Dark Lady (Shakespeare)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

The Dark Lady is a woman described in Shakespeare's sonnets (sonnets 127–154) and so called because the poems make it clear that she has black wiry hair and dark, brown, "dun" coloured skin. The description of the Dark Lady distinguishes itself from the Fair Youth sequence by being overtly sexual in its passion. Among these, Sonnet 151 has been characterised as "bawdy" and is used to illustrate the difference between the spiritual love for the Fair Youth and the sexual love for the Dark Lady.[1] The distinction is commonly made in the introduction to modern editions of the sonnets.[1] As with the Fair Youth sequence, there have been many attempts to identify her with a real historical individual.

Speculation about the Dark Lady[edit]

The question of who the Dark Lady was is an unsolved, controversial issue because of the insufficiency of background detail. Some believe that she might be of Mediterranean descent with dark hair and dark eyes of Greece, Spain, Italy and Southern France. Other scholars have suggested, given Shakespeare's description of her dark, dun-colored skin and black wiry hair, that the Dark Lady might have been a woman of African descent from Clerkenwell known as Black Luce.

Emilia Lanier[edit]

In 1973, A. L. Rowse claimed to have solved the subject about the identity of the Dark Lady in his book. He asserted that the Dark Lady must have been Emilia Lanier according to the diaries of Simon Forman, which contained material about her. In the diaries, Emilia is described as the mistress of Lord Hunsdon, the Queen’s Lord Chamberlain. She seemed to have similar qualities to ones of the Dark Lady. For example, Emilia was so attractive to men that during the years of being Hunsdon’s mistress, she may have been viewed as a prostitute. In addition, she might have been a musician because it was found by further research that she was a member of the Bassano family which was famous for providing the music to entertain the Courts of Elizabeth I and James I. They were also Italians and Emilia may have been of Mediterranean descent.

Emilia Lanier has been held in respect by feminist literary historians as the first woman to publish a full collection of poetry under her own name in English history. Her Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail, God, King of the Jews) was published in 1611 and was sold in the London's prominent book-selling quarter by Richard Bonian.[2]

There is also the proposition that Lanier could have written or was involved, at the very least, in writing Macbeth. Although there is no concrete evidence to this theory, Forman's writings cited an incident where the poet asked for his advice about conjuring demons during one of her visits.[2] This is supported by a widely accepted notion that Shakespeare worked with collaborators such as the case of his works involving Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker,[3] who were also literary figures during his time. Recent scholarship revealed that collaboration was commonplace in the early modern English drama where a pair or groups of authors work on a single text.[4]

There are academics, however, who dismiss the theory that Lanier was the Dark Lady not only due to the lack of proof but also because it is claimed to serve an unwelcome detraction to the poet's own literary achievements.[5]

Black Luce[edit]

In 2012, Duncan Salkeld, a Shakespearean scholar from the University of Chichester, reported that he believed the Dark Lady was a Clerkenwell brothel-owner known as 'Lucy Negro' or 'Black Luce'. Salkeld found mentions of Black Luce and her business associate Gilbert East in the diary of Philip Henslowe, owner of the Rose Theatre. Henslowe's acting company sometimes staged Shakespeare's works while also occasionally acting as a rival to Shakespeare's company. Salkeld theorized that Shakespeare could have known Black Luce through her connection to Henslowe, through East.[6]

Aline Florio[edit]

Aubrey Burl, a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, insists that the Dark Lady is Aline Florio, the wife of John Florio, an Italian translator. Burl listed eight candidates who are suspected as the Dark Lady, and finally assured that the real Dark Lady is Mrs. Florio using some clues which were mentioned in the playwright’s own work: She was dark-haired, self-centred, and enjoyed sex. According to him, Mrs. Florio loved "for her own gratification", indulged in "temptation and callously self-satisfied betrayal of her husband", which coincides with features of the Dark Lady. He also noted that the fact that Florio was born of low degree in Somerset explains the darkness of the Dark Lady’s complexion. Burl explained that Florio probably first met Shakespeare at Titchfield and met him again in London at Florio’s home.[7]

In popular culture[edit]

In the Doctor Who series 3 episode "The Shakespeare Code", set in 1599, Shakespeare becomes infatuated with the Tenth Doctor's new companion Martha Jones, a Black British woman. At the end of the episode, after deducing that she is from the future, he calls her his "dark lady" and recites Sonnet 18 for her.


  1. ^ a b Matz, Robert. The World of Shakespeare's Sonnets: An Introduction. p. 111. ISBN 978-0-7864-3219-6.
  2. ^ a b O'Reilly, Sally (2014). Dark Aemilia: A Novel of Shakespeare's Dark Lady. New York: Picador. pp. 420–421. ISBN 9781250048134.
  3. ^ Carroll, William (2012). Thomas Middleton: Four Plays: Women Beware Women, The Changeling, The Roaring Girl and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. London: Bloomsbury. pp. xi. ISBN 9781408156582.
  4. ^ Gossett, Susan (2011). Thomas Middleton in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 211. ISBN 9780521190541.
  5. ^ Sharrat, Mary (2016). The Dark Lady's Mask. London: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 394. ISBN 9780544300767.
  6. ^ Alberge, Dalya (27 August 2012). "New evidence supports claim that William Shakespeare's 'Dark Lady' may have been a Clerkenwell prostitute". The Independent. Retrieved 9 March 2018.
  7. ^ "Has Shakespeare's dark lady finally been revealed?".