Shakespeare's "Dark Lady"-sonnets: The hell of sexuality – the sexuality of hell

Seminar Paper, 2005

20 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. The “dark lady” -sonnets – The hell of sexuality – the sexuality of hell
2.1 The “dark lady” theme and Antipetrarchism
2.2 The hell of sexuality – the sexuality of hell

3. Conclusion

4. References

1. Introduction

William Shakespeare’s (1564-1616) collection of 154 sonnets belongs surely to one of the greatest and most famous ones, although there are many discrepancies about it; for example, discrepancies in authorship, composition, publication and contents.

In 1609, Thomas Thorpe published the Quarto volume consisting of 154 consecutive sonnets and A lover’s complaint. “Scholars have been―and remain―deeply divided on a number of issues regarding the Quarto volume published by Thomas Thorpe in 1609”.[1] Although there are no autograph manuscripts, people accepted Shakespeare as the composer of these sonnets. Furthermore, we do not know definitely when Shakespeare composed the poems, but it is assured that they arose over a period of at least 27 years and that the sonnets 138 and 144 were written before 1599.[2]

Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets can be divided into two great sections: The first section contains the sonnets 1-126 which are addressed to a young man, obviously a very good friend of the author who appears again in the second section; and the poems from 127 to 152 are the so-called “dark lady” sonnets. The last two sonnets, 153 and 154, are about Cupid, the god of love, and revisions of an epigram of the Anthologia Graeca[3].

This paper will have a closer look at the “dark lady” sonnets, at what they are about, why they are called this way and what it is that makes them so special. Furthermore, several important images that can be found again and again in these sonnets will be named and analysed, amongst others images of sexuality, hell, darkness, death, religion, illness and so on. There will also be a quick introduction why most people speak of Antipetrarchan sonnets in form and content.

Before starting out the actual analysis, I still want to give a short summary concerning the matters of the sonnets. It should be stated that the poems do not have a traditional order of seeing a woman, falling in love with her, being rejected and finally abandoning her. The reader of these sonnets will find a disarrangement of ups and downs, happiness and madness, alliance and rejection, love and hate and it seems that the first poem of this series functions as an introduction of the bad ending of this love affair. In short, the sonnets are about a love affair between the poet and his “dark” mistress who betrays him with other men, even with a beloved friend of his, and because of his dependence the poet finally falls into a deep and melancholy madness. But in conclusion, the reader only finds an open ending and is released without knowing what happened to the poet and his “dark lady” finally.

2. The“dark lady”sonnets – The hell of sexuality – the sexuality of hell

2.1 The “dark lady” theme and Antipetrarchism

The second series of Shakespeare’s sonnets starts with sonnet 127. This sonnet acts like an introduction to the so called “dark lady” sonnets, although it is about an odd and unorthodox way of starting a series of poems in praise of one’s mistress. But very quickly you realise that probably each of these 26 sonnets falls short of one's expectations of Petrarchan sonnets.

The title of the “dark lady” sonnets raises several questions: Who is the dark lady? Why is she called the “dark lady” ? What makes her dark – appearance or behaviour? The following section tries to answer some of these questions.

First of all, until today we have not known definitely who the “dark lady” of these sonnets was. Although one finds names like Emilia Bassano, Elizabeth Vernon or Mary Fitton there has never been found the one and only proof that could assure her identity. However, the questions why she is called the “dark lady” and what it is that makes her dark can be answered by analyzing the sonnets 127-152. However, sonnet 127 presents us the sonneteer’s mistress, the “dark lady”, who is described in a dark and debased way right from the beginning and throughout the whole series. Moreover, like so often in Shakespeare, we find hints that allude to what will be forthcoming, for example in line 9 of sonnet 127: “Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black”[4] ; these few words, especially the term ‘black’, give a first impression why the “dark lady” might be called ‘dark’ and what will happen throughout the next sonnets. Furthermore, the term ‘raven’ tells us a lot of the oncoming contents. “Of inspired birds ravens are accounted the most prophetical.”[5] The raven is “a bird of ill omen; […] forebode[s] death and bring[s] infection and bad luck generally.”[6] So, the reader probably can expect the unhappy ending, perhaps even an entire disaster.

One assumes why these sonnets are called the “dark lady” sonnets: There are two aspects of darkness/blackness: “[F]irst the darkness of her beauty, and later the darkness of her deeds.”[7] The “dark lady” is described as a woman with black eyes, black hair and even with a “foul”[8], dull skin. But also her behaviour makes her dark, as for example the poet calls her “tyrannous, so as thou art”[9] in sonnet 131. Several times the image of mourning appears. “Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem”[10] is often interpreted that the mistress looks down on the poet with pity. She pities him because of his dependence on her. But, conversely, it could also mean that she mourns herself for she is not happy with her life. And also in the couplet reappears the mourning image: “Yet so they mourn, becoming of their woe, That every tongue says beauty should look so.”[11] These two lines mirror Shakespeare’s Antipetrarchism as he says that blackness is beauty.

