THE SONNETS: PART II
Now that we have found the story of the sonnets repeated three times in
the plays, it may be worth our while to see if we can discover in the
plays anything that throws light upon the circumstances or personages of
this curious triangular drama. At the outset, I must admit that save in
these three plays I can find no mention whatever of Shakespeare's
betrayer, Lord Herbert. He was "a false friend," the plays tell us, a
"common friend without faith or love," "a friend of an ill fashion";
young, too, yet trusted; but beyond this summary superficial
characterization there is silence. <i>Me judice</i> Lord Herbert made no
deep or peculiar impression on Shakespeare; an opinion calculated to
give pause to the scandal-mongers. For there can be no doubt whatever
that Shakespeare's love, Mistress Fitton, the "dark lady" of the
sonnet-series from 128 to 152 is to be found again and again in play
after play, profoundly modifying the poet's outlook upon life and art.
Before I take in hand this identification of Miss Fitton and her
influence upon Shakespeare, let me beg the reader to bear in mind the
fact that Shakespeare was a sensualist by nature, a lover, which is as
rare a thing as consummate genius. The story of his idolatrous passion
for Mary Fitton is the story of his life. This is what the commentators
and critics hitherto have failed to appreciate. Let us now get at the
facts and see what light the dramas throw upon the chief personage of
the story, Mistress Fitton. The study will probably teach us that
Shakespeare was the most impassioned lover and love-poet in all
History tells us that Mary Fitton became a maid of honour to Queen
Elizabeth in 1595 at the age of seventeen. From a letter addressed by
her father to Sir Robert Cecil on January 29th, 1599, it is fairly
certain that she had already been married at the age of sixteen; the
union was probably not entirely valid, but the mere fact suggests a
certain recklessness of character, or overpowering sensuality, or both,
and shows that even as a girl Mistress Fitton was no shrinking, timid,
modest maiden. Wrapped in a horseman's cloak she used to leave the
Palace at night to meet her lover, Lord William Herbert. Though twice
married, she had an illegitimate child by Herbert, and two later by Sir
This extraordinary woman is undoubtedly the sort of woman Shakespeare
depicted as the "dark lady" of the sonnets. Nearly every sonnet of the
twenty-six devoted to his mistress contains some accusation against her;
and all these charges are manifestly directed against one and the same
woman. First of all she is described in sonnet 131 as "tyrannous"; then
in sonnet 133 as "faithless"; in sonnet 137 as "the bay where all men
ride ... the wide world's commonplace"; in sonnet 138 as "false"; in
139, she is "coquettish"; 140, "proud"; "false to the bonds of love";
"black as hell... dark as night"--in both looks and character; "full of
foul faults "; "cruel"; "unworthy," but of "powerful" personality;
"unkind--inconstant... unfaithful... forsworn."
Now, the first question is: Can we find this "dark lady" of the sonnets
in the plays? The sonnets tell us she was of pale complexion with black
eyes and hair; do the plays bear out this description? And if they do
bear it out do they throw any new light upon Miss Fitton's character?
Did Miss Fitton seem proud and inconstant, tyrannous and wanton, to
Shakespeare when he first met her, and before she knew Lord Herbert?
The earliest mention of the poet's mistress in the plays is to be found,
I think, in "Romeo and Juliet." "Romeo and Juliet" is dated by Mr.
Furnival 1591-1593; it was first mentioned in 1595 by Meres; first
published in 1597. I think in its present form it must be taken to date
from 1597. Romeo, who as we have already seen, is an incarnation of
Shakespeare, is presented to us in the very first scene as in love with
one Rosaline. This in itself tells me nothing; but the proof that
Shakespeare stands in intimate relation to the girl called Rosaline
comes later, and so the first introductory words have a certain
significance for me. Romeo himself tells us that "she hath Dian's wit,"
one of Shakespeare's favourite comparisons for his love, and speaks of
her chastity, or rather of her unapproachableness; he goes on:
"O she is rich in beauty, only poor
That, when she dies, with beauty dies her store."
which reminds us curiously of the first sonnets. In the second scene
Benvolio invites Romeo to the feast of Capulet, where his love, "the
fair Rosaline," is supping, and adds:
"Compare her face with some that I shall shew,
And I will make thee think thy swan a crow."
Romeo replies that there is none fairer than his love, and Benvolio
"Tut! You saw her fair, none else being by."
This bantering is most pointed if we assume that Rosaline was dark
rather than fair.
In the second act Mercutio comes upon the scene, and, mocking Romeo's
melancholy and passion, cries:
"I conjure thee, by Rosaline's bright eyes,
By her high forehead and her scarlet lip...."
This description surprises me. Shakespeare rarely uses such physical
portraiture of his personages, and Mercutio is a side of Shakespeare
himself; a character all compact of wit and talkativeness, a character
wholly invented by the poet.
A little later my suspicion is confirmed. In the fourth scene of the
second act Mercutio talks to Benvolio about Romeo; they both wonder
where he is, and Mercutio says:
"Ah, that same pale-hearted wench, that Rosaline,
Torments him so that he will sure run mad."
And again, a moment later, Mercutio laughs at Romeo as already dead,
"stabbed with a white wench's black eye." Now, here is confirmation of
my suspicion. It is most unusual for Shakespeare to give the physical
peculiarities of any of his characters; no one knows how Romeo looked,
or Juliet or even Hamlet or Ophelia; and here he repeats the
The only other examples we have as yet found in Shakespeare of such
physical portraiture is the sketching of Falstaff in "Henry IV." and the
snapshot of Master Slender in "The Merry Wives of Windsor," as a "little
wee face, with a little yellow beard,--a cane-coloured beard." Both
these photographs, as we noticed at the time, were very significant, and
Slender's extraordinarily significant by reason of its striking and
peculiar realism. Though an insignificant character, Slender
is photographed for us by Shakespeare's contempt and hatred, just as this
Rosaline is photographed by his passionate love, photographed again and
Shakespeare's usual way of describing the physical appearance of a man
or woman, when he allowed himself to do it at all, which was seldom, was
what one might call the ideal or conventional way. A good example is to
be found in Hamlet's description of his father; he is speaking to his
"Hyperion's curls, the front of Jove himself,
An eye like Mars, to threaten and command,
A station like the herald Mercury
New-lighted on a heaven-kissing hill."
In the special case I am considering Rosaline is less even than a
secondary character; she is not a personage in the play at all. She is
merely mentioned casually by Benvolio and then by Mercutio, and even
Mercutio is not the protagonist; yet his mention of her is strikingly
detailed, astonishingly realistic, in spite of its off-hand brevity. We
have a photographic snapshot, so to speak, of this girl: she "torments"
Romeo; she is "hard-hearted"; a "white wench" with "black eyes"; twice
in four lines she is called now "pale," now "white"--plainly her
complexion had no red in it, and was in startling contrast to her black
eyes and hair. Manifestly this picture is taken from life, and it is
just as manifestly the portrait of the "dark lady" of the sonnets.
As if to make assurance doubly sure, there is another description of
this same Rosaline in another play, so detailed and striking, composed
as it is of contrasting and startling peculiarities that I can only
wonder that its full significance has not been appreciated ages ago. To
have missed its meaning only proves that men do not read Shakespeare
with love's fine wit.
The repetition of the portrait is fortunate for another reason: it tells
us when the love story took place. The allusion to the "dark lady" in
"Romeo and Juliet" is difficult to date exactly; the next mention of her
in a play can be fixed in time with some precision. "Love's Labour's
Lost" was revised by Shakespeare for production at Court during the
Christmas festivities of 1597. When the quarto was published in 1598 it
bore on its title-page the words, "A pleasant conceited comedy called
'Love's Labour's Lost.' As it was presented before Her Highnes this last
Christmas. Newly corrected and augmented By W. Shakespeare." It is in
the revised part that we find Shakespeare introducing his dark love
again, and this time, too, curiously enough, under the name of Rosaline.
Evidently he enjoyed the mere music of the word. Biron is an incarnation
of Shakespeare himself, as we have already seen, and the meeting of
Biron and his love, Rosaline, in the play is extremely interesting for
us as Shakespeare in this revised production, one would think, would
wish to ingratiate himself with his love, more especially as she would
probably be present when the play was produced. Rosaline is made to
praise Biron, before he appears, as a merry man and a most excellent
talker; but when they meet they simply indulge in a tourney of wit, in
which Rosaline more than holds her own, showing indeed astounding
self-assurance, spiced with a little contempt of Biron; "hard-hearted"
Mercutio called it. Every word deserves to be weighed:
"<i>Biron</i>. Did not I dance with you in Brabant once?
<i>Ros</i>. Did not I dance with you in Brabant once?
<i>Biron</i>. I know you did.
<i>Ros</i>. How needless was it, then, to ask the question!
<i>Biron</i>. You must not be so quick.
<i>Ros</i>. 'Tis long of you that spur me with such questions.
<i>Biron</i>. Your wit's too hot, it speeds too fast, 'twill tire.
<i>Ros</i>. Not till it leave the rider in the mire.
<i>Biron</i>. What time o' day?
<i>Ros</i>. The hour that fools should ask.
<i>Biron</i>. Now fair befall your mask!
<i>Ros</i>. Fair fall the face it covers!
<i>Biron</i>. And send you many lovers!
<i>Ros</i>. Amen, so you be none.
<i>Biron</i>. Nay, then will I be gone."
Clearly this Rosaline, too, has Dian's wit and is not in love with
Biron, any more than the Rosaline of "Romeo and Juliet" was in love with
The next allusion is even more characteristic. Biron and Longaville and
Boyet are talking; Longaville shows his admiration for one of the
Princess's women, "the one in the white" he declares, is a most sweet
<i>Biron</i>. What is her name in the cap?
<i>Boyet</i>. Rosaline, by good hap.
<i>Biron</i>. Is she wedded or no?
<i>Boyet</i>. To her will, sir, or so.
<i>Biron</i>. You are welcome, sir: adieu."
This, "To her will, sir, or so," is exactly in the spirit of the
sonnets: every one will remember the first two lines of sonnet 135:
"Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy <i>Will</i>, And
boot, and <i>Will</i> in overplus;"
That, "To her will, sir, or so," I find astonishingly significant, for
not only has it nothing to do with the play and is therefore unexpected,
but the character-drawing is unexpected, too; maids are not usually
wedded to their will in a double sense, and no other of these maids of
honour is described at all.
A little later Biron speaks again of Rosaline in a way which shocks
expectation. First of all, he rages at himself for being in love at all.
"And I, forsooth in love! I, that have been love's whip!" Here I pause
again, it seems to me that Shakespeare is making confession to us, just
as when he admitted without reason that Jaques was lewd. Be that as it
may, he certainly goes on in words which are astounding, so utterly
unforeseen are they, and therefore the more characteristic:
"Nay, to be perjured, which is worst of all;
And, among three, to love the worst of all;"
The first line of this couplet, that he is perjured in loving Rosaline
may be taken as applying to the circumstances of the play; but
Shakespeare also talks of himself in sonnet 152 as "perjured," for he
only swears in order to misuse his love, or with a side glance at the
fact that he is married and therefore perjured when he swears love to
one not his wife. It is well to keep this "perjured" in memory.
But it is the second line which is the more astonishing; there Biron
tells us that among the three of the Princess's women he loves "the
worst of all." Up to this moment we have only been told kindly things of
Rosaline and the other ladies; we had no idea that any one of them was
bad, much less that Rosaline was "the worst of all." The suspicion grows
upon us, a suspicion which is confirmed immediately afterwards, that
Shakespeare is speaking of himself and of a particular woman; else we
should have to admit that his portraiture of Rosaline's character was
artistically bad, and bad without excuse, for why should he lavish all
this wealth of unpleasant detail on a mere subsidiary character? He goes
on, however, to make the fault worse; he next speaks of his love
"A whitely wanton with a velvet brow,
With two pitch-balls stuck in her face for eyes;
Ay, and by heaven, one that will do the deed;
Though Argus were her eunuch and her guard:
And I to sigh for her! to watch for her!
To pray for her! Go to! it is a plague."
