“Thou art as tyrannous, so as thou art, As those whose beauties proudly make them cruel;”

William Shakespeare

Sonnet #131

————————-

SONNET 131

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.

—————–

It is a part of the Dark Lady sequence (consisting of sonnets 127–52), which are addressed to an unknown woman usually assumed to possess a dark complexion.

The sonnet, like the others in this sequence, addresses the Dark Lady as if a mistress. It references allegations from unspecified others that her “black” complexion makes her unattractive and rebuts these, but in the final two lines turns the compliment into a backhanded one by admitting that “In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds”. The sonnet employs the Petrarchan conceit of “tyranny” to imply the power the object’s beauty imposes over the sonneteer and argues for her beauty based on the power she exerts over him. It also uses the word “groan”, another common practice from Petrarch, to superficially reinforce the lover’s depth of emotion; but it does so ambivalently, possibly implying the word’s connotation of pain or distress, or even its alternate meaning that refers to venereal disease

The sonnet is almost a continuation of the previous one. In 130 he stresses that his mistress does not possess any of the traditional beautiful attributes which are usually thought of as belonging to ‘the lovely fair’, but here he maintains that she does have all the other powers that the Lauras of this world possess, powers to make the poor lover groan and suffer for her sake. The visual beauty is therefore not of the same intensity but the emotional tyranny is not in any way diminished. Finally he suggest that his lover’s moral character is not of the purest, a suggestion which haunts him throughout the remainder of the series.

Many of the traditional attributes of ‘the beloved fair’ and the lover’s reactions to them are here mentioned, often as a contrast with the supposed reality, and in the notes I point out the occasional parallels with Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella, the sequence of sonnets to Stella, an impossibly aloof beauty. The poems were of immense influence at the time, (c. 1584) and the many echoes from them in these sonnets show us that Shakespeare must have been imbued with Sidney’s thoughts and language, and with all the established conventions of sonneteering.

From David West’s “Shakespeare’s Sonnets”:  First, a paraphrase:

You are as cruel as proud beauties because you know I dote on you.

Some say you could never make a lover groan. I swear, privately, you can,

and confirm my oath with a thousand groans, proving that in my ehes

    black is most fair.

Your only blackness is in your actions. Hence the slander.

EmiliaLanier“1-4 In Sonnet 127, the first appearance of the Black Lady, it is established that black is fair, and this paradox lies behind the whole of Sonnet 131.  ‘You are as tyrannical, being what you are, as if you were like those made proud and cruel by their beauty.’ ‘So as thou art’ just paraphrased as ‘being what you are,’ is elusive.  What is she?  The beginning of the sonnet is explained at the end. The point is that this woman is black, despised for it in lines 5-6, and yet she is as tyrannical as cruel beauties are.  In ‘whose beauties proudly make them cruel’ the word order is surprising. A smoother version would be ‘whose beauties make them proudly cruel.’ The advantage of what Shakespeare wrote is that ‘proudly make’ visualizes the beauties as living agents who strut proudly around making people cruel.  These poems are full of fleeting personifications, of dramatic characters, like the groans of line 10.

Lines 3-4 explain why she behaves in this way. The reason is that (‘For’) she is well aware that S’s fond heart adores her.  She is so precious to him that she can rule him like a tyrant. ‘Well thou know’st’ means that she is well aware (and exploits it). The same rueful tone of voice was heard in 87.1 ‘And like enough to know’st thy estimate.’ That hint is confirmed in ‘my dear doting heart,’ ‘dear’ meaning loving, fond…Here it joins ‘doting’ to emphasize the intensity of his love.

5-8 ‘Others do not share this admiration, saying in good faith’ (it is a sincere judgment, not a gratuitous insult) ‘that your face could not make anyone groan with love. I dare not to be so bold as to say publicly that they are wrong, but I swear it privately to myself.’ At the end of line 6 there is a hint of a smile.  It is not that the Black Lady’s face is unable to make a lover groan, but that it is unable to make love itself groan. The humour of lover’s groans will appear in a court of law in 9-12.

9-12 ‘To confirm that what I swear is true, I groan a thousand times just thinking of your face.’ Again the dramatist personifies.  As Kerrigan notes, ‘It seems inconceivable that the groans might be thinking, until each sigh is given a neck in line 11.’ The groans are characters in a little courtroom scene, a thousand witnesses crowding in to testify that in S’s judgement black is fairest, and sudden light is thrown back on 5-8, on ‘in good faith’ (they are honest witnesses), on S’s humility in line 7 (he hesitates to pronounce on a matter which is sub judice) and on ‘I swear.’ The legal scene has taken shape, and the three monosyllabic lines in 6,7, and 9 may convey some of the severity of legal language. ‘One on another’s neck’ means that the groans are rushing alone, one behind the other. The phrase is proverbial and occurs in 1594 in Thomas Nashe’s Unfortunate Traveller ‘Passion upon passion would throng one on anothers necks.’ The rush is into the witness box in the lawcourt, the place of judgement, mentioned explicitly in line 12. It is a case of slander (14). S’s groans are a thousand witnesses all attesting that the black of his mistress has the power to make a lover groan. Her black is fairest in his judgment.

13-14 How then is the slander of lines 5-6 to be explained? Why do people say that      nobody could love her? The only answer S can think of is that she is black, evil, in her actions.  This again throws a light backward. The critics did speak in good faith, they had a serious point to make. Now we know why he could not refute them outright in line 7 and say they erred. He knows they were, in a sense, right.

The Sonnets have dealt with disappointments, suspicions and betrayals, but S has never before said that he loves someone who is black at heart. But now Sonnet 131 explains 129. this is lust, not love. The bitterness and the drama lie largely in the elaborate defense of the Black Lady against slander, an imposing defense which leads to a deadly indictment. This whole ingenious fortification has been erected as a platform for a fierce attack.

In novels and plays the end of one chapter or scene often whets the appetite for the next. The impetus of the plot of the Sonnet leaves us here with a problem. What are her black deeds? Only tyrannical treatment of her lover?  Sonnet 132 will heighten the suspense in a poem that praises her beauty, and begs for heart’s love. Sonnet 133 will then explain the black deeds in 131.13.”

The 1609 Quarto Version

 

THou art as tiranous,ſo as thou art,
As thoſe whoſe beauties proudly make them                                                                                  cruell;
For well thou know’ſt to my deare doting hart
Thou art the faireſt and moſt precious Iewell.
Yet in good faith ſome ſay that thee behold,
Thy face hath not the power to make loue grone;
To ſay they erre,I dare not be ſo bold,
Although I ſweare it to my ſelfe alone.
And to be ſure that is not falſe I ſweare
A thouſand grones but thinking on thy face,
One on anothers necke do witneſſe beare
Thy blacke is faireſt in my iudgements place.
In nothing art thou blacke ſaue in thy deeds,
And thence this ſlaunder as I thinke proceeds.

Commentary

1. Thou art as tyrannous, so as thou art,

tyrannous = behaving like a tyrant, all powerful and merciless. The stony hearted and icy lover was the recurring element in all sonnet sequences. Petrarch’s Laura was the archetype, who, although unmoved by his protestations, was still as adorable and and magical as on the day he first set eyes on her, despite her aloofness. Examples are also to be found in Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella:
………and now, like slave born Muscovite
I
call it praise to suffer tyranny. 2
and
…………….or am I born a slave,
Whose neck becomes such yoke of tyranny?
47.
so as thou art = behaving as you do, taking you as you are. The phrase is more easily understood if taken with the next line: ‘You are exactly as those beauties etc.’ It links in with the other odd uses of ‘so’ in two nearly adjacent sonnets, 127 and 129:
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem 127
and
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so. 129.
But perhaps just as telling is the link to the praise of the youth in 105, for the contrast is not flattering to the dark lady:
Since all alike my songs and praises be
To one, of one, still such, and ever so
.
It is interesting to find this present sonnet concerning itself with the same concept of fairness as was explored in 105. Here the conclusion could not be more different.

