Return to Table of Contents


  <>Bernard Shaw's Dark Lady of the Sonnets


<>Paper Presented at ISS Shaw Conference, Brown University, June 2006



Theodore Price, English Department, Montclair State University

  <>         01.Shaw's Dark Lady of the Sonnets playlet is a witty, intellectually charming masterwork, quite representative of Shaw's dramatic talents and should  be put on the boards more often than it seems to have been. In the Preface, Shaw writes: "Frank [Harris] conceives Shakespear to have been a broken-hearted, melancholy person, whereas I am convinced that he was very like myself. In fact, if I had been born in 1556 instead of in 1856, I should have taken to blank verse & given Shakespear a harder run for his money than all the other Elizabethans put together."

            02.When Shakespeare was in his early or mid-30s, he fell heels over head in love with a younger woman, perhaps only in her late teens.  She'd already been married or at least of extensive sexual experience. At the same time, Shakespeare had been charmed by a young man, also perhaps only in his late teens, of a high social rank, at one time a patron of his, to whom he introduced the young lady.  Suffice to say, the two youngsters went to bed together, each betraying the older man in their individual ways.  Although Shakespeare seems to have forgiven both, he never forgot; & it is the surmise of many critics, myself among them, that the change in Shakespeare's plays about the turn of the 17th century from comedy & light love tragedy to the full tragedies of JULIUS CAESAR through ANTONY & CLEOPATRA is the reflection of this love betrayal as described in the Sonnet story.

           03.In short: The story of the Sonnets is one of sexual betrayal, with Shakespeare the one betrayed.

        04.his Sonnet story is told in a series of 154 sonnets, sort of an epistolary novella, most of which are addressed to the young man, a dozen or so addressed to the young woman. Some Shakespeare critics think the whole story of the Sonnets is wholly made-up, just a literary exercise having nothing to do with Shakespeare's life. But those who believe that the story is in fact real describe the series of Sonnets as "the greatest love-poem in the language" (Dover Wilson). "They open a new world of love poetry" (C. S. Lewis).

          05.Now, in Shakespeare criticism, the critical "puzzle" of the Sonnet story is to identify the real-life young man, Shakespeare's dear friend, almost a son, almost a lover; & this has traditionally wavered between identifying him as either the Earl of Southampton or the Earl of Pembroke.  The sensual mistress in the Sonnets, the love of Shakespeare's life, is described as a black-haired brunette, dark-complexioned, & has traditionally been labeled the Dark Lady of the sonnets. She could have been any Dark Lady of the time, for either Southampton or Pembroke,  and the choice of Southampton or Pembroke was made by critics long before Shaw's preface or playlet.

          06.But if it was indeed Pembroke, then we know that she likely was one Mary Fitton, a lady of Queen Elizabeth's court, whom Pembroke was known to have slept with.  And in the late 1880s one Thomas Tyler identified her as Mary Fitton.  Shaw met Tyler at this time, made friends with him, discussed his Fitton identification, & reviewed the little known Sonnet edition of Tyler's giving his Fitton theory.

          07.And so Shaw writes in his preface, "I was, in a manner present at the birth of the Fitton theory. [. . .] I reviewed his edition in January 1886, & thereby let loose the Fitton theory in a wider circle of readers than the book could reach. Then Tyler died, sinking unnoted like a stone in the sea." Later they found a portrait of Fitton, & she was blonde, which, at least for many, disproved Tyler's theory, though the portrait's authenticity has since been questioned. In his preface Shaw continues, "I am sorry for his sake that Mary's portrait is fair, & that [criticism] has veered round again from Pembroke to Southampton."

          08.What I find most interesting in the playlet is that even though Shaw felt that Mary Fitton was thereby proven not to be the Dark Lady, he wrote the playlet PRETENDING her to be the Dark Lady because this made it dramatically easy to get her as a character into Queen Elizabeth's courtyard presence, along with Shakespeare, since if the Dark Lady, under Tyler's theory, were indeed one of Elizabeth's court ladies, that would make the storyline of the playlet fit.

          09.And so Bernard Shaw's preface, review, & playlet are central to a study not only of the Sonnets but to perhaps the heart of the "mystery" of Shakespeare's great tragedies as a whole. For Shaw's very notion of taking Mary Fitton to be Pembroke's mistress, & both to be Shakespeare's love betrayers, FITS so much more than some other Dark Lady & her Southampton lover.