kate fleetwood

Shakespeare wrote in an era where women were considered property. However, if one looks at the trajectory of his plays from his first in1589 to his later plays in the 1600’s, his female characters become more complex, more powerful and, indeed, more fully human. It’s in this deeply sexist society that Shakespeare began to break away from the Elizabethan norm. So too his Sonnets (published in 1603), specifically in the Poet’s love affair with the Dark Lady, where the Poet finds himself ensnared into a relationship with a woman who has become utterly and completely more powerful than him:


O, from what power hast thou this powerful might
With insufficiency my heart to sway?
To make me give the lie to my true sight,
And swear that brightness doth not grace the day?
Whence hast thou this becoming of things ill,
That in the very refuse of thy deeds
There is such strength and warrantize of skill
That, in my mind, thy worst all best exceeds?
Who taught thee how to make me love thee more
The more I hear and see just cause of hate?
O, though I love what others do abhor,
With others thou shouldst not abhor my state:
If thy unworthiness raised love in me,
More worthy I to be beloved of thee.

In this Sonnet, the Dark Lady excels in all things bad; her dominion over the Poet remains despite all her flaws. But he doesn’t hate her–he loves her! His sonnet argues that her unworthiness has made him love her, and because of that he’s the one who deserves her love in return. Her power over him is so strong, that he would even disbelieve it’s light during the day: ‘To make me give the lie to my true sight / And swear that brightness doth not grace the day?’ Moreover, she executes her evil actions so skillfully, he thinks them better than anyone else’s good acts:

That in the very refuse of thy deeds
There is such strength and warrantize of skill
That, in my mind, thy worst all best exceeds?

Personally, when I read this sonnet (and some of the other Dark Lady sonnets), I can’t help but think of Lady Macbeth (Macbeth, written in about 1606). One of Lady Macbeth’s most astonishing speeches is about a society where her femininity has no power. So she must calls upon the spirits to be to ‘unsex’ her:

Come, you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,

And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full

Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood.

Stop up the access and passage to remorse,

That no compunctious visitings of nature

Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between

The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,

And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,

Wherever in your sightless substances

You wait on nature’s mischief. Come, thick night,

And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,

That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,

Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark

To cry “Hold, hold!”

Macbeth, Act I, Scene v

So magnificent, what an incredible speech.

And what an amazing writer. Shakespeare was somehow able to see beyond the patriarchal constrictions of the Elizabethan world, and dared to imagine what it must be like to be a woman; that is, powerless.

The image is of the amazing Kate Fleetwood as Lady Macbeth from the 2010 film.

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