11 The Racialized Affects of Ill-Will in the Dark Lady Sonnets

Carol Mejia LaPerle

Restricted in form and moored to precedent, sonnets nonetheless explore a wide range of affective experiences. They are not only about feelings, but to an extent manufactured what is recognizable even today as the basic diagnostics of erotic attachment: longing, despair, exuberance, arousal, and, if the couplet permits, relief. But critics have rightfully considered the uneven treatment and representation of these erotic attachments, these affective experiences. Bruce R. Smith outlines the power structures of the genre: “The poet, not the mistress, is the subject in every sense of the word. Seen in its rhetorical context, a Petrarchan sonnet is a power ploy of speaker over listener; seen in its social context, it is a power-ploy of man over a woman; seen in its sexual context, it is a power-ploy of male over female.”[1] Nancy Vickers locates this dominance in the blazon’s dismemberment of the beloved muse, in which the poet “cannot allow her to dismember his body; instead he repeatedly, although reverently, scatters hers throughout his scattered rhymes.”[2] These influential readings of domination implicit in the form, however, gloss over what has been called the “scandal of Shakespeare’s sonnets”[3]; that is, the dark lady’s promiscuous and unruly provocations. Kim F. Hall’s groundbreaking analysis of the dichotomy of dark and fair has linked it to the codification and exploitation of racial difference.[4] As foil to the fair male friend, the female beloved’s darkness is thus a useful resource for William Shakespeare’s exploration of the genre’s obsession with this dichotomy. But while her function in literary representations of this trope is established, the dark mistress’s disruption of male dominance and resistance to passive objectification, and the ways these negative affects shape racial attitudes, require further investigation. To return to the epigraph of this collection, the lady coloured ill (im)poses the problem of feeling.

The dark lady poems, identified with relative consensus as sonnets 127 to 154 of Shakespeare’s sequence,[5] departs from the conventional depiction of the unattainable, virtuous, and fair beauty by attributing to the beloved some rather unflattering attributes: dun breasts, wiry black hair, reeking breath, a heavy tread, and an unrestrained sexual appeal that distempers men to distraction. These descriptions are culled from the much-cited sonnet 130 that argues the beloved’s eyes are not, as it turns out, like the sun. In her departure from the improbably perfect characteristics of a typical sonnet muse, the dark lady inspires critical attention from those seeking to confirm a historical counterpart.[6] A popular contender as the dark lady is Emilia Lanier, who published the poem Salve Dues Rex in 1611 after having been embroiled in a few sexual scandals of her day, such as being the known mistress of Shakespeare’s theatre patron, Lord Chamberlain Henry Carey.[7] Even more controversially, “Lucy Negro” or Lucy Morgan, who was a brothel keeper with ties to the court of Queen Elizabeth I, was identified as having connections with Shakespeare and his thespian ilk, such as theatre owner Philip Henslowe.[8] But apart from providing intriguing connections and prurient speculations, these historical accounts cannot fully capture the beloved lady’s embodiment of desire, defiance, and darkness.

Instead, I would like to consider the problem of feeling as a disturbance of the sonnet sequence’s default investments in white futurity and racial insularity. The poet’s emphasis on his male friend’s genealogy of fairness is articulated through the elevation of a kin/kind attachment — elevated precisely by the volitional rather than consanguine bond of male friendship.[9] Their idealized attachment is disrupted by the woman “coloured ill” (sonnet 144, line 4). [10]As Dympna Callaghan observes, the dark lady is never actually called the dark lady in the sequence but is, rather, referred to as the woman coloured ill, linking hue to something ominous or harmful.[11] I put pressure on “ill” as simultaneously an attribution of her characterization and a hue that racializes her corruption of desire — both aspects I develop as constitutive of ill-will. Volition emerges as an index for the affective experience of racial formation.