But what is Petrarchism and Antipetrarchism? Stanley Wells gave a short, precise and plain definition of Petrarchism: “The fundamental premise of the Petrarchan sonnet is very simple: a man loves and desires a beautiful woman who is dedicated to chastity, which may be either virginity or the ‘married chastity’, […]”.[12]

In Elizabethan times, Petrarchism was the main character of typical love poems. Petrachism comes from the Italian poet Frances Petrarch, who is supposed to have fallen in love with a woman called Laura. In order to show his infatuation, he wrote many love sonnets in which he sang about Laura. Petrarchism is the tradition of singing about the one and only beloved woman, the embodiment of perfection, and her beauty. Mostly, such a love is a kind of unaccomplished, desperate, unrequited and one-sided exquisite pain (“dolendi voluptas”).[13] Other renowned Petrarchan sonneteers were Sir Thomas Wyatt, Henry Howard (the Earl of Surrey), Edmund Spenser, Sir Philip Sidney, etc.

One has to mention that Shakespeare’s dark lady sonnets differ from those traditional Petrarchan sonnets. Through the reversal and the debasement of the catalogue of (Petrarchan) beauty Shakespeare parodies the Petrarchan tradition and thus makes me of Antipetrarchism. Especially the sonnets 130, 132, and 141 attest to this Shakespearean tradition.

Let us have a closer look at sonnet 130, which presumably is the most famous one and a very good example of Shakespeare’s Antipetrarchism:

1) My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
2) Coral is far more red than her lip’s red;
3) If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
4) If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
5) I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
6) But no such roses see I in her cheeks,
7) And in some perfumes is there more delight
8) Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
9) I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
10) That music hath a far more pleasing sound.
11) I grant I never saw a goddess go;
12) My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
13) And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
14) As any she belied with false compare.[14]

The first two lines make it rather quickly clear that the sonnet is not about a usual Petrarchan praise of a woman. Already the first metaphor “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” (l.1) implies an Antipetrarchan character: Normally, the eyes of a beautiful woman were as bright by shining as the sun, but not so the eyes of the dark lady. The same aims for her lips, which are not as red as coral (l. 2), and her breasts, which are not snow white but “of a dull greyish-brown colour”[15] (l. 3). Her hair is compared to black wires (l. 4); here we see again why, amongst others, she is called the “dark lady”: Obviously the poet’s mistress had black hair, in contrast to the traditional Petrarchan beauties that had blonde hair. Her cheeks do not have the colour of a damasked light red[16] rose (l. 6) and her breath smells less of wonderful perfume than something foul (reek = have a foul smell[17] ) (l. 8). One could assume a link between the smell of the mistress’ breath and the perfume of the roses: “The “and” of line seven suggests a connection between the perfumes of the next line and the roses of the preceding line.”[18] But in the last two lines one can mention that, although the voice of the mistress is not as nice as the sound of music (l. 10) and she also is not walking as elegantly as a goddess (l. 12), the poet “may even be thanking the powers of heaven that […] he has such a mistress”.[19] The repetition of the possessive pronoun “my” in line 1, 8, 12 and 13 implies that the sonneteer sees the dark lady as his ownership, although we will learn that the she is an unfaithful woman with lots of lovers. And the expression “I think my love as rare [a]s any she belied with false compare” (l. 13f.) reminds us of the nowadays adage “less is more”, which could be seen as a compliment


[1] Schiffer, 2000, p. 5.

[2] Schabert, 2000, p. 576.

[3] Ibid. p. 582.

[4] Fields, 1973, 127.

[5] Brewer, 1962, p. 755.

[6] Brewer, 1962, p. 755.

[7] Hubler, 1952, p. 39.

[8] Fields, 1973, 127.

[9] Ibid. 131.

[10] Ibid. 127.

[11] Ibid. 127.

[12] Wells, 2004, p. 41.

[13] Schabert, 2000, p. 583.

[14] Fields, 1973, 130.

[15] OED, 2004, p. 444.

[16] Ibid. p. 361.

[17] Ibid. p. 1207.

[18] Thomas, 1989, p. 77.

[19] Ibid. p. 77f.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Shakespeare's "Dark Lady"-sonnets: The hell of sexuality – the sexuality of hell
Saarland University  (Anglisitik)
Proseminar: Shakespeare's Love Tragedies
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Shakespeare, Dark, Lady, Proseminar, Shakespeare, Love, Tragedies
Quote paper
Eva Sammel (Author), 2005, Shakespeare's "Dark Lady"-sonnets: The hell of sexuality – the sexuality of hell, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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