Dark Lady of the Sonnets
George Bernard Shaw
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Level 8
The Dark Lady of the Sonnets is a 1910 short comedy by George Bernard Shaw in which William Shakespeare, intending to meet the "Dark Lady", accidentally encounters Queen Elizabeth I and attempts to persuade her to create a national theatre. The play was written as part of a campaign to create a "Shakespeare National Theatre" by 1916. The Man arrives at Whitehall where he meets a Beefeater guard. He persuades the Beefeater to allow him to stay to meet his girlfriend, a lady of the court, who will be arriving soon for a secret tryst. The Man notes down various interesting phrases used by the Beefeater (all quotations from Shakespeare plays). The Lady arrives, cloaked, but it is not the woman he is expecting. The Man immediately falls for her.

The Dark Lady of the Sonnets

George Bernard Shaw

Preface to the Dark Lady of the Sonnets

How the Play Came to Be Written

I had better explain why, in this little piece d’occasion, writtenfor a performance in aid of the funds of the project for establishing aNational Theatre as a memorial to Shakespear, I have identified the DarkLady with Mistress Mary Fitton. First, let me say that I do not contendthat the Dark Lady was Mary Fitton, because when the case in Mary’s favor(or against her, if you please to consider that the Dark Lady was nobetter than she ought to have been) was complete, a portrait of Mary cameto light and turned out to be that of a fair lady, not of a dark one. Thatsettles the question, if the portrait is authentic, which I see no reasonto doubt, and the lady’s hair undyed, which is perhaps less certain.Shakespear rubbed in the lady’s complexion in his sonnets mercilessly; forin his day black hair was as unpopular as red hair was in the early daysof Queen Victoria. Any tinge lighter than raven black must be held fatalto the strongest claim to be the Dark Lady. And so, unless it can be shewnthat Shakespear’s sonnets exasperated Mary Fitton into dyeing her hair andgetting painted in false colors, I must give up all pretence that my playis historical. The later suggestion of Mr. Acheson that the Dark Lady, farfrom being a maid of honor, kept a tavern in Oxford and was the mother ofDavenant the poet, is the one I should have adopted had I wished to be upto date. Why, then, did I introduce the Dark Lady as Mistress Fitton?

Well, I had two reasons. The play was not to have been written by me atall, but by Mrs. Alfred Lyttelton; and it was she who suggested a scene ofjealousy between Queen Elizabeth and the Dark Lady at the expense of theunfortunate Bard. Now this, if the Dark Lady was a maid of honor, wasquite easy. If she were a tavern landlady, it would have strained allprobability. So I stuck to Mary Fitton. But I had another and morepersonal reason. I was, in a manner, present at the birth of the Fittontheory. Its parent and I had become acquainted; and he used to consult meon obscure passages in the sonnets, on which, as far as I can remember, Inever succeeded in throwing the faintest light, at a time when nobody elsethought my opinion, on that or any other subject, of the slightestimportance. I thought it would be friendly to immortalize him, as thesilly literary saying is, much as Shakespear immortalized Mr. W. H., as hesaid he would, simply by writing about him.

Let me tell the story formally.

Thomas Tyler

Throughout the eighties at least, and probably for some years before, theBritish Museum reading room was used daily by a gentleman of suchastonishing and crushing ugliness that no one who had once seen him couldever thereafter forget him. He was of fair complexion, rather golden redthan sandy; aged between forty-five and sixty; and dressed in frock coatand tall hat of presentable but never new appearance. His figure wasrectangular, waistless, neckless, ankleless, of middle height, lookingshortish because, though he was not particularly stout, there was nothingslender about him. His ugliness was not unamiable; it was accidental,external, excrescential. Attached to his face from the left ear to thepoint of his chin was a monstrous goitre, which hung down to his collarbone, and was very inadequately balanced by a smaller one on his righteyelid. Nature’s malice was so overdone in his case that it somehow failedto produce the effect of repulsion it seemed to have aimed at. When youfirst met Thomas Tyler you could think of nothing else but whether surgerycould really do nothing for him. But after a very brief acquaintance younever thought of his disfigurements at all, and talked to him as you mightto Romeo or Lovelace; only, so many people, especially women, would notrisk the preliminary ordeal, that he remained a man apart and a bachelorall his days. I am not to be frightened or prejudiced by a tumor; and Istruck up a cordial acquaintance with him, in the course of which he keptme pretty closely on the track of his work at the Museum, in which I wasthen, like himself, a daily reader.

He was by profession a man of letters of an uncommercial kind. He was aspecialist in pessimism; had made a translation of Ecclesiastes of whicheight copies a year were sold; and followed up the pessimism of Shakespearand Swift with keen interest. He delighted in a hideous conception whichhe called the theory of the cycles, according to which the history ofmankind and the universe keeps eternally repeating itself without theslightest variation throughout all eternity; so that he had lived and diedand had his goitre before and would live and die and have it again andagain and again. He liked to believe that nothing that happened to him wascompletely novel: he was persuaded that he often had some recollection ofits previous occurrence in the last cycle. He hunted out allusions to thisfavorite theory in his three favorite pessimists. He tried his handoccasionally at deciphering ancient inscriptions, reading them as peopleseem to read the stars, by discovering bears and bulls and swords andgoats where, as it seems to me, no sane human being can see anything butstars higgledy-piggledy. Next to the translation of Ecclesiastes, his magnumopus was his work on Shakespear’s Sonnets, in which he accepted aprevious identification of Mr. W. H., the “onlie begetter” of the sonnets,with the Earl of Pembroke (William Herbert), and promulgated his ownidentification of Mistress Mary Fitton with the Dark Lady. Whether he wasright or wrong about the Dark Lady did not matter urgently to me: shemight have been Maria Tompkins for all I cared. But Tyler would have itthat she was Mary Fitton; and he tracked Mary down from the first of hermarriages in her teens to her tomb in Cheshire, whither he made apilgrimage and whence returned in triumph with a picture of her statue,and the news that he was convinced she was a dark lady by traces of paintstill discernible.

In due course he published his edition of the Sonnets, with the evidencehe had collected. He lent me a copy of the book, which I never returned.But I reviewed it in the Pall Mall Gazette on the 7th of January 1886, andthereby let loose the Fitton theory in a wider circle of readers than thebook could reach. Then Tyler died, sinking unnoted like a stone in thesea. I observed that Mr. Acheson, Mrs. Davenant’s champion, calls himReverend. It may very well be that he got his knowledge of Hebrew inreading for the Church; and there was always something of the clergyman orthe schoolmaster in his dress and air. Possibly he may actually have beenordained. But he never told me that or anything else about his affairs;and his black pessimism would have shot him violently out of any church atpresent established in the West. We never talked about affairs: we talkedabout Shakespear, and the Dark Lady, and Swift, and Koheleth, and thecycles, and the mysterious moments when a feeling came over us that thishad happened to us before, and about the forgeries of the Pentateuch whichwere offered for sale to the British Museum, and about literature andthings of the spirit generally. He always came to my desk at the Museumand spoke to me about something or other, no doubt finding that people whowere keen on this sort of conversation were rather scarce. He remains avivid spot of memory in the void of my forgetfulness, a quite considerableand dignified soul in a grotesquely disfigured body.

Frank Harris

To the review in the Pall Mall Gazette I attribute, rightly or wrongly,the introduction of Mary Fitton to Mr. Frank Harris. My reason for this isthat Mr. Harris wrote a play about Shakespear and Mary Fitton; and when I,as a pious duty to Tyler’s ghost, reminded the world that it was to Tylerwe owed the Fitton theory, Frank Harris, who clearly had not a notion ofwhat had first put Mary into his head, believed, I think, that I hadinvented Tyler expressly for his discomfiture; for the stress I laid onTyler’s claims must have seemed unaccountable and perhaps malicious on theassumption that he was to me a mere name among the thousands of names inthe British Museum catalogue. Therefore I make it clear that I had andhave personal reasons for remembering Tyler, and for regarding myself asin some sort charged with the duty of reminding the world of his work. Iam sorry for his sake that Mary’s portrait is fair, and that Mr. W. H. hasveered round again from Pembroke to Southampton; but even so his work wasnot wasted: it is by exhausting all the hypotheses that we reach theverifiable one; and after all, the wrong road always leads somewhere.

Frank Harris’s play was written long before mine. I read it in manuscriptbefore the Shakespear Memorial National Theatre was mooted; and if thereis anything except the Fitton theory (which is Tyler’s property) in myplay which is also in Mr. Harris’s it was I who annexed it from him and nothe from me. It does not matter anyhow, because this play of mine is abrief trifle, and full of manifest impossibilities at that; whilst Mr.Harris’s play is serious both in size, intention, and quality. But therecould not in the nature of things be much resemblance, because Frankconceives Shakespear to have been a broken-hearted, melancholy, enormouslysentimental 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 havetaken to blank verse and given Shakespear a harder run for his money thanall the other Elizabethans put together. Yet the success of Frank Harris’sbook on Shakespear gave me great delight.

To those who know the literary world of London there was a sharp stroke ofironic comedy in the irresistible verdict in its favor. In criticalliterature there is one prize that is always open to competition, one blueribbon that always carries the highest critical rank with it. To win, youmust write the best book of your generation on Shakespear. It is felt onall sides that to do this a certain fastidious refinement, a delicacy oftaste, a correctness of manner and tone, and high academic distinction inaddition to the indispensable scholarship and literary reputation, areneeded; and men who pretend to these qualifications are constantly lookedto with a gentle expectation that presently they will achieve the greatfeat. Now if there is a man on earth who is the utter contrary ofeverything that this description implies; whose very existence is aninsult to the ideal it realizes; whose eye disparages, whose resonantvoice denounces, whose cold shoulder jostles every decency, everydelicacy, every amenity, every dignity, every sweet usage of that quietlife of mutual admiration in which perfect Shakespearian appreciation isexpected to arise, that man is Frank Harris. Here is one who isextraordinarily qualified, by a range of sympathy and understanding thatextends from the ribaldry of a buccaneer to the shyest tendernesses of themost sensitive poetry, to be all things to all men, yet whose proud humorit is to be to every man, provided the man is eminent and pretentious, thechampion of his enemies. To the Archbishop he is an atheist, to theatheist a Catholic mystic, to the Bismarckian Imperialist an AnacharsisKlootz, to Anacharsis Klootz a Washington, to Mrs. Proudie a Don Juan, toAspasia a John Knox: in short, to everyone his complement rather than hiscounterpart, his antagonist rather than his fellow-creature. Alwaysprovided, however, that the persons thus confronted are respectablepersons. Sophie Perovskaia, who perished on the scaffold for blowingAlexander II to fragments, may perhaps have echoed Hamlet’s

Oh God, Horatio, what a wounded name —
Things standing thus unknown — I leave behind!