The mistress’s denunciation of long-standing Petrarchan ideals challenges poetic form and disrupts male authority even as her departure from sonnet expectations is the hallmark of Shakespeare’s innovations in the genre. Like many previous beloveds, Shakespeare’s mistress starts as a silent and detached addressee. But in its particular brand of unreciprocated attentions, the sequence rejects the genre’s conventions and subverts male desire in ways that depend upon the sexualization and racialization of the beloved’s darkness along a spectrum of will: willing submission to a heteronormative, classed hierarchy on the one hand, and on the other, willful, non-compliance that threatens social identities as they are determined by a dominant, shared, idealized, good will. As Sara Ahmed elaborates in Willful Subjects, the “idea of willfulness as self-agreement can be related to how willful subjects do not will in agreement with others. I would suggest that the diagnosis of willfulness allows the good will to appear as if it is a universal will, as a will that has eliminated signs of itself from moral agreement.”[12] Thus, “universal will,” embedded in the imperatives of the genre’s aesthetic demands and gendered desires, is undermined by the dark lady who manifests a willfulness that is “agreeable to [her]self.”[13] In Ahmed’s attempt to offer an “account of the sociality of will,” she observes that “to be identified as willful is to become a problem.”[14] Within the sonnet sequence’s overabundance of wills, amidst a profusion of desires, the sonneteer’s will is not thwarted by a chaste and unattainable beloved of the sonnet tradition, a rejection that is at least aligned with the conventions of the genre. Wanton, harsh, formidable — the very opposite of Francesco Petrarch’s unsullied Laura or Philip Sidney’s distant Stella — the dark lady withholds, subverts, and challenges prevailing notions of her appropriate role in the love triangle. In her refusal to be a passive object of desire or an agreeable participant in its pacification, she calls attention to the sonnet sequence’s sociality of will. Unlike the suffering poet whose will — his wishes, his testaments, his genitals (since the word was a euphemism for sexual acts and apparatuses) — is frustrated but not problematic, the dark lady’s willfulness is coded as abnormal, excessive, and dangerous. This characterization is a form of racialization that evokes, but is not limited to, the markers of somatic Blackness. It is the dark lady’s affective performance of ill-will that demarcates the villainizations and exclusions of an indelible racial difference.

Her deviant difference is in stark contrast to the benevolent identicality of male friendship, which provides the throughline for much of the sequence. The dark lady poems depart from the topic of male friendship by shifting attention from amity to promiscuity, from counsel to corruption, from selflessness to the mockery of such sentiments. In doing so, they disrupt the poet’s preoccupation with the beauty, virtue, and procreative potential of his fair, young, male friend.[15] Laurie Shannon has established the ways hierarchy haunts the discourse of parity in friendship doctrines: “the insistent emphasis on sexual and social sameness is a systematic response to that most acute form of early modern difference: the hierarchical difference of degree.”[16] But the point of this discourse is to imagine a commonweal grounded in the elevation of sameness across and despite hierarchy: “Likeness in both sex and status is (the only) political equality in period terms; on the basis of this likeness, writers stress the making of a consensual social bond or body that is not inherently subordinating.”[17] Although Shannon does not evoke volition per se, mutual parity is underwritten by mutual wills, enacting a paradigm that not only aligns two male friends’ wills with each other, but also replicates a broader social understanding of common, good will. Specifically conjoining male friendship to social good, Páraic Finnerty observes that early modern society “celebrat[ed] ideal male friendship as the most perfect human relationship and stress[ed] its importance in the public world of social mobility, patronage and civic virtue, and in the private one of intimacy, affection and companionship.”[18] But scholars of early modern friendship have not addressed how intimacy, affection, and companionship — the private basis of a public commonweal — are not only classed and gendered as the purview of male aristocrats but are, furthermore, racially insular.

In the sonnets, good will is coded, reiterated, and ultimately policed as white, in the way that Richard Dyer articulates the machinations of this racial category: “There is a specificity to white representation, but it does not reside in a set of stereotypes so much as in narrative structural positions, rhetorical tropes and habits of perception.”[19] Hall has proven that the rhetorical trope of fairness is a fundamental component of English self-fashioning in the eve of colonial exploitation.[20] I build on Hall’s influential analysis by considering representation and positionality along a spectrum of will. The dark lady destabilizes the normative structural position of good will as belonging to the male friends’ enjoyment and replication of white privilege, even as these aesthetic and social advantages are presumed and thus covert in the genre’s policing of desire. Thus, the fair friend’s reluctance to marry elicits an accusation of being a “profitless usurer” (sonnet 4, line 7) and a “niggard” (sonnet 4, line 5). Racial slurs that evoke anti-Semitism and anti-Blackness are deployed to emphasize that the fair friend is neither of these identities. Rather, his pale beauty and kind virtue establish fairness/whiteness as the template for humanism’s highest aspirations. Furthermore, racial slurs put to relief an idealization of whiteness that does not need to be named as such, for it functions as an invisible but ever-present ideal underwriting and insulating a commonweal of kind kinship. But this ideological assumption requires the appropriate expression and inculcation of wills; that is, the fair male friend and the poet demonstrate a concerted alignment of wills even as their desires are in conflict, since both have erotic interests in a promiscuous woman.

In sonnet 134, the persona transforms the conceit of imprisonment into a debilitating debt that thwarts the credit and compromises the wellbeing of two male friends, shaping the contours of kin/kind in market terms to demonstrate that these binding obligations are not commercial exchanges.[21] As a benevolent and generous friend to his male competition, the poet makes an offer: he submits himself to the unscrupulous woman who comes between him and his fair friend.

And I myself am mortgaged to thy will,
Myself I’ll forfeit, so that other mine
Thou wilt restore, to be my comfort still: (sonnet 134, lines 2–4)

The “other mine” echoes what Jeffrey Masten has identified as an existential bond accompanying idealized friendships: “the rhetoric of these relationships is centrally concerned with describing ideally persons of absolute identicality, indistinguishability, and interchangeability.”[22] Michel de Montaigne’s treatment of will is central to this form of idealism. In “On Friendship,” he claims that friendship “is I wot not what kinde of quintessence of all this commixture, which having seized all my will, induced the same to plunge and loose it selfe in his, which likewise having seized all his will, brought it to loose and plunge it selfe in mine, with a mutual greediness, and with a semblable concurrence.”[23] And so Shakespeare’s elaboration of the poet and his male friend’s interchangeability is a manifestation of merging and binding; indeed, in Montaigne’s words, “plunging” of consenting wills with each other. The poet’s sacrifice, therefore, hinges on the profundity of their connection, bolsters the foundation of their common will, and becomes a substitution that “betters” the self. Throughout the sonnets, an argument of kin/kind compassion and social obligation runs through the stylized, erotic persuasions that delineate the poet’s virtuous but captivated fair friend from the ruthless mistress who seduces both men. In her refusal to concede to the superiority of “fair, kind, and true” (sonnet 105, lines 9–10), the dark lady exerts the affective power of her physical darkness as social disobedience and sexual deviance. Thus, through her disturbance of order, the dark lady performs an exclusion — social and ontological — from the racial logic that mobilizes male friendship as insulating and celebrating whiteness as the default kin/kind.

In doing so, the dark lady challenges the racial insularity implicit in kinship and mobilized by discourses of friendship. Sonnet 134’s depiction of a negotiation with the dark lady’s will is meant first, to free a friend from promiscuous enticements and second, to restore order by saving a young man who, in other instances, the poet has called “that other mine” (line 3), “my sweet’st friend” (sonnet 133, line 4), and “my next self” (sonnet 133, line 6). Through this sacrifice, friendship can serve as “comfort still” (sonnet 134, line 4). The poet begins sonnet 134 by asking to be mortgaged to her will, but the gist is that she will not yield to their refinance offer. Part of the mistress’s ill-will is in her refusal to put value in their comfortable compromise. Economic language emerges as nothing other than what it is — the traffic of bodies to secure white aristocratic male privilege without acknowledgment of the racial and gendered insularity operating through and afforded by male friendship. Economic terms like “mortgaged” and “forfeit” populate the sonnet’s extended conceit of commerce. The dark lady denies the proposition, opting instead to take from both as both lose more. Lamenting “Him have I lost; thou hast both him and me” (line 13), the poet elaborates:

But thou wilt not, nor he will not be free,
For thou art covetous and he is kind;
[ … ]
The statute of thy beauty thou wilt take,
Thou usurer, that put’st forth all to use,
And sue a friend came debtor for my sake;
So him I lose through my unkind abuse. (sonnet 134, lines 5–6, 9–12)

