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Produced by Ron Burkey, and Amy Thomte





THE DARK LADY OF THE SONNETS

By Bernard Shaw




CONTENTS

Preface
How the Play came to be Written
Thomas Tyler
Frank Harris
Harris "durch Mitleid wissend"
"Sidney's Sister: Pembroke's Mother"
Shakespear's Social Standing
This Side Idolatry
Shakespear's Pessimism
Gaiety of Genius
Jupiter and Semele
The Idol of the Bardolaters
Shakespear's alleged Sycophancy and Perversion
Shakespear and Democracy
Shakespear and the British Public
The Dark Lady of the Sonnets





THE DARK LADY OF THE SONNETS

1910




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_, written
for a performance in aid of the funds of the project for establishing
a National Theatre as a memorial to Shakespear, I have identified the
Dark Lady with Mistress Mary Fitton. First, let me say that I do not
contend that 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 no better than she ought to have been) was complete, a
portrait of Mary came to light and turned out to be that of a fair
lady, not of a dark one. That settles the question, if the portrait
is authentic, which I see no reason to doubt, and the lady's hair
undyed, which is perhaps less certain. Shakespear rubbed in the
lady's complexion in his sonnets mercilessly; for in his day black
hair was as unpopular as red hair was in the early days of Queen
Victoria. Any tinge lighter than raven black must be held fatal to
the strongest claim to be the Dark Lady. And so, unless it can be
shewn that Shakespear's sonnets exasperated Mary Fitton into dyeing
her hair and getting painted in false colors, I must give up all
pretence that my play is historical. The later suggestion of Mr
Acheson that the Dark Lady, far from being a maid of honor, kept a
tavern in Oxford and was the mother of Davenant the poet, is the one I
should have adopted had I wished to be up to 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
at all, but by Mrs Alfred Lyttelton; and it was she who suggested a
scene of jealousy between Queen Elizabeth and the Dark Lady at the
expense of the unfortunate Bard. Now this, if the Dark Lady was a
maid of honor, was quite easy. If she were a tavern landlady, it
would have strained all probability. So I stuck to Mary Fitton. But
I had another and more personal reason. I was, in a manner, present
at the birth of the Fitton theory. Its parent and I had become
acquainted; and he used to consult me on obscure passages in the
sonnets, on which, as far as I can remember, I never succeeded in
throwing the faintest light, at a time when nobody else thought my
opinion, on that or any other subject, of the slightest importance. I
thought it would be friendly to immortalize him, as the silly literary
saying is, much as Shakespear immortalized Mr W. H., as he said 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,
the British Museum reading room was used daily by a gentleman of such
astonishing and crushing ugliness that no one who had once seen him
could ever thereafter forget him. He was of fair complexion, rather
golden red than sandy; aged between forty-five and sixty; and dressed
in frock coat and tall hat of presentable but never new appearance.
His figure was rectangular, waistless, neckless, ankleless, of middle
height, looking shortish because, though he was not particularly
stout, there was nothing slender about him. His ugliness was not
unamiable; it was accidental, external, excrescential. Attached to
his face from the left ear to the point of his chin was a monstrous
goitre, which hung down to his collar bone, and was very inadequately
balanced by a smaller one on his right eyelid. Nature's malice was so
overdone in his case that it somehow failed to produce the effect of
repulsion it seemed to have aimed at. When you first met Thomas Tyler
you could think of nothing else but whether surgery could really do
nothing for him. But after a very brief acquaintance you never
thought of his disfigurements at all, and talked to him as you might
to Romeo or Lovelace; only, so many people, especially women, would
not risk the preliminary ordeal, that he remained a man apart and a
bachelor all his days. I am not to be frightened or prejudiced by a
tumor; and I struck up a cordial acquaintance with him, in the course
of which he kept me pretty closely on the track of his work at the
Museum, in which I was then, like himself, a daily reader.

