The Real Dark Lady: Was Shakespeare Enamoured of a Moor?

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It is an accusation often levelled against Mr William Shakespeare that a married man in want of an education must also be in want of a life. Some people wonder how he could have written so many plays, with such wide and varied references, drawing on law, mythology, history and the classics? The answer is simple. Shakespeare was a genius. Not only this, but he was a genius who frequented the London taverns, which were full of merchants, sailors, lawyers from the Inns of Court, and the coterie of actors and writers who drew from popular culture and book learning alike.  He knew a hawk from a handsaw. He wrote about the world he knew and his plays represent popular concepts of history and learning in the Elizabethan period, aspiring from his lowly position to be the sort of Renaissance man whose style and learning he aspired to, and aped with such skill. And yet, perhaps there was another influence.

In 2013, Dr Aubrey Burl of the Society of Antiquities published his findings after years of analysing Shakespeare’s work. For years the mysterious dark lady, to whom the poet refers in his sonnets, has been identified by scholars as poetess Emilia Lanyer or Lanier. The mistress of Henry Carey, she was unhappily married to her cousin in 1592, when pregnant by Carey. Another candidate is Mary Fitton, lady in waiting to Elizabeth, known for her affairs with leading courtiers. Now Burl believes she was actually an Aline Florio, who was married to an Italian translator. As his wife, she would have had access to the many books he used, past and present. As Shakespeare’s mistress, she could have passed that information on. Born Aline Daniel, she lived with her husband in Shoe Lane, near the River Fleet and would probably have met Shakespeare at Titchfield, the home of the Earl of Southampton. There has also been mention of a Lucy Morgan, a fallen woman also known as Lucy Negro. However, this name might belie a more controversial truth. Resident in London’s Cheapside in the 1590s, was another woman named Lucy, who was also referred to as “negro.” Could Shakespeare’s mistress have actually been black?

It has been the view of scholars for decades that going by his 1603 play Othello, Shakespeare followed contemporary views about the savage passions and intense rages of “moors.” Leo Africanus, a north African who was captured by Venetian pirates and long considered an influence on the characterisation of Othello described moors as “very proud and high-minded, and wonderfully addicted unto wrath… they will deeply engraven in marble any injury be it never so small… their wits are but mean and they are so credulous that they will believe matters impossible which are told them…. they speak always with angrie and lowd voices.” And so the stereotype goes on. It seems like a perfect model for the character of Othello, but there is also a chance that Shakespeare was referring to a real man, a man he knew: Lucy the Negro’s father.

Little information survives about Lucy’s family. They are recorded as living in Cheapside from 1597, with her father listed as John the Negro, practising as a cobbler, or cordwainer. He shows up in the records for that year when the rents on the house were due and again for the following two years. In 1599, he attempted to join the London Guild of Cordwainers, who got their license in 1439 and in 1493, established their first hall in Maiden Lane, near St Paul’s.  John’s application, for whatever reason, was declined in the spring of 1599.He may well have been blacklisted. Influential men may have spoken against him because it appears that, in that year, he had a falling out with Shakespeare.

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John appears in the London Assize records for November 1599, being bound over to keep the peace against brothers Richard and Cuthbert Burbage and William Shakespeare. The Burbages had taken over the Blackfriars Theatre on their father’s death in 1597 and would be responsible for building the Theatre and the Globe, working closely with Shakespeare. A fragment of the records that survive for Blackfriars in September 1599 show that money was set aside for repairs “against the anger of Mr John.” It was common for moors in London to be referred to by their first names, in a similar way to servants, and Lucy’s father would have been known to those who were his social superior simply as Mr John. This is also how he appears in the rent books, whilst for the Cordwainers, he is Mr John, cobbler of Cheapside. Why had Lucy’s father turned up at Blackfriars in such a rage that he caused damage to the sum of 20 shillings ? Perhaps because he had found out about the affair she was having with Shakespeare and chose to confront him there.

The sonnets themselves support the notion that Lucy Negro is the woman referred to. They describe the lady as having dark hair and “dun” coloured skin; a shade of brown traditionally associated with cows. It comes from the old English “dunn”, synonymous with dingy-brown or bark-coloured. No English woman would have found this flattering.  The collected sonnets were published in 1609 but at least two of them had already been printed as early as 1599. This included Sonnet 138; “When my love swears that she is made of truth, I do believe her though I know she lies,” which inverts the racial stereotype to make Shakespeare the credulous lover, instead of Leo Africanus’ portrayal of moors as gullible. In this way, Shakespeare was paying a deft compliment to Lucy in 1599, but also signalling that their relationship was troubled and that she was possibly being torn between her father and her lover. This poem also makes clear that the relationship was a physical one, amid the puns of falsehood: “therefore I lie with her and she with me.” Even more telling is his unrhymed, thus disharmonious, couplet in Sonnet 144:

“The better angel is a man right fair , The worse spirit a woman colour’d ill.”

If Mr John had heard of the poems, which were in circulation in the London Inns, or worse still, had read them, it would have been sufficient to provoke the rage he exhibited at Blackfriars. This memorable performance may have found its way into Othello, which was composed a couple of years later. Perhaps it was the playwright’s revenge for Lucy’s father’s brutality.

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Lucy disappears from the records in 1608. No account of her marriage or move from Cheapside survives, so it is likely that this was the year of her death. The London playhouses were regularly closed when plague reached dangerous levels in the city and this happened in 1593, 1603 and 1608, so Lucy may well have been a victim, perhaps after keeping a tryst with her lover at the Theatre, or mingling with the infected crowds. It may be that Shakespeare waited until her death to publish the remainder of the letters.  Mr John was never admitted to the Cordwainer’s company and outlived Shakespeare, dying in 1619. The true identity of the Dark Lady may never be known, but the internal evidence of the letters, their dating, and the records of Mr John and his family from Cheapside make Lucy as likely a candidate as any.

Sources

Othello

Shakespeare’s Songs and Sonnets.

Cordwainer’s Record Books 1589-1601, 1601-1611

Light transmitting diode

Oracle at Delphi

Jeff R Vescent knows no bounds.

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