The “Dark Lady” & the “Rival Poet”

A lot indeed has already been written regarding the identity of the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, as well as the youth who resists the idea of marriage and reproduction which feature strongly and repeatedly in the 154 iambic pentameters. The other theme strongly evinced is, as will be seen, the idea of Time, the grim reaper and to a certain extent the poet’s relationship with his inconstant “Muse”. It is self-evident that whoever wrote the Sonnets was a classically trained individual and the plays also indicate someone who was without doubt a prolific polymath for his own and any age to come that would reflect a deeper appreciation of his personality. Among the many poetic and rhetorical devices employed by Shakespeare in plays and poetry are the use of amplificátio, whereby he explores the numerous ways an argument can be expanded upon. This is without doubt self-evident in the Sonnets. We often find the use of anadiplósis, whereby the word ending one line will begin on the next line. Among those numerous repetitive techniques employed are anáphora, the repetition of the same word at the beginning of successive clauses. However, repetition can be expressed in rhyme, both internal, beginning and end of a sentence, within a whole verse or stanza or as sound through the use of alliteration. More pertinently is his use of chiásmus, where the order in the second half of a sentence reverses the first. More often we witness the use of climax, where a statement mounts gradually by degrees endowing growth and weight to its meaning. In terms of action on stage it is defined as anabasis, where it declines it is known as anti-climax. But all manner of repetitions can be found in Shakespeare’s work including conduplicatio, epímone, epíphora, epizeúxis, parachésis, and polýptopon. Then there is the use of epanados, the repetition of certain words beginning or middle or vice versa within a sentence. While epanalepsis is used whenever a figure of speech that begins a phrase or verse that is repeated somewhere else within another phrase or stanza. The envelope is where an entire stanza with some slight variation from beginning to end is repeated yet again as if echoing the meaning. In a totally different vein, there is the use of ecphonema whenever an expression of joy, delight or amazement begins a sentence or line, eg: Oh, Ah, or Whoah, although expressions could just as easily be Nay, Tut, Tisk, etc. Books on the subject include Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory (Penguin Publications).

For the most part many of these so-called archaic techniques of poetic repetition (iteratio) from Greek and Roman times have been abandoned by modern poets and it is hardly surprising since they are often distracting and difficult to read at the best of times. Finally, ellipsis is applied whenever words, or entire sentences are deliberately omitted or redacted. Usually, several characters are embedded within the brackets such as a hyphen (-) or even several hyphens (—), a dotted line (…) or an asterisk (*), depending on the circumstances of the omission or who redacted them. The use of blanks between the brackets is unusual if rarely employed as far as I am aware. This occurs in only one sonnet (#126) and no viable reason has yet been given for its’ use by academics or researchers as far as I know. While it is also clear that Shakespeare’s Sonnets were published by Thomas Thorpe without the author’s permission in 1609 and were originally intended to be circulated among a close circle of friends. It is fairly certain from the words in his poetry, as well as several of his plays that the pseudonymous William Shakespeare, whoever he might be, was romantically and sexually preoccupied for a large part of his adult and married life. The love and admiration for the “Youth” are vividly expressed and portrayed from the very beginning although strangely the youth has no voice, no personal point of view or gives any reaction to the fatherly love and praise levelled at him. From this anomaly some researchers have suggested that Shakespeare, as an older man was having an homosexual infatuation with a young boy actor. The other more likely perspective is that he was imploring his illegitimate son to procreate thereby continuing the family bloodline:

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:

And in Sonnet #3:
Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should form another;
Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest,
Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.
For where is she so fair whose unear’d womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?

Biographers have largely played down his proclivity for sexual and romantic involvements or scandal preferring instead to project an image of a staunch family man with a rural background earning his living in London and travelling back to Warwickshire on occasions to socialise and fend for his close family. On just one concession is agreed by academics however that the actor William Shagsper had an extra-marital affair with a landlady in Oxford, namely Jane Davenant while touring the provinces with his theatrical friends. She in turn became pregnant and gave birth to a child who would in turn become well known both for his love of drama and someone who would go on to write plays and poetry himself; his name was William Davenant (1606-68). In Sonnet #50 he writes:

How heavy do I journey on the way,
When what I seek, my weary travel’s end,
Doth teach that ease in which repose to say,
‘Thus far the miles are measured from thy friend!’
The beast that bears me, tired with my woe,
Plods dully on, to bear that weight in me,
As if by some instinct the wretch did know
His rider loved not speed being made from thee.

