October 2023

David Alpaugh

Shakespeare's Sonnet #130


      • 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 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 #130 is the greatest of what have come to be known as Shakespeare's "dark lady" sonnets. Because we know almost nothing about the bard's personal life imaginations have run wild trying to identify the dark-skinned woman whose eyes are "nothing like the sun."

G.B. Harrison proposed a brothel-keeper nicknamed "Black Luce," whom Shakespeare may have met at the first performance of TwelfthNight. There are two other London brothel keepers nicknamed "Black Luce," however, which suggests that "black" refers in all three cases to the immorality of the oldest profession, rather than to the color of the madams. This has not kept many from assuming that the dark lady is of African descent, as does Anthony Burgess in his novel Nothing Like the Sun; and William Boyd in the BBC series A Waste of Shame in which Shakespeare contracts Syphilis from his dark lady brothel keeper.

Another candidate, Emilia Bassano, is from a Mediterranean family, cousins of whom are described as "black," although that could just be another word for "brunette." Emilia does have going for her the fact that she published a book of poetry and that "Emilia" is a character in Othello and Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice, indicating that Shakespeare may have been playing with his lover's name.

Back in 1890, Shakespeare scholar Thomas Tyler claimed that Mary Fitton, mistress of William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, was Shakespeare's dark lady. His theory was shot down a few years later when a portrait of Mary Fitton surfaced with fair skin, brown hair and hazel eyes which didn't stop Shaw from using her as the basis for his 1910 play The Lady of the Dark Sonnets.


None of this detective work has produced an actual woman whom William Shakespeare clearly had an affair with, and it is highly unlikely that further efforts ever shall. But let us imagine that a future scholar will one day prove to everyone's satisfaction that Shakespeare's dark lady was not a poetic fiction, but Lady X or Y, Shakespeare's real-life lover. Would that fact augment future appreciation or understanding of the poem? Not at all, since the biographical Shakespeare and dark lady sought in the real world do not exist in the poem. It's success, in fact, partly depends upon the poet keeping real or fictional biographical details about both the speaker and his lady out of the poem.

What do we know about the speaker? That he is a man who is in love with an exotic woman whose skin, eyes and hair are dark; that he finds her beautiful; that he has read lots of love poetry by lovers who adore their mistresses for being fair ladies; that he finds their hyperbolic praise unconvincing; and that he much prefers his mistress to theirs. That's all we know about him and all we need to know to accomplish the poem's

The speaker begins by rejecting the most important poetic simile in the toolbox of idealistic poets, the assertion that the women they adore are like the sun, essential to the very life of the lover. Here's Petrarch boasting about his adored Laura:

      "Look at her. You will see nature's power

      Hanging like the sun over a blind world."


And here's Lord Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, outboasting Petrarch and all other poets, with his praise of his unnamed mistress:

                 "My lady's beauty passeth more

                 The best of yours, I dare well sayn,

                 Than doth the sun the candle-light,

                 Or brightest day the darkest night."

The dark lady's lover goes on to list the most common idealized cliches such poets share in common, in each case describing his mistress as the antithesis. Their lips are red as coral; hers are far less red. Their breasts are white; hers are dun. The fine, thin, "wires" of their locks are golden; hers are black and literally wiry. Their white cheeks have a hint of rosiness; her dark cheeks show no such blush. Their breaths smell like delightful perfume; her breath "reeks." Their voices are musical; hers is non-operatic. When their ladies leave a room, they feel that a goddess is ascending into heaven. Here's how our speaker feels when his mistress departs:

        I grant I never saw a goddess go;

        My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.


Shakespeare's metrical art is a triumph here. Both lines have the ten syllables required for iambic pentameter; but the first line is the shortest and the second the longest in the poem. The goddesses of courtly poetry lack substance. They disappear in a whoosh, with their line only taking four seconds to read. Our dark lady is mortal, earth-bound, substantial. Her exit line, with its weighty onomatopoetic diction ("she," "walks," "treads," "ground") takes twice as long to read silently, more if we read it out loud. Hers is a strong fictional presence, one we cannot just imagine, but actually believe in.

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare

As any she belied with false compare .

Our poem closes with an oath rivaled for its vehemence only by the concluding couplet of Shakespeare Sonnet #116: "If this be error and upon me prov'd, / I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd."

Conventional sonneteers assume that their hyperbolic similes will convince readers that the ladies they flatter are rare. But those who, like our
speaker, have read scores of sonnets, all using the same implausible tropes, experience no woman at all, just the overkill of ineffective boastful cliches foisted on readers. By presenting his lady as their antithesis, our lover establishes her as a true rarity.

Sonnet 130 is a great love poem. But by refusing to encumber his love with biographical details Shakespeare widens his scope beyond the speaker's love for his lady to a love for reality itself. Seeing through the clichés of courtly poetry is a metaphor for seeing through all attempts to provide implausible descriptions of the real world readers of poetry hail from.

"Marooned in a Blizzard of Lies"

We are now living in a culture where, in singer/composer Dave Frishberg's words, we are "marooned in a blizzard of lies," as politicians, talking heads, and millions of Cliff Clavens assure us that their ideological mistresses are not just like the sun, they are the sun. Sonnet 130 can help us emerge unharmed from that blizzard by seeing through the glittering fool's gold of "false compare."


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David Alpaugh 's newest collection of poetry is Seeing the There There  (Word Galaxy Press, 2023). Alpaugh's visual poems have been appearing monthly in Scene4 since February 2019. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where he has been a finalist for Poet Laureate of California. For more of his poetry, plays, and articles , check the Archives.

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