The closeness and alignment of male friends’ wills is kind — thus the repetition of this pun on the concept of kin/kind is multiply provocative when put to relief by the unkind dark lady. The dark mistress’s rejection of the sacrificial offer ensuring the devotion of one lover instead of the contested suffering of two lovers, proves her to be unfair (unvirtuous, unchaste, unjust) and unkind (cruel, covetous, and refusing to heed the significance of kin). Her refusal of a measured, mutually beneficial exchange between fair participants, and the way this refusal disrupts an idealized kinship that rises above economic interest, renders her a “covetous. . . usurer,” an outsider. While this might seem an obvious point — she is the ruthless temptress whose seduction distresses both men and compromises their friendship — I am delineating a more elusive disparity, one in which exclusion from and rejection of moral and social conventions give shape to ill-will. This exclusion from male fairness and kindness hinges on all of the ways the sonnet compels the concession of her will to the desires of the men, two friends who are reciprocally good to, and good for, each other. The dark mistress’s power over them, and her exclusion from the economy that values the kinship between friends, depends entirely on her willful rejection of the role they desire her will to play.

And so sonnet 135’s super amplification of the word will — 14 instances in a 14-line poem — alerts to the inherent dangers of will as the site of excess, ungovernability, and confusion. “Will” indicates a range of denotative meanings: intentional agency; a hopeful wish; an authoritative decree; a successful persuasion; and of course, an official declaration of the distribution of one’s wealth upon death. Other uses for the word are more specific to the period: a euphemism for genitals if not a reference to sexual intercourse and, in this case, a reminder of the author’s first name. This last point is much the topic of sonnet 136 that ends: “And then thou lov’st me for my name is Will” (line 14). But prior to this heavy-handed self-promotion, the central argument of sonnet 135 is more subtle: “Wilt thou, whose will is large and spacious, / Not once vouchsafe to hide my will in thine?” (lines 5–6) might be paraphrased as: you are such a slut, what difference does one more lover make? If this seems crass, consider all of the ways that the sonnet evokes notions of accepting, absorbing, and adding the poet’s will into the dark lady’s will, all argued within the context of excess: “And Will to boot, and Will in overplus” (sonnet 135, line 2). The central conceit is that the sea’s expansive ability to take in water is like the dark mistress’s unlimited capacity to have and to fulfill desires.

And in my will no fair acceptance shine?
The sea, all water, yet receives rain still,
And in abundance addeth to his store;
So thou, being rich in Will, add to thy Will
One will of mine, to make thy large Will more. (sonnet 135, lines 8–12)

But unlike the sea that is forever receptive, the beloved does not allow Will’s will into her large and spacious will (as a euphemism for genitals, this is basically a rejection of penetration). Alas, she will not concede to accommodate just one more will “to make [her] large Will more” or, it seems, to make his Will large. The point is that sonnet 135’s unruly and dizzy profusions of the word not only build on the sonnet tradition’s abiding interest in expressions of desire, sex, power, and wordplay, but they also represent the female beloved’s positionality as bound up in her refusal to concede to male projections of sexual compliance or virtuous restraint, rendering her wilfulness ill indeed. And it is not just about procreation per se, for she is already wallowing in the abundant largess of her sexual capacity. Rather, it is her refusal to “vouchsafe” that is reprimanded. Even if sexual consummation ensues, it does not result in “fair acceptance.” Thus, ill-will is not so much an affront to moral imperatives undergirding chastity, but rather a disruptive positionality that frustrates Will’s will. She embodies not just departure from Petrarchan ideals but, furthermore, a rejection of normative, patriarchal, white heterodox and its attendant expressions of desire, as these expressions are produced for and circulated between male friends. The problem isn’t sex — she’s having lots of that — the problem of feeling is the refusal to comply, pacify, and ultimately, submit.

