The Dark Lady Sonnets: Bawdy, Beautiful, or Both?

When one hears mention of the Bard of Avon, one undoubtedly summons to mind images of a bearded man with a fluffy collar and balding head reciting the lines of his prose to a stunned crowd. Upon mention of his works, the mind conjures thoughts of his wonderful dramas and of his lyrical and beautiful sonnets. It is not often, then, that upon hearing the name “Shakespeare” one thinks of sexually provocative literature or the controversy which usually follows it. Upon deeper examination of his works, looking past the outward beauty of his prose, one can indeed often find sexual themes. The Dark Lady series of sonnets, however, require no deep examination to be seen as sexual. These final 28 Sonnets, detailing Shakespeare’s passionate and rather risqué affair with an unnamed woman, have been famously characterized as “bawdy” and “carnal” by many readers. The poems often feature extremely raunchy and suggestive themes, rather directly or indirectly, and give the reader a sense of the almost physical drive behind Shakespeare’s pen and his… nobler part. Despite their openly sexual nature, however, they are still timelessly beautiful in the eyes of many people. Shakespeare’s confidence as a poet was certainly not shaken even when writing such overtly sexual content.

The sonnet which opens this series serves as a direct introduction to the Dark Lady and a description of her character. Not yet sexual in content, the lines of Sonnet 127 offer a detailed portrait of the Dark Lady, repeatedly using word association to convey a sense of darkness in her person. The poem describes her as not being attractive in a conventional sense, but the apple of the speaker’s eye nonetheless. Shakespeare spends considerable time describing the shade of her eyes, being “raven black” and “as mourners.” The proceeding 27 sonnets range from self-loathing and longing lines to High-Renaissance pornography, reaching its peak at sonnets 129 and 151. Sonnet 129, which describes the shameful pleasure of anticipation and temptation, and the sadness that follows the actual act, is noted as one of Shakespeare’s most intense, dark, and sexual pieces. It reveals to the reader the truly dark, twisted, and disgusting nature of lust, and the sadness, fear, and hate that follow acting upon it. In context, Shakespeare being (at least societally) a Christian, all lustful actions are deeply discouraged mortal sins, and Shakespeare’s struggle to choose between his Dark Lady and that good Christian faith surely could have torn the man in two. Sonnet 151 is unique in the Dark Lady series in its intense sexual imagery. The speaker uses quite potent wording in place of softer terms, such as the use of the word “flesh.” The larger part of the sonnet serves as a metaphor for the speaker’s sexual attraction to the subject, literally describing the actions of his “nobler part” rising and falling at the Dark Lady’s name. Nice work, Willy Shakes – that’s pretty sly.

Despite the intensely sexual nature of the Dark Lady sonnets, they continue to be admired and adored by even the most prude and chaste readers. It is difficult to despise one of the works of William Shakespeare and love another; for every line of his prose- each is as elegant and awe-inspiring as the last.

-J.H.L.P. Vandewinckel


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