He was by profession a man of letters of an uncommercial kind. He was
a specialist in pessimism; had made a translation of Ecclesiastes of
which eight copies a year were sold; and followed up the pessimism of
Shakespear and Swift with keen interest. He delighted in a hideous
conception which he called the theory of the cycles, according to
which the history of mankind and the universe keeps eternally
repeating itself without the slightest variation throughout all
eternity; so that he had lived and died and had his goitre before and
would live and die and have it again and again and again. He liked to
believe that nothing that happened to him was completely novel: he
was persuaded that he often had some recollection of its previous
occurrence in the last cycle. He hunted out allusions to this
favorite theory in his three favorite pessimists. He tried his hand
occasionally at deciphering ancient inscriptions, reading them as
people seem to read the stars, by discovering bears and bulls and
swords and goats where, as it seems to me, no sane human being can see
anything but stars higgledy-piggledy. Next to the translation of
Ecclesiastes, his _magnum opus_ was his work on Shakespear's Sonnets,
in which he accepted a previous identification of Mr W. H., the "onlie
begetter" of the sonnets, with the Earl of Pembroke (William Herbert),
and promulgated his own identification of Mistress Mary Fitton with
the Dark Lady. Whether he was right or wrong about the Dark Lady did
not matter urgently to me: she might have been Maria Tompkins for all
I cared. But Tyler would have it that she was Mary Fitton; and he
tracked Mary down from the first of her marriages in her teens to her
tomb in Cheshire, whither he made a pilgrimage 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 paint still discernible.

In due course he published his edition of the Sonnets, with the
evidence he 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, and 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. I observed that Mr Acheson, Mrs
Davenant's champion, calls him Reverend. It may very well be that he
got his knowledge of Hebrew in reading for the Church; and there was
always something of the clergyman or the schoolmaster in his dress and
air. Possibly he may actually have been ordained. 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 at present established
in the West. We never talked about affairs: we talked about
Shakespear, and the Dark Lady, and Swift, and Koheleth, and the
cycles, and the mysterious moments when a feeling came over us that
this had happened to us before, and about the forgeries of the
Pentateuch which were offered for sale to the British Museum, and
about literature and things of the spirit generally. He always came
to my desk at the Museum and spoke to me about something or other, no
doubt finding that people who were keen on this sort of conversation
were rather scarce. He remains a vivid spot of memory in the void of
my forgetfulness, a quite considerable and 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 is that 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 Tyler we owed the Fitton theory, Frank
Harris, who clearly had not a notion of what had first put Mary into
his head, believed, I think, that I had invented Tyler expressly for
his discomfiture; for the stress I laid on Tyler's claims must have
seemed unaccountable and perhaps malicious on the assumption that he
was to me a mere name among the thousands of names in the British
Museum catalogue. Therefore I make it clear that I had and have
personal reasons for remembering Tyler, and for regarding myself as in
some sort charged with the duty of reminding the world of his work. I
am sorry for his sake that Mary's portrait is fair, and that Mr W. H.
has veered round again from Pembroke to Southampton; but even so his
work was not wasted: it is by exhausting all the hypotheses that we
reach the verifiable one; and after all, the wrong road always leads
somewhere.

Frank Harris's play was written long before mine. I read it in
manuscript before the Shakespear Memorial National Theatre was mooted;
and if there is anything except the Fitton theory (which is Tyler's
property) in my play which is also in Mr Harris's it was I who annexed
it from him and not he from me. It does not matter anyhow, because
this play of mine is a brief trifle, and full of manifest
impossibilities at that; whilst Mr Harris's play is serious both in
size, intention, and quality. But there could not in the nature of
things be much resemblance, because Frank conceives Shakespear to have
been a broken-hearted, melancholy, enormously sentimental 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 and given Shakespear a harder run for his money than all the
other Elizabethans put together. Yet the success of Frank Harris's
book on Shakespear gave me great delight.

