The events in our country today bring to mind for me one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, where the moral character of an individual has nothing to do with the color of his or her skin. The Elizabethans were unapologetic racists, and certainly Shakespeare was a product of his time. Yet somehow he saw past that enough to write ‘Othello’ and to address 28 of his sonnets to a lady of dark complexion, with whom the Poet is romantically and sexually entwined. As Sonnet 131 makes clear, the public perception is that she’s ugly because she isn’t white.
Thou art as tyrannous, so as thou art,
As those whose beauties proudly make them cruel;
For well thou know’st to my dear doting heart
Thou art the fairest and most precious jewel.
Yet, in good faith, some say that thee behold
Thy face hath not the power to make love groan:
To say they err I dare not be so bold,
Although I swear it to myself alone.
And, to be sure that is not false I swear,
A thousand groans, but thinking on thy face,
One on another’s neck, do witness bear
Thy black is fairest in my judgment’s place.
In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds,
And thence this slander, as I think, proceeds.
The Poet disagrees. The Dark Lady not being white is not what makes her ‘dark.’ To the contrary, ‘to my dear doting heart / Thou art the fairest and most precious jewel.’ It’s only outsiders who dare to say that ‘thy face hath not the power to make love groan.’ (Making ‘love groan’ was the Elizabethan way of saying your feeling of romantic emotions were so great as to be painful.)
No, it’s not the Dark Lady’s appearance that makes her bad, its her deeds: ‘In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds.’
A Poet from a regressive, racist society four centuries ago was able to judge people by their deeds, not their appearances, something many of us in our so-called enlightened era are unable to do.
‘Blackamoor’ servants were not uncommon in Elizabeth’s police state of England–there were almost 400 of them by one estimate. In 1596 Elizabeth signed a proclamation expelling all “Negroes and blackamores” from England, but the proclamation had no teeth, as it did not apply to any blackamoors employed or enslaved. But what it does show is that the Elizabethans were indeed racist.
Thus it was crazy and a bit dangerous for Shakespeare to: 1) in 1594 to make one his highly intelligent and literate character Aaron from Titus Andronicus a Moor; 2) in 1604 to make the tragic protagonist of Othello a Moor–one of the greatest tragedies ever written in history, and 3) to pen 38 sonnets to the Dark Lady, which appeared in print in 1609. Several of the Dark Lady sonnets describe her complexion as dark.
However, this image of Mary Fitton has remained popular, one of Elizabeth I’s maids of honor. To this very day some insist she was Shakespeare’s Dark Lady. I wonder why she’s such a favorite?