It is presumed that Shakespeare’s journey home to Stratford would take him from Newgate, on foot or by horse to either Banbury or Oxford and thereafter a fairly straight road to Stratford-upon-Avon in around 3-4 days. Therefore Banbury and Oxford were favoured stopovers for numerous sundry travellers to and from London primarily because they were connected by river and road to the capital and one could travel there either by coach, horse or boat from Oxford or Banbury within a day or two’s journey. Furthermore, indulging in a sub-rosa love affair in a different town from one’s occupation or birthplace would reduce the risk of being found out and shamed by law or clergy. Shakespeare’s tendency for romantic infatuation is also obvious from the words of the Sonnets, which in turn led, for whatever reason to severe rejection and betrayal by his secret lover and his poet/friend. We are led to accept or believe by Shakespeare’s biographers that the “love-triangle” which spawned the Sonnets was between William Shagsper, Jane Davenant, the Oxford landlady of the Tavern and her illegitimate son, William Davenant. Were this the case, then the dates of the writing of the Sonnets would coincide with the events of Shagsper’s personal life particularly if the “youth” of the Sonnets was at an age when he was eligible to marry. Now, the Sonnets were probably begun around 1604, or even earlier when William Davenant was not even born and if there was any synchronicity between the life of William Shagsper and that of the “Dark Lady” then we would have to look elsewhere for a suitable candidate for the “Dark Lady”, and perhaps for “Shakespeare” himself. There are currently 8-9 different candidates proposed by various biographers and researchers for the authorship of the 1623 Folio of plays;

  1. The 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere.
  2. Sir Francis Bacon.
  3. The Earl of Rutland, Sir Roger Manners.
  4. Sir Henry Chettle.
  5. Christopher Marlowe.
  6. Queen Elizabeth 1st
  7. The Earl of Derby.
  8. William Hastings.

I have investigated the entire corpus of candidates in a previous post “The Shakespeare Authorship Controversy”. One other particular theory by Leslie Hotson is that one of Queen Elizabeth’s Ladies-in-Waiting, who was born in the West Indies and lived in Clerkenwell, namely Lucy Morgan (1579-1600, aka: Lucy Negro and Lucy Parker) could very easily fit the description given in the Sonnets. She recieved several fashionable gifts from Queen Elizabeth and was very popular among the other court ladies even though she later became a brothel-keeper in St. John Street, Clerkenwell when she was prosecuted for keeping a “bawdy house”, and subsequently spending some time in Bridewell. She gained a notorious reputation in London, appeared at Gray’s Inn entertainments in 1595 and attended the Queen’s Bench in 1596-1600.

In actual fact it is only the last 28 stanzas which are addressed to the iconic “Dark Lady”, a woman whose identity has intrigued many a Shakespearean scholar for centuries. It seems this woman was skilled in the arts of seduction and love although she won Shakespeare’s affections just after the death of his son, Hamnet when she was prone to adulterous activities elsewhere. She is described by Shakespeare as having dark, wiry hair, black eyes, and black brows and some biographical scholars have speculated that she may have been literally a dark-skinned woman of lowly station. However, the references to “black” or “dark” may have been purely symbolic, frequent references in the Sonnets are to the colours red, white and black although they were employed metaphorically and thematically not literally. In Sonnet #127 he writes:

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:
Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,
And the famous lines of Sonnet 130 describe her as follows:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;

And further in the following Sonnet 131:
Thy black is fairest in my judgment’s place.
In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds,
And thence this slander, as I think, proceeds.