This integral aspect of ill-will, the refusal to submit, is bound up in the genre’s inherent anti-Blackness, even as the sequence’s rhetorical flourishes proclaim otherwise. Part of Shakespeare’s innovation in the genre is a confrontation of the disparagements against Black femininity and the poet’s insistence that “now is black beauty’s successive heir” (sonnet 127, line 3), indicating the dark features of the mistress as superior to light-skinned beauty; indeed, “Thy black is fairest in my judgment’s place” (sonnet 131, line 12). Winthrop D. Jordan has established that, in the early modern period, “Englishmen found in the idea of blackness a way of expressing some of their most ingrained values … Black was an emotionally partisan color, the handmaid and symbol of baseness and evil, a sign of danger and repulsion.”[24] Thus, Shakespeare’s revision of Blackness is notable as a literary device. Yet Hall’s influential analysis of the dominant but volatile polarity of dark and light in English sonnet sequences reveals that “descriptions of dark and light, rather than being mere indications of Elizabethan beauty standards or markers of moral categories, became in the early modern period the conduit through which the English began to formulate the notions of ‘self’ and ‘other.’”[25] Notably, Shakespeare sonnets’ praise of Blackness are essentially expressions of the persona’s insistent valuation. Statements like “In my judgement’s place” (sonnet 131, line 12 emphasis added), and “Then will I swear beauty herself is black, / And all they foul that thy complexion lack” (sonnet 132, lines 13–14) rely entirely on self-referential perceptions of the lover. If he is nearly polemical about the beauty of Blackness, then it is to call attention to the value and innovation of his endorsement as much as to any actual aspect of the beloved’s features. It belies, in Hall’s terms, a way of evoking Blackness to sanction a compulsion to whiten: “Positing a mistress as dark allows the poet to turn her white, to refashion her into an acceptable object of Platonic love and admiration. The loveliness of the Petrarchan beauties, despite their color, represents not their seductive power but the poet’s power in bringing them to light.”[26] Shakespeare’s insistence on “bringing to light” his mistress’s dark beauty is proof of his literary superiority. The assertion of authorial power also signals the poet’s unease about the mistress’s exertion of sovereignty, one that cannot be compelled either to abide by tradition or to submit to the lovers’ demands. When the beloved refuses to concede to the poet’s wishes, the sonnets project onto her Blackness moral deviance and social disruption equal to the devil’s. It is in response to the mistress’s overpowering ill-will, rather than to her somatic darkness, that the poet later retracts his praise by stating “For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright, / Who art as black as hell, as dark as night” (sonnet 147, lines 13–14).

This damning couplet evokes a long tradition of assigning to the black hue the ocular proof of evil. Sonnet 144 deploys a psychomachia trope to depict the struggle for the poet’s heart and soul. The good angel is the youthful, fair, and righteous male friend and the ill-coloured mistress is the devil incarnate.

The better angel is a man right fair:
The worser spirit a woman coloured ill.
To win me soon to hell my female evil,
Tempteth my better angel from my side,
And would corrupt my saint to be a devil:
Wooing his purity with her foul pride. (sonnet 144, lines 3–8)

Rather than the recipient of courtship rituals, the “woman coloured ill” woos to corrupt, converting both men by compromising the virtue of the “man right fair.” Male friendship that provides comfort, fairness, and kinship (all signs of general good will) is now entirely at her disposal to bring to hellish destruction. Fred Moten reads the love triangle as deviant sexuality: “heteroerotic and necessarily illegitimate procreativity that exists as such only as a function of the racialization of sexual difference.”[27] I tarry over Moten’s observation of this illegitimate procreativity, which I argue is the dark lady’s other threat to whiteness — that of disrupting idealized white futurity couched in the language of purity assigned to the fair young man. The veneration and call for replication of the beloved male friend (via the cultural work of the poems’ textual longevity and the biological reproduction via an appropriate white wife) attest to the sequence’s preoccupation with the genealogy of fairness. The poet articulates his friend’s pure, fair lineage as the natural and inviolable ideal of physical beauty and aspirational virtues, announced in the first two lines of the first sonnet: “From fairest creatures we desire increase, / That thereby beauty’s rose might never die.” Repeatedly iterating some version of “eternal lines” (sonnet 18, line 12) of “beauty by succession thine” (sonnet 2, line 12), the poet sustains pressure on his fair friend’s biological and cultural reproduction. The dark lady’s refusal to perform male projections of compliance and virtue go beyond the villainization of her illicit sexuality. She threatens the sequence’s original thesis of an ideal young man’s beautiful and fair “increase.” The dark lady’s ill-will is deployed to “win,” “tempteth,” “corrupt,” and “woo” and is thus racialized in that Blackness threatens the genealogy of whiteness. This affective racialization is expressed in the language of sexual corruption, whereby ill-will turns what is pure and angelic into a devil.[28] According to the sonnets’ anti-Black rhetoric, she not only menaces the wills she evokes (corrupting the desires of desperate male suitors), she also, as a harbinger of the devil’s damnation, fundamentally counters a moral imperative implied in the male friends’ constant though tested alliance as that alliance is to be cemented over reproductive white bodies. This is about miscegenation of the male friend’s line, certainly, but the anxiety also reveals the fragilities of white futurity. Kind progeny must be actively protected from the sexual corruptions of a dark beloved’s ill-will. The future of fair is at stake.

As a woman of ill-will, the dark lady disrupts the kind friendship of men, undermines authority’s investments in kinship, and challenges a white hegemony that presents itself as universal good will while underwriting the privileges of male alliances erected over racially unmarked, socially compliant, white female bodies. It is worth noting that the dark lady’s villainization as an expression of anti-Black racialization does not ultimately hinge on any specific physical marker.[29] Ian Smith postulates important considerations when limiting race to the “semiotics and politics of skin color”:

More pointedly, what happens when we limit race to the prevalent semiotics and politics of skin color, a view conditioned largely in the American context by the intervening histories of slavery and colonialism, as well as the emergence of biological racism as pseudo-scientific fact? Quite simply, we run the risk of failing to disturb the distinct modern predispositions to equate race and color and so surrender to a reductive, chromal, and somatic phenomenology.[30]

Indeed, the reliance on physical difference as the sole indicator of race with little attention to how darkness intersects with “other means of racialization” has stalled the theorization of race with regards to the sonnets.[31] The ill-will of the dark lady is represented as an aberrant, ungovernable, and dangerous affect. She is firmly designated on the wrong end of the spectrum of compliance and incorporation. As the antagonistic, disruptive, racialized outsider, she fundamentally threatens the sonnets’ traditional representations of gendered desire and social identity. In their representation of Black sexuality as fundamentally unkind, Shakespeare’s sonnets provide a precedent for excusing, indeed aestheticizing, racial insularity and the future of fair.

It is precisely through her embodiment of ill-will that the dark lady shows the harrying coercion, mercenary self-promotion, and racial insularity of erotic persuasions. The sonnets cultivate a sexual politics marshalled around the affect of her racialized ill-will, rendering the dark lady a threat to the future of fair and categorically excluded from the insularity of kind. In other words, her racialized affect is not a foil to, but rather the foundation for, white male friends’ kind kinship. By refusing and undermining kind kin, she is represented as unkind and kinless. Such attributions are fodder for what white supremacists tell themselves about themselves. Readers are compelled to worry over the fair angel’s reproductive future — a future threatened by the dark lady’s ill-will. To this, habits of perception that support white supremacy obscure the dire outcomes for those who suffer from exclusion and objectification.

For the Black mistress, what are the implications of casting her as a threat to legitimate procreation? What would it entail, and what would it reveal, to reject the premise of her villainization? How would an analysis of ill-will, as something other than an expression of evil, bring into relief the racism embroiled in the formation of the commonweal’s good will? To break away from the habits inculcated by white hegemony in early modern English studies, it is time to ask a different set of questions. If not in friendship, where is her comfort? If not in succession, what is her lineage? If not in kind, who is her kin?

The unkind kinlessness projected onto the dark mistress’s ill-will is not separate from, but rather elemental to, the commodification of Black femininity. As critics and historians have proven about the carnage of slavery, kinlessness is a racialized condition enforced through the commodification of flesh, the abduction of personal volition, and the erasure of a Black genealogy.[32] Achille Mbembe explains that

For Blacks confronted with the reality of slavery, loss is first of a genealogical order. In the New World, the Black slave is legally stripped of all kinship. Slaves are, in consequence, “without parents.” The condition of kinlessness is imposed on them through law and power. And eviction from the world of legal kinship is an inherited condition. Birth and descent afford them no right to any form of social relationship or belonging as such.[33]

In the words of Frederick Douglass’s painful lament: “My poor mother, like many other slave-women, had many children but NO FAMILY.”[34] Jennifer L. Morgan investigates the economic, sociological, and historical networks contributing to the formation of Black motherhood in the context of the African diaspora. The denial of kinship and thus the assumption of an inability to be kind was central to the dispossession of the enslaved. Morgan explains this “concept of perpetual and hereditary racial slavery” as dependent upon “a strategic dislodging of Africans from the family of Man would become crucial to rendering them as commodities”[35] Rendered unkind and kinless and thus excluded “from the family of Man,” the rhetorical violence unleashed upon the dark lady sanctions, and hauntingly anticipates, the inhumane exploitation of other dark ladies.

