Shakespeare's Dark Lady Sonnets

Shakespeare Sonnets
 William Shakespeare [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When discussing William Shakespeare's sonnets, the master list can be broken down into three sections: the Fair Youth Sonnets, the Dark Lady Sonnets, and the Greek Sonnets. Also known as the Black Sonnets, the Dark Lady Sonnets are numbers 127–152.

In sonnet 127, the "dark lady" enters the narrative and instantly becomes the object of the poet’s desire. The speaker introduces the woman by explaining that her beauty is unconventional:

In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name...
Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black…
not born fair, no beauty lack.

From the poet’s perspective, he is treated badly by the dark lady. She is a temptress, described in sonnet 114 as “my female evil” and “my bad angel” who ultimately causes anguish for the poet. She seems to be linked to the young man of the Fair Youth Sonnets in some way, and some sonnets suggest that she is having a passionate affair with him.

As the poet’s frustrations build, he begins to use the word “black” to describe her evil rather than her beauty. For example, later on in the sequence, the poet sees the dark lady with another man and his jealousy boils to the surface. Notice how in sonnet 131, the word “black” is now used with negative connotations:

One on another’s neck do witness bear
Thy black is fairest in my judgement’s place.
In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds,
And thence this slander, as I think, proceeds.

Top 5 Most Popular Dark Lady Sonnets

Of the 26 Dark Lady Sonnets, these five are considered the best known.

Sonnet 127: 'In the old age black was not counted fair'

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 slander'd with a bastard shame:
For since each hand hath put on nature's power,
Fairing the foul with art's false borrow'd face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress' brows are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Slandering creation with a false esteem:
Yet so they mourn, becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so.

Sonnet 130: 'My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun'

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 damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Sonnet 131: 'Thou art as tyrannous, so as thou art'

Thou art as tyrannous, so as thou art,
As those whose beauties proudly make them cruel;
For well thou know'st to my dear doting heart
Thou art the fairest and most precious jewel.
Yet, in good faith, some say that thee behold
Thy face hath not the power to make love groan:
To say they err I dare not be so bold,
Although I swear it to myself alone.
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 judgment's place.
In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds,
And thence this slander, as I think, proceeds.

Sonnet 142: 'Love is my sin and thy dear virtue hate'

Love is my sin and thy dear virtue hate,
Hate of my sin, grounded on sinful loving:
O, but with mine compare thou thine own state,
And thou shalt find it merits not reproving;
Or, if it do, not from those lips of thine,
That have profaned their scarlet ornaments
And seal'd false bonds of love as oft as mine,
Robb'd others' beds' revenues of their rents.
Be it lawful I love thee, as thou lovest those
Whom thine eyes woo as mine importune thee:
Root pity in thy heart, that when it grows
Thy pity may deserve to pitied be.
If thou dost seek to have what thou dost hide,
By self-example mayst thou be denied!

Sonnet 148: 'O me, what eyes hath Love put in my head'

O me, what eyes hath Love put in my head,
Which have no correspondence with true sight!
Or, if they have, where is my judgment fled,
That censures falsely what they see aright?
If that be fair whereon my false eyes dote,
What means the world to say it is not so?
If it be not, then love doth well denote
Love's eye is not so true as all men's 'No.'
How can it? O, how can Love's eye be true,
That is so vex'd with watching and with tears?
No marvel then, though I mistake my view;
The sun itself sees not till heaven clears.
O cunning Love! with tears thou keep'st me blind,
Lest eyes well-seeing thy foul faults should find.

You can find a full list of Shakespeare's sonnets, including the Dark Lady Sonnets, here.