W.H. Auden spoke for many when he wrote:
The only semblance of order [in the Sonnets] is a division into two unequal heaps—Sonnets 1 to 126 are addressed to a young man, assuming, which is probable but not certain, that there is only one young man addressed, and Sonnets 127-154 are addressed to a dark-haired woman.
Note how Auden’s skepticism regarding the first “heap” (“assuming…there is only one young man…”) does not extend to the second (“are addressed to a dark-haired woman.”)
The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare sums up the common view of the ‘Dark Lady’ section:
The next sonnets, 127-152, are known as the ‘Dark Lady’ group, addressed to or concerned with an unfashionably dark-haired, dark-eyed, and dark-complexioned mistress. For the most part, these poems reproach her: she is a tyrant, black in deeds as well as in looks, (131) and an adultress (152); she has seduced the poet’s friend (133-4); the poet is foolish to love anyone so obviously unworthy (137, 147-152) and is clearly deceiving himself (138), asking her in one sonnet to confess her infidelity (139) and in the next to say she loves him even though this is not true (140). The poet, aware of the delusions of lust but unable to avoid its trap (129), woos his mistress regardless with a series of sexual puns on the name ‘Will’ (135-6, 143); he is torn between a ‘man right fair’ and a ‘woman colored ill’, suspecting they are lovers (144). –Stanley Wells
We know all sorts of things about this ‘dark lady.’ She is “unfashionably dark-haired, dark-eyed and dark-complexioned,” she’s “a tyrant,” an “adultress,” she has “seduced the poet’s friend,” and so forth.
Such is the conventional wisdom, and there is even an historical figure, Emilia Bassano Lanier, who is a much-named candidate for this ‘dark lady’ of the Sonnets.
Scarriet, however, has solved the puzzle, but in order to do so, we had to 1) actually read the Sonnets and 2) trash the conventional wisdom in the process.
It wasn’t hard.
It will be hard to swallow, though, since so many scholars’ reputations are based on pure trash.
Pity the scholars, because not only is the Dark Lady going to be blown to bits, but the so-called ‘Young Man,’ as well.
There is no Dark Lady. There is no Young Man.
How could so many have been so wrong on so famous a work for so long?
So here’s what one finds when one actually reads The Sonnets, all 154 of them, in the sequence, as published, in 1609, and read by millions since then:
The Sonnets are gender-neutral.
119 of the first 126 sonnets (the so-called Young Man sonnets) do not specify a gender. Sonnet #7 puns on sun/son and #13’s “You had a father, let your son say so,” but this belongs to Shakespeare’s breeding/increase theme which dominates the first 14 sonnets, a theme which Shakespeare never abandons.
The sequence is gender-neutral until #20, however:
The knotty #20 and its “master mistress” is accompanied by #21’s “So it is not with me as with that Muse” and “let me truly write and my child is as fair…” and “let them say more that like of hearsay well/I will not praise that purpose not to sell” referring back to #20’s “love’s use:” the commerce of love—procreation and “increase” (#1).
“So it is not with me as with that Muse…” (#21) is just one indication that Shakespeare composed the Sonnets not as a ‘person of interest’ in the scholars’ imagined soap-opera, but from a loftier perspective, as a God participating in the human, not as a human participating with the God-like, or struggling with romance, or other short-lived concerns. The aim of the Sonnets is much higher than that. We must not only note the gender and the content of the Sonnets themselves but get the perspective straight: Shakespeare is the Muse in these sonnets, or even the Muse of the Muse of these Sonnets. The Sonnets are not impressionistic poetry. Shakespeare, the philosopher, has something to say.
Sonnet #21 refers to “any mother’s child” and #22 features “as tender nurse her babe from faring ill.” The business of progeny, lines of descent, lines of verse, “eternal lines,” (#18) dominates the early sonnets. So when does the famous Young Man enter? We have to wait until #33: “Even so my sun one early morn did shine/With all triumphant splendor on my brow;/But out alack, he was but one hour mine” to find a specific reference to what is possibly a Young Man or male friend or male lover, yet “sun” has us wondering if “sun” is not “son,” since Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, died at the age of eleven. The “he was but one hour mine” far more likely refers to Shakespeare’s son than it does to a male lover, if we note the words of #33 itself and also note that the child is an important theme in the whole sequence. Reading #33 in its entirety, the scenario of grief for a lost son jumps out at us, with the couplet stating the poet, even in his grief, will not lose faith “in heaven’s sun” even though “suns of the world may stain.”
It isn’t till sonnets #40, 41, and 42, the ‘friend and mistress betray the poet’ poems, that we finally get some sort of ‘story’ that involves a ‘male friend’ and the poet’s mistress. But the mistress is at play here, too, in the first definintive glimpse of the Young Man. We forget that until this point, for the first third of the so-called Young Man sequence, there is no Young Man story whatsoever. Not only that: in #42 Shakespeare informs us that, “my friend and I are one.” Have the scholars simply made up a story which does not exist? If we simply read the sonnets as Shakespeare wrote them, we have to say, yes.