The sonnets played a role in the justification for enslavability because they participated in the project of severing kind kinship from Blackness. Black women’s abduction and violation for the accumulation of human capital under slavery was justified by and reinforced through the racist attribution of them as unkind (paradoxically drawing from the allegation of lacking feeling and anticipation of active maliciousness) and kinless (paradoxically a source of reproductive power yet unmoored from family, lineage, and community). The dark lady sequence’s investment in the future of fair is dependent upon its depiction of a Black woman’s incapacity for kindness and refutation of kinship. This foundational fiction, this racist lie, has consequences beyond the page.

  1. Bruce R. Smith, Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare’s England: A Cultural Poetics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 260 original emphasis.
  2. Nancy Vickers, “Diana Described: Scattered Women and Scattered Rhyme,” in Writing and Sexual Difference, ed. Elizabeth Abel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 109.
  3. Margareta de Grazia shifts attention away from the homoerotic scandals of the sequence to remind readers that “the readings of dark mistress sonnets have been blank to the shocking social peril they promulgate” (“The Scandal of Shakespeare’s Sonnets,” Shakespeare Survey 46 [1993]: 49).
  4. Kim F. Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995).
  5. For discussion of the historical reception of the text and how it affects the sequencing and ordering of the sonnets, see Robert Matz, “The Scandals of Shakespeare’s Sonnets,” ELH 77, no. 2 (2010): 477–508. Matz proposes that the attention given to the dark lady sonnets shifts depending upon each era’s construction of sexuality. He notes that the sequential ordering of the sonnets is not authorized by any direct access to author intention or production consistency.
  6. As Dympna Callaghan notices, the “complex constellation of relationships between three principal characters and the degree of emotional reality with which they are rendered. . . makes it impossible to regard the sonnets as entirely fictional, at least in any simple or straightforward sense” (Shakespeare’s Sonnets [Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007], 3).
  7. A. L. Rowse, Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A Modern Edition, with Prose Versions, Introduction and Notes, 3rd ed. (London: Macmillan Press, 1984), xix.
  8. See Duncan Salkeld, Shakespeare among the Courtesans: Prostitution, Literature, and Drama, 1500–1650 (London: Routledge, 2012). For Luce Negro’s presence in the court of Elizabeth, and more importantly the inspiring effects of her historical memory for artistic adaptations, see Joyce Green MacDonald, “Dark Ladies, Black Women: Animating Lucy Negro in Caroline Randall Williams’ Lucy Negro, Redux,” in GWU Annual Shakespeare Lecture, posted 19 September 2020 on YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p41IFoBWK_A.
  9. This is a distinction productively investigated by Urvashi Chakravarty, “More than Kin, Less than Kind: Similitude, Strangeness, and Early Modern English Homonationalism,” Shakespeare Quarterly 67, no. 1 (2016): 14–29.
  10. Shakespeare, William, et al. The Norton Shakespeare. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015. All in-text sonnet citations are from this edition.
  11. “She has come to be known as the ‘dark lady,’ even though Shakespeare himself never calls her that” (Callaghan, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, 2).
  12. Sara Ahmed, Willful Subjects (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 95 emphases added.
  13. Ahmed, Willful Subjects, 95 original emphasis.
  14. Ahmed, Willful Subjects, 19, 3.
  15. The relationship between the men can be categorized under the early modern understanding of “amity”: “While the notion of an exclusive, intimate, affective bond of friendship emerges during this period, early modern amity incorporates a wider range of human interactions than this, including concepts of benevolence, gratitude, humanitarianism, political and social bonds, epistolary exchange and textual gift-giving, loving friendship, ethical union and relationships connected by the soul and by God” (Bronwen Price and Páraic Finnerty, eds., “Amity in Early Modern Literature and Culture: Introduction,” special issue, Literature & History 20, no. 1 [2011]: 1).
  16. Laurie Shannon, Sovereign Amity: Figures of Friendship in Shakespearean Contexts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 2.
  17. Shannon, Sovereign Amity, 3 original emphasis.
  18. Páraic Finnerty, “‘Both are Alike, and Both Alike We Like’: Sovereignty and Amity in Shakespeare’s King John,” Literature & History 20, no. 1 (2011): 39.
  19. Richard Dyer, White: Essays on Race and Culture, (London: Routledge, 1997), 12.
  20. Hall, Things of Darkness.
  21. For an astute reading of the ways the language of enterprise and commerce are mystified, see Hall, Things of Darkness, esp. Chapter 3. For a reading of friendship and the language of the market, see Lorna Hutson, The Usurer’s Daughter: Male Friendship and Fictions of Women in Sixteenth-Century England (London: Routledge, 1994).
  22. Jeffrey Masten, Queer Philologies: Sex, Language, and Affect in Shakespeare’s Time (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 73–74.
  23. Michel de Montaigne, “Of Friendship,” in Essays: or Morall, Politike, and Millitarie Discourses, trans. John Florio (London: Printed by Val. Sims for Edward Blount, 1603), 93.
  24. Winthrop D. Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550–1812, 2nd ed. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 7.
  25. Hall, Things of Darkness, 2.
  26. Hall, Things of Darkness, 67 emphases added.
  27. Fred Moten, “The Dark Lady and the Sexual Cut: Sonnet Record Frame / Shakespeare Jones Eisenstein,” Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory 9, no. 2 (1997): 150.
  28. In this way the sonnet echoes Othello’s racialization of Desdemona’s perceived adultery: “Her name, that was as fresh / As Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black / As mine own face” (3.3.386–388). I would like to thank Ambereen Dadabhoy for pointing out how the corruption anticipated by female promiscuity threatens to racialize all partners. See also Lara Bovilsky, Barbarous Play: Race on the English Renaissance Stage (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2008), Chapter 1.
  29. Marvin Hunt highlights the relevance of the dark lady’s physical markers and claims that “the overpowering contrary beauty of Shakespeare’s dark lady and the corrosive effects of desire for her are, in part, direct consequences of her color” (“‘Be Dark but not Too Dark’: Shakespeare’s Dark Lady as a Sign of Color,” in Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Critical Essays, ed. James Schiffer [New York: Garland, 1999], 370). Hunt’s close analysis leads him to claim that the sonnet outlines “the liminal sign of a slave woman who, unbaptized, was also unnamed” (384). The analogue located in a historical figure deserves closer inspection in light of research on the existence and participation of Black citizens in London, especially heeding the work of Imtiaz Habib, Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500–1677: Imprints of the Invisible (London: Routledge, 2016). However, this chapter’s findings do not hinge on a historical analogue to trace the racialized affects of the dark lady.
  30. Ian Smith, Race and Rhetoric in the Renaissance: Barbarian Errors (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009), 12.
  31. Representative of a brand of historicism resistant to critical readings of race in the early modern period, David Schalkwyk dismisses as anachronistically inaccurate the critical attention to the dark lady as dark, stating critics are “projecting matrices of ideological signification upon them [the dark lady’s descriptions]. How dark we allow her to be will be a mark of her ‘otherness’, her scandalousness, both of which arise out of our own, twenty-first century history and preoccupations rather than the sonnet’s pseudo-descriptions” (“Race, Body, and Language in Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Plays,” English Studies in Africa 47, no. 2 [2009]: 16).
  32. Hauntingly, Hortense J. Spillers has theorized kinlessness as “an extension of the boundaries of proliferating properties” and asks us to “sharpen our own sense of the African female’s reproductive uses within the diasporic enterprise of Enslavement and the genetic reproduction of the enslaved” (“Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17, no. 2 [1987]: 75, 74.
  33. Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason, trans. Laurent Dubois (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 33 original emphasis.
  34. Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), in Autobiographies, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Praetorian Books, 1994), 149. Saidiya Hartman reckons with the irretrievability of her African lineage when an ancestor’s identity is reduced to marks on flesh: “no one wants to identify her kin by the cipher of slave-trading companies, or by the brand, which supplanted identity and left only a scar in its place” (Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007], 80).
  35. Jennifer L. Morgan, Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship, and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021), 83. Morgan also discusses how “as slaveowners contemplated women’s reproductive potential with greed and opportunism, they utilized both outrageous images and callously indifferent strategies to ultimately inscribe enslaved women as racially and culturally different while creating an economic and moral environment in which the appropriation of a woman’s children as well as her childbearing potential became rational and, indeed, natural” (Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery [Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004], 7). 


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Race and Affect in Early Modern English Literature Copyright © 2022 by Carol Mejia LaPerle is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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