She first appears in Sonnet 127, immediately after the last sonnet to the Young Man in a preponderance of references to blackness:
"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"
The sonnet goes on:
"Therefore my mistress' eyes are raven-black,
Her brow so suited, and they mourners seem"
which resolves that it is the lady's eyes and brow that are black.
In Sonnet 130 the poet returns to describing the physical attributes of the lady in a spoof on the Petrarchan method of comparing subjects to nature, popular with Elizabethans:
"If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head."
Here, the lady is described as having dun breasts which now clearly describes the woman's skin-colour as either dark-brown or black. The black wires of hair are also consistent with the woman being negroid.
In Sonnet 131 the poet says:
"And, to be sure that is not false I swear,
A thousand groans but thinking on thy face
One on another's neck do witness bear
Thy black is fairest in my judgement's place."
which describes the lady's face as being black and being the fairest in the author's judgement. He goes on:
"In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds,
And thence this slander, as I think, proceeds."
reaffirming the significance of blackness to the lady and ironically claiming that she is not really black except in what she does. By superficial denial, he confirms that she is indeed black.
In Sonnet 132 the poet returns to describing the lady's eyes as black:
"Thine eyes I love, and they, as pitying me
Knowing thy heart torment me with disdain
Have put on black, and loving mourners be,"
and goes on to speak of her dark complexion:
"Better becomes the grey cheeks of the east"
not only are the lady's cheeks grey but she is said to come from the east, perhaps of Indo, Arabic, or North African origin.
"As those two mourning eyes become thy face"
transfers the black colouring of the lady's eyes to her face and then:
"O, let it then as well beseem thy heart
To mourn for me, since mourning doth thee grace,
And suit thy pity like in every part."
implies that the woman's blackness permeates every part of her body, both inwardly in her heart and outwardly in her hair, eyes, face, etc.
"Then will I swear beauty herself is black,
And all they foul that thy complexion lack."
which again asserts that the lady is beautiful to the author, though not considered "fair" by others, because she is explicitly black and that it is others who are foul who lack her complexion. We need to take care with the word complexion here though as it did not just mean a person's skin colour and condition to the Elizabethans, it could also mean state of mind and mood as well. In Sonnet 18 it is clearly used to mean colouring:
"Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed"
and in Sonnet 28:
"So flatter I the swart-complexioned night"
and in Sonnet 99:
"The purple pride
Which on thy soft cheek for complexion dwells"
and in 2 Henry IV, Act 2, Scene 2:
Prince Harry: "Faith, it does me, though it discolours the complexion of my greatness to acknowledge it."
and in As You Like It, Act 3, Scene 4:
Corin: "If you will see a pageant truly played
Between the pale complexion of true love
And the red glow of scorn and proud disdain"
and in Love's Labour's Lost, Act 1, Scene 2:
Armado: "Tell me precisely of what complexion?"
Mote: "Of the sea-water green, sir."
Armado: "Is that one of the four complexions?"
Mote: "As I have read, sir; and the best of them, too."
Armado: "Green indeed is the colour of lovers, but to have a love of that colour, methinks Samson had small reason for it. He surely affected her for her wit."
Mote: "It was so, sir, for she had a green wit."
Armado: "My love is most immaculate white and red."
Mote: "Most maculate thoughts, master, are masked under such colours."
and in Much Ado About Nothing, Act 2, Scene 1:
Beatrice: "The Count is neither sad, nor sick, nor merry, nor well, but civil count, civil as an orange, and something of that jealous complexion."
and in Comedy of Errors, Act 3, Scene 2:
Antipholus Of Syracuse: "What complexion is she of?
Dromio Of Syracuse: "Swart like my shoe, but her face nothing like so clean kept."
and in Troilus and Cressida, Act 1, Scene 2:
Pandarus: "She praised his complexion above Paris’."
Cressida: "Why, Paris hath colour enough."
Elsewhere though, such as in Othello, Act 4, Scene 2, it is used to refer to mood or temperament:
Othello: "Turn thy complexion there, Patience, thou young and rose-lipped cherubin, Ay, here look grim as hell."
And in Pericles, Scene 15:
Dionyza: "Go, I pray you, Walk and be cheerful once again; resume That excellent complexion which did steal The eyes of young and old."
However, Shakespeare overwhelmingly uses the term complexion to describe a person's colouring.
In Sonnet 144, the poet explicitly describes the woman's colour:
"The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman coloured ill."
In defining the man, the better of the two and an angel, as fair he defines the woman, the worser of the two and a devil as coloured ill, i.e. black.