In the sonnets leading up to the ‘betrayal’ triptych (40-42) we have a lot of platonist mathematics (“we two must be twain although our undivided loves are one” #36) and the parent-child theme is still going strong (“as a decrepit father takes delight to see his active child do deeds of youth”#37) so why the sudden lurid romance of the supposed young man cheating with the poet’s mistress? Not only does it not make sense in the sequence, it also doesn’t make sense that if a ‘story’ is so vital, it would be confined to just a few poems; discerned through Shakespeare’s teasing and philosophical words, we see that the ‘love triangle’ of #42 is not even that: there are four characters: thou, her, the poet, and a friend (who gets the mistress, not the ‘thou,’) and then the triptych ends: “she loves but me alone!” So where is this ‘young man sleeping with his mistress’ story? It doesn’t exist. It merely lives in the feverish imaginings of a blind pedant (or two).
#54 repeats the theme of Chapter 2 (Chapter 1, the first 14 sonnets are about procreation) in which the poet’s verse (rather than children) makes the youth immortal.
#63 finds a male pronoun again, but in terms of a mistress: “his beauty in these black lines be seen” is the precise theme of the so-called ‘Dark Lady’ sequence, which opens, “In the old age black was not counted fair” (#127). The “his” is not important; Shakespeare is keeping beauty alive with his poetry, repeating the theme of #53, which looks back to #16-18. To think that a genius like Shakespeare is thinking of a brunette is absurd; he’s a bit more clever than that. The so-called ‘Young Man’ sequence contains more examples of the ‘beauty as black’ theme than references to a young man.
If we didn’t get it the first time, Shakespeare repeats the trope in #65, without the male pronoun—as in 95% of the ‘Young Man’ sequence: “in black ink my love may still shine bright.”
Not that “my love” has to be a woman. Shakespeare intentionally eludes gender and biography and real names in the Sonnets because it’s obviously not his ultimate concern. Shakespeare’s use of the phrase “my love” is tricky; we can never assume he means ‘my (male) lover.’ He might be referring to a son, or a child. He might be referring to himself: “O no, thy love, though much, is not so great./It is my love that keeps mine eye awake,/Mine own true love that doth my rest defeat,/To play the watchman ever for thy sake.” (#61) No male pronoun in this sonnet, either.
In fact, after #67 and 68, which speak of a “him,” but in highly grandiose religious terms, the male pronoun is absent for the rest of the ‘Young Man’ sequence.
The only exception is two rival poet sonnets (#80,86), and the rival poet may be Shakespeare himself, who drops self-reflexive hints everywhere. He tells the Muse what to do (#100) and explains what his Muse does (#21), for instance.
Shakespeare makes April a male, and flowers, too (#98,99). In #93 Shakespeare calls himself “husband” and refers to “Eve’s apple.” In #53 he compares “you” to “Adonis” and “Helen” as one of the ” millions of strange shadows” that “on you tend,” not using the male pronoun in that poem either. Typically, the “you” is described as a God, not a mortal.
In #108 we get “sweet boy,” but this poem, like #33, sounds like it could very well be an ode to the poet’s son: “like prayers divine,/I must each day say o’er the very same;/Counting no old thing old, thou mine, I thine,/Even as when first I hallowed thy fair name.” “Hallowed thy fair name” certainly implies a baptism, and the sun is “no old thing old” in #76: “Far as the sun is daily new and old, /So is my love still telling what is told.” And we know Shakespeare loves to pun on son/sun.
There is no male pronoun after #108, except for that last poem (#126) in the ‘Young Man’ sequence, which clearly refers to cupid.
This brings us to the so-called ‘Dark Lady’ group (#127-152), which indulges in the happy pun of black ink, seen already in #27 (“makes black night beauteous”), #63 and #65 as already mentioned, together with the numerous references to day and light v. night and darkness, and there’s also multiple punning on dark “deeds,” documents (with black ink) and actions.
Much is made by scholars of #144, because it seems to explicitly recap the ‘betray’ triptych (#40-42). In #144, we have a “man right fair” and a “woman colored ill” and “I guess one angel in another’s hell.”
#41, 42, and #144 make up the scholars’ trump card. Without these three poems, the ‘Poet’s Male Friend Sleeps With Poet’s Mistress!’ story collapses. To extrapolate a feverish autobiographical tale from The Sonnets’ metaphorically philosophical coolness is a mug’s game. Shakespeare’s “To win me soon to hell, my female evil/Tempteth my better angel from my side” (#144) is plainly a calculated morality play, not a sweaty confession.
Scholars err in assuming the “woman colored ill” is the Dark Lady; this is both a misreading and a dumbing down of Shakespeare, the sly master. First, there’s no “black” in #144. Secondly, the “hell” in #144 is the same “hell” we see in #129 (“Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame”) . The “woman colored ill” is the same as #21’s “So it is not with me as with that Muse,/ Stirred by a painted beauty to his verse” and not the Dark Lady, for look how Shakespeare’s mistress is described in the first of the Dark Lady sonnets (#127):
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 slandered with a bastard shame.
For since each hand hath put on nature’s pow’r,
Fairing the foul with art’s false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bow’r,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland’ring creation with a false esteem.
Yet so they mourn, becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so.
There is no “hell” of sonnets #129 and #144. Instead, there is the “mourning” of poetry which exists because of separation and grief, the “black ink” that pathetically strives to keep beauty green—because of death.
And we also get Plato (Shakespeare’s philosophical Muse) right here: “art’s false borrowed face.”
The boy is Shakespeare’s son.
The Rival poet is Shakespeare.
The Black Lady is a pun on black ink.
The Sonnets are witty Platonist philosophy, (see “The Phaedrus”) not the soap-opera scholars make of it.