It is, of course, a blot upon the play for Biron to declare that his
love is a wanton of the worst. It is not merely unexpected and
uncalled-for; it diminishes our sympathy with Biron and his love, and
also with the play. But we have already found the rule trustworthy that
whenever Shakespeare makes a mistake in art it is because of some strong
personal feeling and not for want of wit, and this rule evidently holds
good here. Shakespeare-Biron is picturing the woman he himself loves;
for not only does he describe her as a wanton to the detriment of the
play; but he pictures her precisely, and this Rosaline is the only
person in the play of whom we have any physical description at all.
Moreover, he has given such precise and repeated photographs of no other
character in any of his plays:
"A whitely wanton with a velvet brow,
With two pitch-balls stuck in her face for eyes."
This is certainly the same Rosaline we found depicted in "Romeo and
Juliet"; but the portraiture here, both physical and moral, is more
detailed and peculiar than it was in the earlier play. Shakespeare now
knows his Rosaline intimately. The mere facts that here again her
physical appearance is set forth with such particularity, and that the
"hard-heartedness" which Mercutio noted in her has now become
"wantonness" is all-important, especially when we remember that Miss
Fitton was probably listening to the play. Even at Christmas, 1597,
Shakespeare's passion has reached the height of a sex-duel. Miss Fitton
has tortured him so that he delights in calling her names to her face in
public when the play would have led one to expect ingratiating or
complimentary courtesies. It does not weaken this argument to admit that
the general audience would not perhaps have understood the allusions.
It is an almost incredible fact that not a single one of his hundreds of
commentators has even noticed any peculiarity in this physical
portraiture of Rosaline; Shakespeare uses this realism so rarely one
would have thought that every critic would have been astounded by it;
but no, they all pass over it without a word, Coleridge, Mr. Tyler, all
The fourth act of "Love's Labour's Lost" begins with a most
characteristic soliloquy of Biron:
"<i>Biron</i>. The king he is hunting the deer; I am coursing
myself: they have pitched a toil; I am toiling in a
pitch--pitch that defiles: defile! a foul word."
Here Biron is manifestly playing on the "pitch-balls" his love has for
eyes, and also on the "foul faults" Shakespeare speaks of in the sonnets
and in Othello. Biron goes on:
"O, but her eye--by this light, but for her eye, I
would not love her; yes, for her two eyes. Well, I do
nothing in the world but lie, and lie in my throat. By
heaven, I do love: and it hath taught me to rhyme, and
to be melancholy; and here is part of my rhyme, and
here my melancholy. Well, she hath one o' my sonnets
already: the clown bore it, the fool sent it, and the lady
hath it: sweet clown, sweeter fool, sweetest lady!"
This proves to me that some of Shakespeare's sonnets were written in
1597. True, Mr. Tyler would try to bind all the sonnets within the three
years from 1598 to 1601, the three years which Shakespeare speaks about
in sonnet 104:
Have from the forests shook three summers' pride,
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turn'd
In process of the seasons have I seen.
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burn'd,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green."
Lord Herbert first came to Court in the spring of 1598, and so sonnet
104 may have represented the fact precisely so far as Herbert was
concerned; but I am not minded to take the poet so literally. Instead of
beginning in the spring of 1598, some of the sonnets to the lady were
probably written in the autumn of 1597, or even earlier, and yet
Shakespeare would be quite justified in talking of three years, if the
period ended in 1601. A poet is not to be bound to an almanack's
In the fourth act of "Love's Labour's Lost," when Biron confesses his
love for "the heavenly Rosaline," the King banters him in the spirit of
"<i>King</i>. By heaven, thy love is black as ebony.
<i>Biron</i>. Is ebony like her? O wood divine!
A wife of such wood were felicity.
O, who can give an oath? Where is a book?
That I may swear beauty doth beauty lack,
If that she learn not of her eye to look:
No face is fair that is not full so black."
Here we have Shakespeare again describing his mistress for us, though he
has done it better earlier in the play; he harps upon her dark beauty
here to praise it, just as he praised it in sonnet 127; it is passion's
trick to sound the extremes of blame and praise alternately.