Conclusive evidence for the Dark Lady being a black woman lies in Love's Labours Lost, Act 4, Scene 3, in a remarkable dialogue between the King and Biron which perfectly correlates with the words and descriptions of the Dark Lady sonnets. In this passage, Biron claims the woman he loves to be fairer than the women of the day who wear cosmetics and wigs to try and beautify themselves which his lover does not need. His lover is defined as being as black as ebony, as black as chimney sweeps, a person who makes colliers look bright by comparison, and is blacker than Ethiops. The correlation is virtually perfect and enables us to date the Dark Lady sonnets to no later than Love' Labours Lost's publication in 1598 and more probably to its writing, commonly accepted to be 1593/4:
Biron: "Sweet lords, sweet lovers!—O, let us embrace.
As true we are as flesh and blood can be.
The sea will ebb and flow, heaven show his face.
Young blood doth not obey an old decree.
We cannot cross the cause why we were born,
Therefore of all hands must we be forsworn."
King: "What, did these rent lines show some love of thine?"
Biron: "“Did they”, quoth you? Who sees the heavenly Rosaline
That, like a rude and savage man of Ind
At the first op’ning of the gorgeous east,
Bows not his vassal head and, strucken blind,
Kisses the base ground with obedient breast?
What peremptory eagle-sighted eye
Dares look upon the heaven of her brow
That is not blinded by her majesty?"
King: "What zeal, what fury hath inspired thee now?
My love, her mistress, is a gracious moon,
She an attending star, scarce seen a light."
Biron: "My eyes are then no eyes, nor I Biron.
O, but for my love, day would turn to night.
Of all complexions the culled sovereignty
Do meet as at a fair in her fair cheek,
Where several worthies make one dignity,
Where nothing wants that want itself doth seek.
Lend me the flourish of all gentle tongues—
Fie, painted rhetoric! O, she needs it not.
To things of sale a seller’s praise belongs.
She passes praise—then praise too short doth blot.
A withered hermit fivescore winters worn
Might shake off fifty, looking in her eye.
Beauty doth varnish age as if new-born,
And gives the crutch the cradle’s infancy.
O, ’tis the sun that maketh all things shine."
King: "By heaven, thy love is black as ebony."
Biron: "Is ebony like her? O word divine!
A wife of such wood were felicity.
O, who can give an oath? Where is a book,
That I may swear beauty doth beauty lack
If that she learn not of her eye to look?
No face is fair that is not full so black."
King: "O paradox! Black is the badge of hell,
The hue of dungeons and the style of night,
And beauty’s crest becomes the heavens well."
Biron: "Devils soonest tempt, resembling spirits of light.
O, if in black my lady’s brows be decked,
It mourns that painting and usurping hair
Should ravish doters with a false aspect,
And therefore is she born to make black fair.
Her favour turns the fashion of the days,
For native blood is counted painting now,
And therefore red that would avoid dispraise
Paints itself black to imitate her brow."
Dumaine: "To look like her are chimney-sweepers black."
Longueville: "And since her time are colliers counted bright."
King: "And Ethiops of their sweet complexion crack."
Dumaine: "Dark needs no candles now, for dark is light."
Biron: "Your mistresses dare never come in rain,
For fear their colours should be washed away."
King: "’Twere good yours did; for, sir, to tell you plain,
I’ll find a fairer face not washed today."
Biron: "I’ll prove her fair, or talk till doomsday here."
King: "No devil will fright thee then so much as she."
Dumaine: "I never knew man hold vile stuff so dear."
In conclusion then, I am absolutely convinced that the Dark Lady was a negro woman.
Shakespeare's relationship with the Dark Lady is almost exclusively described in a sexual context. There are no parties, functions, marriage or children. She is the inspiration for Shakespeare's most graphically sexual sonnets.
Sonnet 129 is centred on lust and though it makes no direct reference to the Dark Lady it is in the same series in which she is referred.
Sonnet 135 and 136 puns extensively on the author's name and its alternative slang meaning for the male sexual organ. Again, although no specific reference is made to the Dark Lady, it sits within the series in which she is addressed.
But Sonnet 137 does refer directly to the Dark Lady in the line:
"To put fair truth upon so foul a face?"
which correlates with other descriptions of the Dark Lady being foul such as Sonnet 148's
"Lest eyes, well seeing, thy foul faults should find!"
This leads us to Sonnet 137's line:
"Be anchored in the bay where all men ride"
an obvious euphemism for the Dark Lady's sexual promiscuity.
Sonnet 138 develops this deceit but Sonnet 142 begins to make direct reference to the Dark Lady's transactionalised sexual relationships:
"And sealed false bonds of love as oft as mine,
Robbed others' beds' revenues of their rents.
Be it lawful I love thee as thou lov'st those"
Ultimately, it is Sonnet 150 which alludes to the practised skill of the Dark Lady in what she does:
"Whence hast thou this becoming of things ill,
That in the very refuse of thy deeds
There is such strength and warrantise of skill
That in my mind thy worst all best exceeds?"
and the whole sonnet is a multi-faceted definition of the woman being a whore as explained here.
In conclusion then, I am convinced that the Dark Lady was a black woman who was also a whore.
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