Friday, April 11, 2014

Shakespeare's Black Lady

We have all read Shakespeare, in high school or college, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Everyone knows who he was and remembers what Romeo and Juliet is about. Most people when they hear or read Sonnet 130 will be able to tell you, "Yep, that's Shakespeare alright." Sonnet 130 is probably the most studied of his sonnets and also likely the most misinterpreted. The sonnet is about Shakespeare's mysterious muse known only as the Dark Lady, who, for the longest time, was thought to be some married noble woman.

In a Shakespeare class last semester, I learned that increasing evidence points not to the Dark Lady being some tragic confined noble-woman, but to a free woman with her own agenda, who quite literally was Black (Sonnet 132: "Then will I swear beauty herself is black/And all they foul that thy complexion lack.")In addition to my professor (John Kunat, a Shakespeare scholar), Dr.Dunken Salkeld argues that she was a woman named Black Luce, who was in charge of a brothel near Shakespeare's playhouse. If this is the case, then we might read Shakespeare with different eyes.

We don't have to think, "Man, Shakespeare, you are so deep. You only care about personality; you don't care that your lady is unattractive. So romantic." Instead, we can read Sonnet 130 and say, "Alright, so what you considered beauty was not standard, but certainly still beautiful. You're just a dude with preferences, Willy."

All this is important because it lets us know that we aren't so changed from the past. Shakespeare was a genius, but he was still a man. Right now, I am reading the oldest epic of literature, written even before the Odyssey, and even before the Hebrew Bible: Gilgamesh, and it is more accessible than either the Bible or the Odyssey, and the friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu is the most poignant bromance I have read in literature or seen in on film--they fight, they hug it out as equals, comfort each other, and Enkidu dies for Gilgamesh. The human condition was not alien 4,000 years ago, and it will not be so different 4,000 years from now, if we can survive.


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. 

1 comment:

  1. Way to go, GM! I love this line:
    "If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head."