Shakespeare’s Dark Lady

One of the bits that got cut from the final version of the book is a discussion of the Dark Lady Sonnets in Shakespeare.  The idea was to give an example of how addiction can push you forward in your life, while nevertheless not giving you the satisfaction of having gone forward on the basis of anything.  It turned out to be a bad example of that, or at least a non-paradigmatic one, but I think the Sonnets present an interesting phenomenon nevertheless.  Auden’s analysis is important for the interpretation here.  In any case, here’s the now-excised passage from the book on that topic.  Thoughts?

Shakespeare describes a canonical case of addiction in his Dark Lady Sonnets (numbers 127-154).  In these sonnets Shakespeare unveils the anguish, rage, and self-contempt that characterize the romantically or sexually obsessed individual.  (W.H. Auden highlights this aspect of the Dark Lady Sonnets in his introduction to the Signet edition.) The Dark Lady, who is the object of his obsession, is in every way unworthy of love.  She is objectively unlovely both in her physical features and in her personal characteristics:  she is ugly, gloomy, cheerless, dismal, and perhaps even evil or wicked.  These facts are plain for all to see, they are objective facts as far as Shakespeare is concerned, and the speaker in the sonnets, presumably Shakespeare himself, knows them to be true.  Indeed, he not only knows that the Dark Lady is unlovely in all these ways, he actively dislikes her because of it.  And yet his own eyes, deformed through the effects of his obsession, continue to draw him towards her as if she were lovely and lovable (Sonnet 137):

Thou blind fool Love, what dost thou to mine eyes,

That they behold and see not what they see?

They know what beauty is, see where it lies,

Yet what the best is, take the worst to be.

The romantically or sexually obsessed, like any addict, is not just drawn by something outside of himself; he is enslaved by it.  Without any ability to resist the obsession, the addict has lost all sense of himself as a worthy human being.  Shakespeare describes well the self-loathing that accompanies such a state (Sonnet 149):

What merit do I in myself respect

That is so proud thy service to despise,

When all my best doth worship thy defect,

Commanded by the motion of thine eyes?

But, love, hate on, for now I know thy mind;

Those that can see thou lov’st, and I am blind.

It is true, then, that the addict is drawn to his action by something outside of himself.  But having no power to resist this attraction – even though he recognizes its base and unworthy nature – he comes to hate himself for the addiction that lives through him, and his life is full of anguish and rage as a result.  Shakespeare knew the features of this phenomenon through the particular kind of sexual addiction that he describes in the Dark Lady Sonnets, and this kind of addiction is common enough today as well.  But some people will recognize the same phenomenon through a variety of other kinds of peculiarly modern addictions: to various kinds of substances, to video games, to sudoku puzzles, to the internet, and so on.  What is common to all of these, insofar as they are addictions, is the anguish and self-hatred that Shakespeare describes so well.  By contrast with all of these, the heroic actor experiences a heightened sense of joy and fulfillment when a noble and worthy action draws him to its side.

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3 Responses to Shakespeare’s Dark Lady

  1. Albert Borgmann says:

    You’ve got the moral pathology of addiction right, Sean, and it’s important to have it in your book for two reasons. One is the prevalence and diversity of addiction in contemporary culture, and it’s helpful to address them in a book that, commendably, talks about lives worth living. The other is a professional problem. It’ll be hard enough to convince mainstream philosophers that things do shine and don’t merely mirror our values. But even if for the sake of the argument they agree that there are things shining, their minds are trained to race through instances in search of the devastating counter example–ah, what about an addictively shining thing? So it’s good to preempt that comment and to have some discussion and illustration of the miseries and fallacies of addiction.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Albert. I agree it’s important to have something about addiction in the book, and for exactly the reasons you mention. The question ended up being whether the kind of sexual addiction that Shakespeare describes in the Dark Lady Sonnets is the best example, or whether instead it introduces too many spurious issues. In the end, we’ve substituted an example that many of my students talk about – the addictive use of social networking sites and blogs. I’m sad to lose the Shakespeare, though. His descriptions are so penetrating and evocative that nothing really replaces them well.

  3. Jim Keller says:

    Cannot wait for the book. One thing about Shakespearean sonnets, though: as lyric sequence, the sonnets are “trickier” than prose, insofar as they tend toward BOTH unity or coherence of expression (a phenomenology of addiction) AND toward isolated lyric statements (which may have little to do with — or even erode the consistency of — the overall message). I think this is why Isaiah Berlin lists Shakespeare with the “foxes” (who write out of many little, incommensurate worlds) and not with the “hedgehogs” (like Tolstoy, who make sweeping, comprehensive statements about “History” [the dynamic principle behind the changing status of the Being of beings over time]). In any event, if you want a book that does everything that you say the sonnets do, I would without hesitation recommend Nabokov’s Lolita!

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