Nevertheless, the red herring trail continued with other suitable candidates being proposed for her identity, for example Rowse contests she was a woman of superior social standing, namely Penelope Rich (nee Deveraux), the sister of the Earl of Essex, the original muse of Sir Phillip Sydney‘s Astrophel & Stella. This would posit Sir Phillip Sidney as being the rival poet in this triangle. Another possible candidate for this temptress was Mary (Mall) Fitton, a maid of honour to Queen Elizabeth who was impregnated by the Earl of Pembroke and lusted after by her father’s lecherous cohort, Sir William Knollys. The latter was probably an inspiration for Shakespeare’s character Malvolio. Attempting to ameliorate the enigmas and contentions of the search for Shakespeare’s mistress Anthony Burgess suggests that the Dark Lady is merely iconic, a composite of several of Shakespeare’s tragic loves and the contemporary poet Ted Hughes in his book “Shakespeare And The Goddess of Sublime Being” (Faber & Faber) thinks she is symbolically a manifestation of the Queen of Hell, that is “every man’s nightmare”. A reference to his romantic dilemma might exist in Sonnet #144:

Two loves I have of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still:
The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman coloured ill.
To win me soon to hell, my female evil,
Tempteth my better angel from my side,
And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,
Wooing his purity with her foul pride.
And whether that my angel be turned fiend,
Suspect I may, yet not directly tell;
But being both from me, both to each friend,
I guess one angel in another’s hell:
Yet this shall I ne’er know, but live in doubt,
Till my bad angel fire my good one out.

There is no doubt that Shakespeare was agonised in love and given over to intense bouts of jealousy by numerous shrewish women he encountered while on his promiscuous revelries in London’s bohemian scene. The result of which he contracted a dose or two of the clap (gonorrhoea) himself while his arch enemy Richard Greene (See “Upstart Crow”) died of the pox (syphilis). Jonathan Bate suggests the true inspiration for the Dark Lady was actually Mrs John Florio (aka Jeanette Daniel), supposedly the daughter of the poet Samuel Daniel, the supposed “Rival Poet” according to Rowse. George Bernard Shaw also suggests that the true inspiration for the Dark Lady was Jane Davenant, and that she was even a plausible model for Desdemona in Othello, as well as the mother of his presumed illegitimate son William Davenant. Even though the much respected jobbing actor William Shagsper failed to acknowledge Davenant’s true lineage in his last will and testament, claiming he was merely a “godson”.

It has been said that the Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley to whom the Sonnets were dedicated also got a dose of the clap pursuing the Queen’s maid of honour, Elizabeth Vernon, while continuing to reject the advances at great cost of the Earl of Oxford’s daughter Lady Elizabeth de Vere. In effect therefore this evolved in a poetic sense from the subject of his previous poems, Venus & Adonis, while the Rape of Lucrece certainly suggests that having reached an hiatus, Shakespeare’s patron saw fit to disengage himself from associating with lesser mortals in whose company he had developed an irritating contagion. Sonnet #147 actually makes a reference to his love or lust being comparable to a sexual disease:

My love is as a fever longing still,
For that which longer nurseth the disease;
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
Past cure I am, now Reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are,
At random from the truth vainly expressed;
For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.

Other possible and more likely suggestions for a “dark seductress” are Emilia Lanier, an Italian lady born of Baptiste Bassano who was the Lord Chamberlain’s mistress and related to one of the Queen’s musicians, Nicholas Lanier. She was thought to be of Sephardi Jewish or possibly Moorish extraction, she was described by the astrologer Simon Forman as an incuba – ie a vampire witch or virago, but she herself was given over to literary endeavours and aspirations, especially aimed at condemning men for their defilement and disrespect of women (Salve Deux Rex Judaeorum) published in 1610, just 12 months after that of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Sonnet #87 is strangely enough a farewell to a mistress or perhaps a wife once beloved of the poet:

Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know’st thy estimate,
The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;
My bonds in thee are all determinate.
For how do I hold thee but by thy granting?

Unfortunately, the forensic trail for determining who the Youth or Dark Lady were has gone cold just as the trail of identifying who Shakespeare himself was among eight or more proposed candidates in Elizabethan England has encountered a dead end. Without knowing who the author of the plays and Sonnets really was all suppositions, theories and conjectures surrounding the identity of the Dark Lady or the Youth will be dependent on our knowing who actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays and poetry.

Sonnet #71 appears to sum up the identity crisis:

No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell:
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it, for I love you so,
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O! if, I say, you look upon this verse,
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse;
But let your love even with my life decay;
Lest the wise world should look into your moan,
And mock you with me after I am gone.

The links to my current publications, on the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy; “Shakespeare’s Qaballah” and an anthology of poetry “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


“We all love Shakespeare, whoever he was…”

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The links to my publications 
“Shakespeare’s Qaballah”,
a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry,