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The Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Mystery, Shakespeare, Theatre on Saturday, 26 January 2013

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This edited article about Shakespeare originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 110 published on 22 February 1964.

Shakespeare's Dark Lady, picture, image, illustration

Shakespeare gazes on his Dark Lady from afar by Neville Dear

In considering the theatrical difficulties with which Shakespeare was faced in writing his plays we have so far considered his casting problems, like the way in which he wrote for certain accomplished actors of his time, and his handling of women’s characters, which were, of course, always played by boys.

Another thing we must remember is the style of the Elizabethan theatre. The audience sat or stood on three sides of the forty foot by thirty foot stage, and some of those in the upper gallery were actually behind the stage.

This gave an immediacy of contact with the audience not often possible in the theatre today.

Shakespeare’s plays were acted at a very fast pace, with lavish costumes, but no sets and no intervals. Rapid changes of action and emotion that sometimes make Shakespeare puzzling to us when we think of his plays, or see them on a “picture frame” stage, become understandable in the context of the big but very intimate theatre he wrote for.

At the Globe, the 3,900 lines of Hamlet took three hours. Today, were it not for the cuts usually made by directors, it would take at least four hours.

No places for scenes were ever specifically given by Shakespeare outside the dialogue. If your edition says before a scene “A street in Venice” or “A woodland glade,” these are insertions by editors.

Shakespeare never meant you to know until the moment he was ready and gave the clue in the text, exactly where the action was taking place. No edition of his play published before the eighteenth century gave any indication of place. Nor were the plays fully divided into acts and scenes.

Antony and Cleopatra and Romeo and Juliet were given no divisions whatever. In fact, the modern divisions we have in these plays and in many others are ruinous to Shakespeare’s intentions. There are often forty or more scenes in Antony and Cleopatra as produced today, and this spoils the flow of the action.

If we really believe that Shakespeare was the greatest dramatist that ever lived, should we not also believe that he knew what he wanted and did not want? Should we not go back to producing the plays as he meant them to be produced?

Now for a moment, let us turn to the sonnets. These are the 154 poems published in 1609. In this edition they are full of glaring errors, and Shakespeare obviously had nothing to do with the printing. He could not have even read the proofs.

The first seventeen are addressed to a young man urging him to marry; the next 109 are mainly addressed to some adult man; and the remaining twenty-eight are about a woman.

We know nothing of the reason Shakespeare wrote the sonnets in this way, and scholars have pondered for a century on the problem – especially the one posed by the last twenty-eight . . . who was the woman, the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, as she is called?

Many volumes have been written about her, but it is enough here to say that the evidence of the sonnets points to her being a real woman whom Shakespeare loved almost to madness.

She was no dainty maiden. She loved him and tormented him, drove him to the heights of passion and the depths of misery. He writes tender passages about her, and he insults her with all the deadly verbal venom at his command.

Perhaps she was Anne Whateley, the Stratford girl he deserted – after applying for a marriage licence – to marry Anne Hathaway instead. Perhaps she was Mary Fitton, one of the Queen’s maids of honour. Perhaps she was a girl he met in the theatre. We just do not know until some further evidence comes to light.

Ben Jonson, who was considered in his lifetime as Shakespeare’s peer as a writer, had few illusions about him. In the First Folio he wrote a poem “to the memory of my beloved, the author Mr. William Shakespeare, and what he hath left us.” In the poem these lines occur:

“. . . I confess thy writings to be such
As neither Man, nor Muse, can praise too much . . .
I therefore will begin. Soule of the Age!
The applause! Delight! The wonder of our Stage!”

More than three hundred years later, Ivor Brown wrote of Shakespeare:

“He was not for throne of pomp or the dais of the intellectual; he preferred to be the Gentleman in the Parlour, the vagrant lodger, the man in the wings, the reporter in the royal gallery. In these positions of spectatorship he mingled three elements: a common-sense philosophy of moderation, deep feeling for all folk suffering and all things gay or beautiful, and unfailing power to find the word perfect to each place and subject.”

There we have the measure of Shakespeare in two quotations centuries apart. But in centuries to come, will the praise still be for Shakespeare, or will some new discovery prove what some scholars suspect . . . that Shakespeare did not write the plays at all?

This has remained one of English literature’s most challenging questions.

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