To those who know the literary world of London there was a sharp
stroke of ironic comedy in the irresistible verdict in its favor. In
critical literature there is one prize that is always open to
competition, one blue ribbon that always carries the highest critical
rank with it. To win, you must write the best book of your generation
on Shakespear. It is felt on all sides that to do this a certain
fastidious refinement, a delicacy of taste, a correctness of manner
and tone, and high academic distinction in addition to the
indispensable scholarship and literary reputation, are needed; and men
who pretend to these qualifications are constantly looked to with a
gentle expectation that presently they will achieve the great feat.
Now if there is a man on earth who is the utter contrary of everything
that this description implies; whose very existence is an insult to
the ideal it realizes; whose eye disparages, whose resonant voice
denounces, whose cold shoulder jostles every decency, every delicacy,
every amenity, every dignity, every sweet usage of that quiet life of
mutual admiration in which perfect Shakespearian appreciation is
expected to arise, that man is Frank Harris. Here is one who is
extraordinarily qualified, by a range of sympathy and understanding
that extends from the ribaldry of a buccaneer to the shyest
tendernesses of the most sensitive poetry, to be all things to all
men, yet whose proud humor it is to be to every man, provided the man
is eminent and pretentious, the champion of his enemies. To the
Archbishop he is an atheist, to the atheist a Catholic mystic, to the
Bismarckian Imperialist an Anacharsis Klootz, to Anacharsis Klootz a
Washington, to Mrs Proudie a Don Juan, to Aspasia a John Knox: in
short, to everyone his complement rather than his counterpart, his
antagonist rather than his fellow-creature. Always provided, however,
that the persons thus confronted are respectable persons. Sophie
Perovskaia, who perished on the scaffold for blowing Alexander II to
fragments, may perhaps have echoed Hamlet's

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

but Frank Harris, in his Sonia, has rescued her from that injustice,
and enshrined her among the saints. He has lifted the Chicago
anarchists out of their infamy, and shewn that, compared with the
Capitalism that killed them, they were heroes and martyrs. He has
done this with the most unusual power of conviction. The story, as he
tells it, inevitably and irresistibly displaces all the vulgar, mean,
purblind, spiteful versions. There is a precise realism and an
unsmiling, measured, determined sincerity which gives a strange
dignity to the work of one whose fixed practice and ungovernable
impulse it is to kick conventional dignity whenever he sees it.




Harris "durch Mitleid wissend"

Frank Harris is everything except a humorist, not, apparently, from
stupidity, but because scorn overcomes humor in him. Nobody ever
dreamt of reproaching Milton's Lucifer for not seeing the comic side
of his fall; and nobody who has read Mr Harris's stories desires to
have them lightened by chapters from the hand of Artemus Ward. Yet he
knows the taste and the value of humor. He was one of the few men of
letters who really appreciated Oscar Wilde, though he did not rally
fiercely to Wilde's side until the world deserted Oscar in his ruin.
I myself was present at a curious meeting between the two, when
Harris, on the eve of the Queensberry trial, prophesied to Wilde with
miraculous precision exactly what immediately afterwards happened to
him, and warned him to leave the country. It was the first time
within my knowledge that such a forecast proved true. Wilde, though
under no illusion as to the folly of the quite unselfish suit-at-law
he had been persuaded to begin, nevertheless so miscalculated the
force of the social vengeance he was unloosing on himself that he
fancied it could be stayed by putting up the editor of The Saturday
Review (as Mr Harris then was) to declare that he considered Dorian
Grey a highly moral book, which it certainly is. When Harris foretold
him the truth, Wilde denounced him as a fainthearted friend who was
failing him in his hour of need, and left the room in anger. Harris's
idiosyncratic power of pity saved him from feeling or shewing the
smallest resentment; and events presently proved to Wilde how insanely
he had been advised in taking the action, and how accurately Harris
had gauged the situation.

The same capacity for pity governs Harris's study of Shakespear, whom,
as I have said, he pities too much; but that he is not insensible to
humor is shewn not only by his appreciation of Wilde, but by the fact
that the group of contributors who made his editorship of The Saturday
Review so remarkable, and of whom I speak none the less highly because
I happened to be one of them myself, were all, in their various ways,
humorists.




"Sidney's Sister: Pembroke's Mother"

And now to return to Shakespear. Though Mr Harris followed Tyler in
identifying Mary Fitton as the Dark Lady, and the Earl of Pembroke as
the addressee of the other sonnets and the man who made love
successfully to Shakespear's mistress, he very characteristically
refuses to follow Tyler on one point, though for the life of me I
cannot remember whether it was one of the surmises which Tyler
published, or only one which he submitted to me to see what I would
say about it, just as he used to submit difficult lines from the
sonnets.

This surmise was that "Sidney's sister: Pembroke's mother" set
Shakespear on to persuade Pembroke to marry, and that this was the
explanation of those earlier sonnets which so persistently and
unnaturally urged matrimony on Mr W. H. I take this to be one of the
brightest of Tyler's ideas, because the persuasions in the sonnets are
unaccountable and out of character unless they were offered to please
somebody whom Shakespear desired to please, and who took a motherly
interest in Pembroke. There is a further temptation in the theory for
me. The most charming of all Shakespear's old women, indeed the most
charming of all his women, young or old, is the Countess of Rousillon
in All's Well That Ends Well. It has a certain individuality among
them which suggests a portrait. Mr Harris will have it that all
Shakespear's nice old women are drawn from his beloved mother; but I
see no evidence whatever that Shakespear's mother was a particularly
nice woman or that he was particularly fond of her. That she was a
simple incarnation of extravagant maternal pride like the mother of
Coriolanus in Plutarch, as Mr Harris asserts, I cannot believe: she
is quite as likely to have borne her son a grudge for becoming "one of
these harlotry players" and disgracing the Ardens. Anyhow, as a
conjectural model for the Countess of Rousillon, I prefer that one of
whom Jonson wrote

Sidney's sister: Pembroke's mother:
Death: ere thou has slain another,
Learnd and fair and good as she,
Time shall throw a dart at thee.

But Frank will not have her at any price, because his ideal Shakespear
is rather like a sailor in a melodrama; and a sailor in a melodrama
must adore his mother. I do not at all belittle such sailors. They
are the emblems of human generosity; but Shakespear was not an emblem:
he was a man and the author of Hamlet, who had no illusions about his
mother. In weak moments one almost wishes he had.




Shakespear's Social Standing

On the vexed question of Shakespear's social standing Mr Harris says
that Shakespear "had not had the advantage of a middle-class
training." I suggest that Shakespear missed this questionable
advantage, not because he was socially too low to have attained to it,
but because he conceived himself as belonging to the upper class from
which our public school boys are now drawn. Let Mr Harris survey for
a moment the field of contemporary journalism. He will see there some
men who have the very characteristics from which he infers that
Shakespear was at a social disadvantage through his lack of
middle-class training. They are rowdy, ill-mannered, abusive,
mischievous, fond of quoting obscene schoolboy anecdotes, adepts in
that sort of blackmail which consists in mercilessly libelling and
insulting every writer whose opinions are sufficiently heterodox to
make it almost impossible for him to risk perhaps five years of a
slender income by an appeal to a prejudiced orthodox jury; and they
see nothing in all this cruel blackguardism but an uproariously jolly
rag, although they are by no means without genuine literary ability, a
love of letters, and even some artistic conscience. But he will find
not one of the models of his type (I say nothing of mere imitators of
it) below the rank that looks at the middle class, not humbly and
enviously from below, but insolently from above. Mr Harris himself
notes Shakespear's contempt for the tradesman and mechanic, and his
incorrigible addiction to smutty jokes. He does us the public service
of sweeping away the familiar plea of the Bardolatrous ignoramus, that
Shakespear's coarseness was part of the manners of his time, putting
his pen with precision on the one name, Spenser, that is necessary to
expose such a libel on Elizabethan decency. There was nothing
whatever to prevent Shakespear from being as decent as More was before
him, or Bunyan after him, and as self-respecting as Raleigh or Sidney,
except the tradition of his class, in which education or statesmanship
may no doubt be acquired by those who have a turn for them, but in
which insolence, derision, profligacy, obscene jesting, debt
contracting, and rowdy mischievousness, give continual scandal to the
pious, serious, industrious, solvent bourgeois. No other class is
infatuated enough to believe that gentlemen are born and not made by a
very elaborate process of culture. Even kings are taught and coached
and drilled from their earliest boyhood to play their part. But the
man of family (I am convinced that Shakespear took that view of
himself) will plunge into society without a lesson in table manners,
into politics without a lesson in history, into the city without a
lesson in business, and into the army without a lesson in honor.

