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Shakespeare in love: The youth and the Dark Lady of the Sonnets

Shakespeare’s sonnets are the greatest love poems in English literature, says The Times. And they are mostly homoerotic, says Bill Bryson in his book, Shakespeare.

That makes them all the more remarkable. For, let’s not forget, as late as 1960 Penguin Books was tried for obscenity when it published Lady Chatterley’s Lover in Britain.

Shakespeare’s sonnets, on the other hand, have been appearing in popular anthologies like Palgrave’s Golden Treasury since the 19th century. Book 1, containing poems selected by Palgrave himself in 1861, included Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”) and Sonnet 73 (“That time of year thou mayst in me behold”). Both are addressed to a young man. No doubt they are beautiful poems. Sonnet 18 especially.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

The poet praises the incomparable beauty of the person he is addressing who, he says, will be immortalized by his verse. But he doesn’t say who he is speaking to — whether it’s a man or a woman.

He is equally vague in Sonnet 116, my favourite.


Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

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Books

Shakespeare’s Dark Lady

Shakespeare’s mysterious Dark Lady of the sonnets could have been a "black beauty" and a working girl, speculates author William Boyd in an article in the Guardian.

He writes:"Shakespeare’s working life was in Southwark, south of the river, and London Bridge, a noisome, rank and dangerous district, freer of the City of London’s legal edicts by virtue of its location, and home to its theatres, pleasure gardens, bear-fighting pits, innumerable taverns and brothels. Historical records establish that there were black and mulatto prostitutes in Southwark brothels at the time, and it seems highly feasible that the Dark Lady might have been such a working girl.

"Certainly, such an identification makes immediate sense of the sonnets’ rage and misogyny."

He points to the most famous of the Dark Lady sonnets — Sonnet 129 — which celebrates not love but speaks of lust and is full of self-loathing:  "Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame/ is lust in action … "

Here is the complete sonnet:

Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and, till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despis├Ęd straight;
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme
A bliss in proof–and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

William Boyd, author of novels like A Good Man in Africa and An Ice Cream War, has also written screenplays; that is how he ended up writing A Waste of Shame, a BBC television drama about the love triangle found in the sonnets, involving a "Fair Youth", the Dark Lady and the middle-aged poet. Boyd, who was formerly a lecturer in English at Oxford, read all the 154 sonnets — 126  addressed to the "Fair Youth" and 26 to the Dark Lady. The last two are bawdy allusions to mercury baths that were a contemporary form of treatment for pox, he says.

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Indian actress Indira Varma (above), who also appeared in BBC’s Canterbury Tales and Bride and Prejudice, plays the Dark Lady in A Waste of Shame.

Boyd does not claim to have found any conclusive evidence that the Dark Lady was a prostitute. But Shakespeare knew at least one brothel-keeper, he says.

He writes: "One of Shakespeare’s known associates was a brothel-keeper called George Wilkins, a violent man, arraigned on at least two occasions for savagely beating up prostitutes (one of them pregnant). I cannot prove that Shakespeare was a brothel visitor but the numerous documented connections between Shakespeare and Wilkins attest to the fact that he would have been no stranger to Wilkins’s rebarbative and sordid world."