The Dark Lady’s Skin

The Dark Lady’s Skin

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.

Sonnets 127

Shakespeare’s invention of modern subjectivity, coming as it does in the dark lady sequence of his Sonnets, occurs on the back of stigma. According to Sonnets 127 and 130, her skin is brown, lips pale, breath bad, voice shrill, eyes black, and hair black and wiry. For a literary understanding of the Sonnets, it is not important that we determine who Shakespeare’s dark lady was (whether it was Mary Fitton, Emilia Lanier, Lucy Morgan, Aline Florio, Jacqueline Field, Penelope Devereux, Marie Mountjoy, Jane Davenant, etc.), nor even what the exact nature of her darkness is (whether she is a pale-skinned, raven-haired Gothic Caucasian; an olive-skinned, brown-haired Continental European; or a brown-skinned, black-haired African or West Indian). What is important is that we recognize that Shakespeare’s sonneteer begins with the assumption that blackness is a mark of inferiority that discredits whoever who bears it; that the sonneteer makes this assumption because he comes from a culture which exhibits an aesthetic of kalokagathia, “the beautiful in the good,” a binary, polarized, and oppositional aesthetic; that the supposedly natural and therefore definite components of kalokagathia, beauty and goodness, are shown to be transitory and meaningless by the sonneteer’s experience in life (goodness by the fair youth’s inconstancy, and beauty by, for example, the cosmetics that allow the ugly to make themselves attractive); that the untethering of beauty and goodness leads the sonneteer to feel that his world has been turned upside-down (lies becomes truth, black white, ugliness beauty); that the poet believes this aesthetic crisis contributes to and is encapsulated by his affair with the dark lady; that the poet feels his eyes no longer see as they’re supposed to, or rather that they see more than they’re supposed to, for they see the dark lady from the perspective of both the cultural aesthetic of kalokagathia and the poet’s personal aesthetic of kalokagathia reversed (that is, “the good in the ugly”); that this aesthetic tension gives the dark lady sequence its life and energy, for the poet is paradoxically repulsed by and attracted to the dark lady’s darkness, a conflicted emotional state that anticipates the ongoing critical conversation about the possibility that the dark lady’s skin is actually black, which some readers dismiss as an absurd over-reading of fleeting evidence, yet other readers embrace as a potent premonition of sexuality in the modern world; that, as such, the stigma of the dark lady’s skin color is a literary resource for apprehending modernity, insofar as stigma, understood as the uneasy negotiation of individual thoughts and emotions about abnormal bodies in the context of traditional cultural biases against those bodies, is inextricable from modern subjectivity and sexuality; and that, with mixed results, we strive to fashion ourselves in and against that which has been fashioned for us by nature and culture, and our encounters with others are beset by an erratic vacillation between a fear of and a desire for that which is not like us.


Black Skin in Shakespeare


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