Sonnet 143: The Dark Lady, a Bard, and a Bird

Unlike the majority of Shakespeare’s sonnets which are addressed to a man, the last twenty-eight are addressed to a mysterious entity called the Dark Lady.  The Bard describes her, flatters her, and beseeches her love in a variety of ways, including different metaphors to illustrate his affections.  One of the more comedic but nevertheless effective metaphors employed can be found in Sonnet 143.

There are three characters in the sonnet: a housewife, “one of her feather’d creatures,” (a goose or a chicken,) and the housewife’s baby.  The scene that ensues is flustered and uncomfortable; the foul somehow gets loose and the housewife sets her baby down to free her hands for catching the animal.  While the housewife chases the bird, the baby wails in a desperate attempt to regain his mother’s attention.   As chaotic as the situation may be, the natural resolution is that the housewife will successfully catch the escaped bird and return to pick up her child who in turn will stop crying.

The first quatrain focuses on the housewife herself, explaining her priorities while the second quatrain is from the perspective of the howling infant. The poet sympathizes with both, neither begrudging the housewife her desire to catch the bird nor scolding the baby for wanting what is natural, to stay with his mother.  In the third quatrain, however, the Bard explains the metaphor, no longer disguising who the characters are.  Not surprisingly, the Dark Lady is the housewife.  While the identity of the bird is not as explicitly stated, it is obviously a different lover of the Dark Lady.  The poet, meanwhile, is the baby pining for the Dark Lady.  In the ending couplet, the Bard even uses his own name in a play on words: “thou may’st have thy Will,” meaning both that the Dark Lady may do as she pleases with other lovers and keep the Bard for herself.

The thematic element that adds a good amount of tension to Sonnet 143 is the realization that nobody involved is without fault.  The Dark Lady is unashamedly pursuing two men at once. The rival love interest is drawing the Dark Lady’s attention away from the poet and causing her to chase after him instead.  Whether he does so deliberately or unwittingly is not clear, nor does it really matter.  Most bizarre, however, are the motives of Shakespeare’s own persona.  He is so smitten with his Dark Lady, that he is willing to forgive her cheating on him.  By equating himself to a helpless baby, the Bard does not deny that his persona is a rather needy yet expendable lover and—to use a metaphor myself—a complete doormat.  But as long as he has his Dark Lady, Will is a contented doormat.

~Mich Walter

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