Rosaline: The Dark Lady

As we noted earlier in this month’s discussion of Love’s Labor’s Lost, there is much dramatic conversation (mostly derogatory) about the complexion of Berowne’s object of affection, Rosaline.

The King and his men are shocked over Berowne’s love because

  • she “is black as ebony” (IV.iii.243)
  • “To look like her are chimney sweepers black” (IV.iii.262)
  • “And since her time are colliers counted bright” (IV.iii.263)
  • “Ethiops of their sweet complexion crack” (IV.iii.264)
  • she is the same color as a “shoe” (IV.iii.273 stage direction)

Berowne himself describes Rosaline’s eyes as “two pitch balls stuck in her face” (III.i.194), but never directly discusses her complexion.  His description of “toiling in a pitch — pitch that defiles” (IV.iii.2-3) could refer to her skin color but more likely to her eyes as he references them later in the same speech (IV.iii.10).  Earlier in the play, he describes his love as a “whitely wanton” (III.i.193).  In Shakespeare’s day, however, “whitely” could mean either “Whitish; pale; light-complexioned, ‘fair’” (note that this is not the same as being “white”) or “quietly” (Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM [v. 4.0]), and either works (she could be not quite as white as the other women of the party, or maybe this could be a reference of her being “quietly wanton”).

The Elizabethan standard of beauty was deathly white (so much so that makeup also included the light drawing-in of veins below the skin) and blue-eyed. Rosaline obviously doesn’t fit this mold.  So if she has little in common with the stereotypical beauty, might she have more in common with another Shakespearean character?


The un-named (but much speculated about) Dark Lady, the addressee of Sonnets 127-152.  This women famously had black hair and “dun” skin (“a dull or dingy brown color,” or “dark” [OED]).  Some examples:


In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty's name;
But now is black beauty's successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame:
For since each hand hath put on Nature's power,
Fairing the foul with Art's false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress' eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland'ring creation with a false esteem:
Yet so they mourn becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so.

The poet’s mistress here has “raven black” eyes, and he discusses how “in the old age black was not counted fair… but now is black beauty’s successive heir.”


My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

In this classic (and one of my all time faves), the poet notes that his love’s skin is “dun” in color and that she has black hair (the “black wires (that) grow on her head”).


Thou art as tyrannous, so as thou art,
As those whose beauties proudly make them cruel;
For well thou know'st to my dear doting heart
Thou art the fairest and most precious jewel.
Yet, in good faith, some say that thee behold
Thy face hath not the power to make love groan:
To say they err I dare not be so bold,
Although I swear it to myself alone.
And, to be sure that is not false I swear,
A thousand groans, but thinking on thy face,
One on another's neck, do witness bear
Thy black is fairest in my judgment's place.
In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds,
And thence this slander, as I think, proceeds.

In this sonnet, while the woman’s complexion of “black is fairest in (the poet’s) judgment,” it is in her “deeds” that she is truly black.  Her deeds make her “tyrannous.”


My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease,
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
Past cure I am, now reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen's are,
At random from the truth vainly express'd;
For I have sworn thee fair and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.

Here, the poet admits that while he had “sworn (her) fair and thought (her) bright,” he now knows that she is really as “black as hell, as dark as night.”  His love here is described as “a fever… (a) disease” to which his reason may be “physician to (his) love,”  but he is “past cure.”

In the play, Rosaline is seen as black as in Sonnet 127, or “dun” as in Sonnet 127.   Rosaline, the one who urges the Princess to “mock them still” (V.ii.302), is certainly tyrannical to the men in the play.  And the men, in the words of Berowne, “are infected, in their hearts it lies; // They have the plague, and caught it of (the women’s) eyes” (V.ii.422).

All this raises some interesting questions:

  • Could the Dark Lady sonnets have been composed around the time of Love’s Labor’s Lost?
  • Could Rosaline be a dramatic recreation of the Dark Lady?
  • Does the unsatisfying ending to the play mirror Shakespeare’s unhappy relationship with the Dark Lady?

Is there no “winning” Love’s Labor since Shakespeare was so obviously defeated by his romantic tyrant?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *