Shakespeares sonnets Sonnet 127 In the old age black was not counted fair William

Shakespeare (1599) This and the next few sonnets in William Shakespeare's sonnet sequence comment on the early modern concept of female beauty and how the speaker views his mistress, or female beloved, who possesses a different type of beauty. The accepted stan dard of female beauty for early modern women was blond hair, blue eyes, fair (almost white) complexion, pink or red cheeks, and red lips. Many sonnets by poets such as Sir Philip Sidney describe beloveds who possess these particular qualities. Shakespeare's sonnets celebrate a beloved who does not adhere to early modern notions of beauty, so they are sometimes referred to as the Dark Lady sonnets, even though the beloved is never actually identified as a "lady."

The speaker begins by indicating that long ago ("in the old age," l. 1) "black" was not counted fair. However, the Song of Songs in the Bible celebrates black beauty, so the idea does have precedent, and some scholars have even posited that the woman in question was African or at least a darker European. The first quatrain argues that if there were those who considered black to be "fair"—and there is a pun here between "fair" as good-looking or attractive and "fair" as pale—they did not consider it to be "beautiful." Now, however, black is the heir of "fair" and takes over, while beauty as "fairness" is "slandered with a bastard shame" (l. 4). Bastards, or illegitimate children born out of legal wedlock, cannot be heirs and inherit property. "Fairness" becomes slandered with the shame of bastardy through the use of cosmetics that unnaturally make skin whiter and cheeks and lips redder. (Interestingly, these cosmetics were made of white and red lead, which destroyed the skin.) Thus, black becomes "beautiful" primarily because fair is adulterated, no longer pure or honest.

The second quatrain continues the examination of false beauty, especially in terms of women cheating men by using cosmetics to make them artificially beautiful. Women's hands have taken over Nature's power to create a beautiful face by using cosmetics. This kind of alteration means that a fair woman's beauty can no longer be trusted. The hand that wields cosmetics can very well have made a "foul"—or ugly—face "fair" with the borrowed skills of "art," here meaning artifice, or falseness. Thus, beauty has lost its "reputation" (name) through the unnatural creation of "beautiful" women from ones who are truly ugly. Beauty is no longer holy; it is "profaned," or violated, and "lives in disgrace" (ll. 7-8).

The speaker then reminds us that the sonnet's female subject has eyes that are "raven-black" (l. 9) and eyebrows to match. While such features would previously have rendered this woman plain or ugly, she is now considered beautiful because the black is natural. There has been so much false use of cosmetics to make unattractive women conform to the standards of fair beauty that a very natural beauty—one who does not use cosmetics—is perceived to be beautiful even though she does not conform to existing social criteria for "fair" beauty. A "natural" black woman may be more desirable than an "unnatural" fair one. As a result, the falsely fair women mourn the fact that they are not as beautiful as this natural, though black, beauty who is praised for what she is without cosmetics.

Many puns are active in this sonnet, and they act as ways not only to convey the poet's ideas but to comment on social values and ideas. Beauty for women meant having a fair complexion and being blond. Fair also means "beautiful" as its opposite, foul, means "ugly." Thus, to call a woman "fair" is to comment not only on her coloring but on her beauty. A woman who is "blond" can also be referred to as "light," as in the color of her hair relative to darker shades like brown or black. But "light" can also have other meanings. "Light" recalls "fair" and leads us to consider "beautiful." "Light" also calls to mind its opposite, "dark," both in color and in lack of light (darkness). So we can see the development of a binary, an opposition of two words, phrases, or concepts. on one side is "fair, light, and beautiful." On the other is "foul, dark, and ugly." Adding the colors, "white" is attached to the "fair" side of the binary and "black" to the "dark" side. It is only a step away to add "good" to the "fair" side and "bad" to the "dark" side. Thus we have the potential for black-white racism encoded in the English language, which, in the early modern period, signified that "light" and "white" were good, and "dark" and "black" were bad. In medieval and early modern religious art, angels were always white and devils black.

See also Shakespeare's sonnets (overview).

Theodora A. Jankowski

Enneagram Essentials

Enneagram Essentials

Tap into your inner power today. Discover The Untold Secrets Used By Experts To Tap Into The Power Of Your Inner Personality Help You Unleash Your Full Potential. Finally You Can Fully Equip Yourself With These “Must Have” Personality Finding Tools For Creating Your Ideal Lifestyle.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment