’ and the ‘Dark Lady’ in Shakespeare’s sonnets and their relationship to the Poetic Persona
RWTH Aachen University  (Institut für Anglistik, Amerikanistik und Romanistik der RWTH Aachen)
The Sonnet - History of a Genre
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Shakespeare, Sonnet, Dark Lady, Fair Youth
Quote paper
Eva Schiffbauer (Author), 2016, The ‘Fair Youth’ and the ‘Dark Lady’ in Shakespeare’s sonnets and their relationship to the Poetic Persona, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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