It has been said, with the object of proving Shakespear a laborer,
that he could hardly write his name. Why? Because he "had not the
advantage of a middle-class training." Shakespear himself tells us,
through Hamlet, that gentlemen purposely wrote badly lest they should
be mistaken for scriveners; but most of them, then as now, wrote badly
because they could not write any better. In short, the whole range of
Shakespear's foibles: the snobbishness, the naughtiness, the contempt
for tradesmen and mechanics, the assumption that witty conversation
can only mean smutty conversation, the flunkeyism towards social
superiors and insolence towards social inferiors, the easy ways with
servants which is seen not only between The Two Gentlemen of Verona
and their valets, but in the affection and respect inspired by a great
servant like Adam: all these are the characteristics of Eton and
Harrow, not of the public elementary or private adventure school.
They prove, as everything we know about Shakespear suggests, that he
thought of the Shakespears and Ardens as families of consequence, and
regarded himself as a gentleman under a cloud through his father's ill
luck in business, and never for a moment as a man of the people. This
is at once the explanation of and excuse for his snobbery. He was not
a parvenu trying to cover his humble origin with a purchased coat of
arms: he was a gentleman resuming what he conceived to be his natural
position as soon as he gained the means to keep it up.




This Side Idolatry

There is another matter which I think Mr Harris should ponder. He
says that Shakespear was but "little esteemed by his own generation."
He even describes Jonson's description of his "little Latin and less
Greek" as a sneer, whereas it occurs in an unmistakably sincere eulogy
of Shakespear, written after his death, and is clearly meant to
heighten the impression of Shakespear's prodigious natural endowments
by pointing out that they were not due to scholastic acquirements.
Now there is a sense in which it is true enough that Shakespear was
too little esteemed by his own generation, or, for the matter of that,
by any subsequent generation. The bargees on the Regent's Canal do
not chant Shakespear's verses as the gondoliers in Venice are said to
chant the verses of Tasso (a practice which was suspended for some
reason during my stay in Venice: at least no gondolier ever did it in
my hearing). Shakespear is no more a popular author than Rodin is a
popular sculptor or Richard Strauss a popular composer. But
Shakespear was certainly not such a fool as to expect the Toms, Dicks,
and Harrys of his time to be any more interested in dramatic poetry
than Newton, later on, expected them to be interested in fluxions.
And when we come to the question whether Shakespear missed that
assurance which all great men have had from the more capable and
susceptible members of their generation that they were great men, Ben
Jonson's evidence disposes of so improbable a notion at once and for
ever. "I loved the man," says Ben, "this side idolatry, as well as
any." Now why in the name of common sense should he have made that
qualification unless there had been, not only idolatry, but idolatry
fulsome enough to irritate Jonson into an express disavowal of it?
Jonson, the bricklayer, must have felt sore sometimes when Shakespear
spoke and wrote of bricklayers as his inferiors. He must have felt it
a little hard that being a better scholar, and perhaps a braver and
tougher man physically than Shakespear, he was not so successful or so
well liked. But in spite of this he praised Shakespear to the utmost
stretch of his powers of eulogy: in fact, notwithstanding his
disclaimer, he did not stop "this side idolatry." If, therefore, even
Jonson felt himself forced to clear himself of extravagance and


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