In the time of Elizabeth it was customary for poets and courtiers to
praise red hair and a fair complexion as "beauty's ensign," and so
compliment the Queen. The flunkeyism, which is a characteristic of all
the Germanic races, was peculiarly marked in England from the earliest
times, and induced men, even in those "spacious days," not only to
overpraise fair hair, but to run down dark hair and eyes as ugly. The
"O paradox! Black is the badge of hell,
The hue of dungeons and the school of night;
And beauty's crest becomes the heavens well."
"Devils soonest tempt, resembling spirits of light.
O, if in black my lady's brow be deck'd
It mourns that painting and usurping hair
Should ravish doters with a false aspect;
And therefore is she born to make black fair.
Her favour turns the fashion of the days,
For native blood is counted painting now;
And therefore red that would avoid dispraise,
Paints itself black, to imitate her brow."
Our timid poet is bold enough, when cloaked under a stage-name, to
uphold the colour of his love's hair against the Queen's; the mere fact
speaks volumes to those who know their Shakespeare.
Sonnet 127 runs in almost the same words; though now the poet speaking
in his own person is less bold:
"In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or, if it were, it bore not beauty's name;
But now is black beauty's successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame:
For since each hand hath put on nature's power,
Fairing the soul with art's false borrow'd face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress' eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Slandering creation with a false esteem:
Yet so they mourn, becoming of their woe
That every tongue says beauty should look so."
There can be no doubt that in this Rosaline of "Romeo and Juliet" and of
"Love's Labour's Lost," Shakespeare is describing the "dark lady" of the
second sonnet-series, and describing her, against his custom in
play-writing, even more exactly than he described her in the lyrics.
There is a line at the end of this act which is very characteristic when
considered with what has gone before; it is clearly a confession of
Shakespeare himself, and a perfect example of what one might call the
conscience that pervades all his mature work:
"Light wenches may prove plagues to men forsworn."
We were right, it seems, in putting some stress on that "perjured" when
we first met it.
In the second scene of the fifth act, which opens with a talk between
the Princess and her ladies, our view of Rosaline is confirmed.
Katherine calls Rosaline light, and jests upon this in lewd fashion;
declares, too, that she is "a merry, nimble, stirring spirit," in fact,
tells her that she is
"A light condition in a beauty dark."
All these needless repetitions prove to me that Shakespeare is
describing his mistress as she lived and moved. Those who disagree with
me should give another instance in which he has used or abused the same
precise portraiture. But there is more in this light badinage of the
girls than a description of Rosaline. When Rosaline says that she will
torture Biron before she goes, and turn him into her vassal, the
"None are so surely caught when they are catch'd
As wit turned fool."
"The blood of youth burns not with such excess
As gravity's revolt to wantonness."
This remark has no pertinence or meaning in Rosaline's mouth. Biron is
supposed to be young in the play, and he has never been distinguished
for his gravity, but for his wit and humour: the Princess calls him
"quick Biron." The two lines are clearly Shakespeare's criticism of
himself. When he wrote the sonnets he thought himself old, and certainly
his years (thirty-four) contrasted badly with those of Mary Fitton who
was at this time not more than nineteen.
Late in 1597 then, before William Herbert came upon the scene at all,
Shakespeare knew that his mistress was a wanton:
"Ay, and by heaven, one that will do the deed;
Though Argus were her eunuch and her guard."
Shakespeare has painted his love for us in these plays as a most
extraordinary woman: in person she is tall, with pallid complexion and
black eyes and black brows, "a gipsy," he calls her; in nature
imperious, lawless, witty, passionate--a "wanton"; moreover, a person of
birth and position. That a girl of the time has been discovered who
united all these qualities in herself would bring conviction to almost
any mind; but belief passes into certitude when we reflect that this
portrait of his mistress is given with greatest particularity in the
plays, where in fact it is out of place and a fault in art. When
studying the later plays we shall find this gipsy wanton again and
again; she made the deepest impression on Shakespeare; was, indeed, the
one love of his life. It was her falseness that brought him to
self-knowledge and knowledge of life, and turned him from a
light-hearted writer of comedies and histories into the author of the
greatest tragedies that have ever been conceived. Shakespeare owes the
greater part of his renown to Mary Fitton.