Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Has Shakespeare's Dark Lady Really Been Revealed?

Was Shakespeare really having
an affair with the Dark Lady?
Last week, you may have read that Dr Duncan Salkeld believes he has found significant evidence that reveals the identity of the mysterious Dark Lady of Shakespeare's sonnets. So, what does Salkeld think, and are we really any closer to knowing who this woman was?

Shakespeare's sonnets are, usually, divided in three: the Fair Youth poems, the Rival poems and the Dark Lady poems. Just as there is no way of categorically knowing who Shakespeare's Fair Youth was, academics and Shakespeare enthusiasts have spent years trying to attach a name to the Dark Lady.

What Does Shakespeare Tell Us About the Dark Lady?

The information contained within sonnets 127-152 (the Dark Lady sonnets) are incredibly light on detail. The  things we do know for sure about this woman are that she had dark hair, eyes and complexion, which is why she came to be nicknamed 'The Dark Lady'. It's also insinuated that she was married and that the Bard was either engaged in an affair with her or, at the very least, had designs on a romantic or sexual entanglement of some kind.

The only other thing we know with any degree of certainty is that the Dark Lady laughed and danced, and lit the candles one by one....oh, no, wait. That's Cher not Shakespeare.

Do We Now Know Who The Dark Lady Was?

Philip Henslow - the man who built The Rose - is the link
between Lucy Negro and William Shakespeare

According to Dr Salkeld, the subject of twenty six of Shakespeare's sonnets may have been a woman known as Lucy Negro or Black Luce, who ran a brothel in Clarkenwell. 

What did she have to do with Shakespeare? Well, the evidence comes from the diaries of Philip Henslow, who built the Rose Theatre and was the manager of a theatre company which was rival to Shakespeare's troupe. 

In his diary, Henslow mentions Black Luce, who happened to be one of his tenants. Given that London only had a population of 200,000, the fact that Lucy knew people who knew Shakespeare indicates, to Dr Salkeld, that she must have crossed paths with the playwright. And, of course, this is perfectly possible.

Additionally, Lucy was notorious during the era, her name appearing in a number of plays, texts and the bawdy entertainment at the Gray's Inn Christmas festivities. This leads Salkeld to believe that Shakespeare's veiled references to her would have been none too veiled to the Elizabethans who read his poetry. Everyone would have known who Lucy Negro was and they would, undoubtedly, have picked up on Shakespeare's references to her.

Mystery Solved?

Although Dr Salkeld presents a good case for Lucy Negro filling the Dark Lady's shoes, he admits that the evidence is 'circumstantial'. We have no way of knowing if Shakespeare ever met her, but, even if we assume he did, does that mean she has to be the Dark Lady?

Mary Fitton is another candidate for the
Dark Lady's crown
Was Black Luce the only dark-featured gal in London? Unlikely. And we can't even say with certainty that Shakespeare met the Dark Lady in London.

The assertion that Black Luce is the Dark Lady also poses more questions than it answers. For example, if we assume that Lucy Negro was the inspiration for the Dark Lady, was she also the inspiration for Phebe in As You Like it, "He said mine eyes were black and my hair black"?

Moreover, what does it tell us about the relationship between Shakespeare and Lucy? It seems difficult to believe that a fairly well-known playwright would happily pen an unveiled stream of sonnets to a renowned madam with whom he had a sexual relationship. So, does this mean that the sonnets are purely fictional accounts of an affair the two never actually engaged in? Maybe.

For me, Lucy Negro may be another candidate, but it cannot be claimed that the Dark Lady's identity has been revealed. The evidence is far too circumstantial. Lucy may be the Dark Lady, but it could just as easily be any number of other women that Shakespeare met.

And of course, the Dark Lady might even have existed only in Shakespeare's head. I doubt we'll ever know for sure. But the mystery is a big part of the fun, isn't it?

If you'd like to learn more about Shakespeare and his sonnets, check out What's It All About, Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon.


  1. The sonnets carry such a personal and intimate tone that it seems almost implausible to many readers that they aren't autobiographical. Having that said, Shakespeare was in the business of creating fully developed characters that were not based on his personal life. Why should the sonnets be any different?

    1. Hello, Dr. Plough!

      You're absolutely right, of course. I suspect the desire to find the identity of the Dark Lady or the Fair Youth is an extension of the need we feel to 'know' Shakespeare better. We think that insights into his personal life will reveal something more in his work, or perhaps just explain his genius.

      And, as you point out, particularly with the seemingly personal nature of the sonnets, it's almost painful to imagine that those are just fictitious.

      In any case, I completely agree with you, the Dark Lady could be someone or she could be no-one - just a figment of Shakespeare's incredibly fertile imagination.

      Personally, I prefer not knowing.

  2. Thank you for this more balanced coverage than elsewhere. May I clarify that my book emphatically does not claim to have ‘revealed at last’ the Dark Lady’s identity. It builds carefully on the work of former scholars and assesses evidence for Black Luce, repeatedly insisting that none of this evidence is conclusive. I do not claim that the ‘Dark Lady’ was Lucy Negro/Black Luce, but that whoever she was (and she could have been fictive) Shakespeare painted her with the reputation of Black Luce.

    The journalist who first approached me about this story has assured me that misleading newspaper headlines about this story will be changed (belatedly).

    1. Hello, Dr Salkeld.

      Thank you for reading the article and taking the time to comment, it's much appreciated. Thanks also for clearing up the 'definitive revelation' misconception that has been touted by the newspapers (Daily Mail in particular).

  3. As a descendent of Sir Thomas Lucy, I believe that Shakespeare (who didn't appreciate being arrested when Lucy accused him of poaching on the Lucy Estate near Straford-on-Avon, Chilcott. Shakespeare makes jabs at him throughout his writings...including the coat of arms of the Lucy family. However, I've always imagined that in actuality "Lucy" of his works was not a "first name Lucy" but a "second name Lucy." Was she part of the Lucy family who had a romance with Shakespeare? If so, there would be hints throughout his works about the real "Lucy."

    1. That's a really interesting theory! It would be fascinating if Shakespeare did have a dalliance with a woman from the Lucy family.