Emilia Lanier: the Dark Lady in Shakespeare’s Sonnets

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Emilia Lanier: The Dark Lady in Shakespeare’s Sonnets

For long centuries, two distinct, yet inextricably connected, mysteries have confounded the literary world. They are the actual identities of the “Fair Youth” and the “Dark Lady”, the chief protagonists, other than the poet/narrator, in William Shakespeare's sonnets. As the sonnets reflect a painful and complex triangle existing between the poet, the young man, and the dark woman, it is inevitable that theories as to the identity of one are employed to isolate the other. Scholars generally regard Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, as the youth. Virtually everything regarding his life conforms to his role within the verses; he was fair, privileged, and quite young at the time of the commencement of the sonnets. Two other elements greatly support this assertion. The first is that Southampton, once a ward of Elizabeth's powerful minister William Cecil, evinced a reckless character and was reluctant to settle down and carry on the family line. This is perfectly in keeping with the relentless exhortations in the sonnets that the youth do so, for the sake of posterity. Then, there is the inescapable matter of his connection to Shakespeare himself. Only two letters exist from the author, and both are submissive appeals to the young lord for patronage. It is, in fact, very likely that Southampton did assist the young Shakespeare financially, which was a more than suitable, and typical, arrangement of the period. As for the lady in question, candidates have come and gone in scholarly favour. However, the unearthing of a diary in 1973 by Shakespearean scholar A. L. Rowse brought extraordinary new evidence to light, even as that scholar's reputation as both an ardent Southampton proponent and overt confidence in his own theories have diminished what he sought to establish. Nonetheless, when all the facts and suppositions are examined, it seems most probable that Emilia Bassano Lanier, daughter of an Elizabethan court musician, was indeed the “Dark Lady” who has eluded the world for centuries. The “Dark Lady” makes her first appearance in Sonnet 127, and she remains an active presence through 152. There is mystery and strangeness in her very introduction, which is seemingly oblique; it is here that the poet first refers to both the fact of her being “his mistress”, as well as to her “raven black” eyes (Shakespeare, Sonnet 127, line 8), but little more is said. Quite simply, she suddenly appears, and as a discordant element. In no time, her role in the life of the poet, as reflected in the verses, is uniformly conflicted and overtly sexual in nature. The poet experiences ecstasy with her, but the price is exorbitant and painful. She is, in a word, no good: “...worser spirit a woman coloured ill/ To win me soon to hell, my female evil” (Sonnet 144, lines 4-5). By Sonnet 146, the circumstances are dire. This dark-haired and raven-eyed woman is not merely using her sexual hold over the poet to drive him mad, she is as well conducting a relationship with the “Fair Youth” exalted by the poet in earlier verses. The poet fears, in fact, that she has infected his young friend with a venereal disease (Schoenfeldt, 2010, p. 294). This is all highly specific content for a series of poetic verses. Throughout history, scholars have sought to assert that only the poet's genius is at work in these poems; as a master playwright, he was simply creating characters and a dynamic in sonnet form as he did on stage, and these arguments have been largely fuelled by determinations that Shakespeare himself could not have been involved in so demeaning a triangle. However, as Shakespearean scholar Martin Fido points out, these sonnets reflect, and connect to, the earlier series dedicated to the young man in a way that strongly indicates expression of actual, personal experience: “The individuality of the victim-poet's response adds to our sense that this is cryptic...
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