The Dark Lady— Mysterious World of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

"My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red."

William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616)

In the whole mysterious world of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the most enigmatic personality to emerge is the Dark Lady raising ever-increasing curiosity among the readers of all times and climes. The few of the sonnets describe the devotion of a person, often identified as Shakespeare himself, to a young man whose beauty and virtue he praises and to a mysterious and faithless Dark Lady with whom the poet is infatuated. Many learned attempts to identify her with this or that feminine personality of the time have met with equally strong counter-claims making confusion worse confounded. 

In several sonnets the poet accuses his patron of deserting him for a rival poet or charges him with stealing the poet’s mistress, the Dark Lady. The ensuing triangular situation, resulting from the attraction of the poet’s friend to the Dark Lady, is treated with passionate intensity and psychological insight. As with identifying the Mr. W. H. of the dedication, attempts to determine the identities of the youth, rival poet, and mistress have been inconclusive. What, however, appears fairly certain from the sonnets is that the lady ‘coloured ill’ was a woman of the courtesan type whose attraction for Shakespeare was purely sensual amounting almost to an infatuation.  

Contemporary letters indicate that Dark Lady had certain common qualities with the mistress of Shakespeare—a ready wit, artistic attainments and a masculine boldness. She was known to Kempe, one of whose books was dedicated to her and a play upon her name has been detected in a sonnet of the second series. In reference, Sonnet 130 is the poet's pragmatic tribute to his uncomely mistress, commonly referred to as the dark lady because of her dun complexion. The Dark Lady, who ultimately betrays the poet, appears in sonnets 127 to 154. Sonnet 130 is clearly a parody of the conventional love sonnet, made popular by Petrarch and, in particular, made popular in England by Sidney's use of the Petrarchan form in his epic poem Astrophel and Stella 

The attempt, however, of Bernard Shaw and his friend Thomas Tyler to identify the Dark Lady with Mary Fitton, maid of honour to Queen Elizabeth, is controverted by available external evidence. The poet’s Dark Lady was a married woman who had broken her bad-vow while Mary Fitton was unmarried. Mary again was not ‘Coloured ill’ but of fair complexion, unless her portrait by Arbury is an artifice of grossest attery. This attempt at identification is far from convincing and, as Boas asserts, is at best an ingenious speculation. Saintsbury very rightly deprecates the efforts to construct out of the sonnets a history of the course of untrue love in Shakespeare’s life and comments aptly that despite these, the Dark Lady remains ever darker. What the sonnets make reasonably clear is that the lady ‘coloured ill’ was once the poet’s mistress who ultimately eloped with or was eloped by, the poet’s patron to whom many of the sonnets were addressed. Some sonnets are saturated with the pains and pangs of this perfidious betrayal and the Dark Lady casts her ravenous shadow over them.