2. As those whose beauties proudly make them cruel;

those = those fair ones, those beautiful women.
proudly make them cruel = makes them behave with cruel arrogance. But, as SB points out, proudly also modifies those whose beauies suggesting that they are proud and aloof because they know that they are beautiful. Compare Sidney’s
Are beauties there as proud as here they be? Ast. & S. 31.

3. For well thou know’st to my dear doting heart

For well thou know’st – an echo perhaps of All this the world well knows and yet well I know of the two previous sonnets. The combination of all these well known facts, known to all the world, contrasted with the helplessness of the individual when confronted with them, begins to set the scene for the portrayal of his total infatuation with his mistress.
dear = precious to myself; perhaps also precious to you; costly to itself.
doting = foolishly adoring. to dote is to love with foolish infatuation, and is most often used when criticism or ridicule of the person so afflicted is implied. Shakespeare uses it of himself again in 141:
But ’tis my heart that loves what they despise,
Who in despite of view is pleased to dote;

( i.e. his heart loves what his eyes despise). In Midsummer Night’s Dream Lysander accuses Helena of foolishly loving Demetrius:
…………………….and she, sweet lady, dotes,
Devoutly dotes, dotes in idolatry,
Upon this spotted and inconstant man
. MND.I.1.108-9.
The model of love here typified is therefore somewhat removed from that traditionally associated with the writer of Petrarchan sonnets to his mistress, where the sacrifice and devotion is usually (but not always) betrayed as being more manly.

4. Thou art the fairest and most precious jewel.

fairest = most beautiful, most noble and just, most light coloured, i.e. not black.
most precious jewel
= most valued and desired object. Compare Othello’s praise of Desdemona:
If heaven would make me such another world
Of one entire and perfect chrysolite,
I’ld not have sold her for it.
OTH.V.2.146-8.
In the world of courtly love the beloved fair was always as bright as the sun and as rare as the most precious jewel. Sidney also uses the ‘cruel’ ‘jewel’ rhyme in praise of Stella:
Have I caught my heavenly jewel,
Teaching sleep most fair to be?
Now will I teach her that she,
When she wakes, is too too cruel.
Ast & S. Second Song.

5. Yet, in good faith, some say that thee behold,

in good faith – a mild oath, similar to by heaven in the previous sonnet, and truly in the next one. The phrase could also be descriptive of what follows, i.e. ‘It is reported also by some, (and they evidently believe what they say), that etc.’

If it is an oath, it might well come into the category of those ridiculed by Hotspur in Henry IV:
LADY PERCY Not mine, in good sooth.
HOTSPUR Not yours, in good sooth! Heart! you swear like a
comfit-maker’s wife. ‘Not you, in good sooth,’ and
‘as true as I live,’ and ‘as God shall mend me,’ and
‘as sure as day,’
And givest such sarcenet surety for thy oaths,
As if thou never walk’st further than Finsbury.
Swear me, Kate, like a lady as thou art,
A good mouth-filling oath, and leave ‘in sooth,’
And such protest of pepper-gingerbread,
To velvet-guards and Sunday-citizens
. 1H4.III.1.248-58.
Perhaps the paucity and femininity of the oath is meant to match the dotingness of the heart. Compare also ‘to be sure’ in line 9 below.
that thee behold = of those that have observed you.

6. Thy face hath not the power to make love groan;

Thy face hath not the power = your face is not of such beauty as to cause etc. This is the supposed reported speech of those who have observed her, and they have reported it ‘in good faith’. They do not think she is a great beauty, sufficient enough to turn men’s eyes.
to make love groan – sighs and groans were the inevitable accompaniment to being in love, or at least to loving in the way that the sonneteer loved his beloved. The word occurs again in 133
Beshrew that heart that makes my heart to groan
but it is apart from that rare in these sonnets. The thought is however implied in many other lines, and is traditional in sonnets, as for example in the following from Sidney to Stella:
As good to write, as for to lie and groan.
O Stella dear, how much thy power hath wrought!.
A & S.40.
where clearly Stella does have the power to make love groan. (Strictly speaking it is the lover himself who groans, not love itself). See also the note to line 10.

7. To say they err I dare not be so bold,

To say they err = to say that those who claim your face does not have power to make me groan are wrong
I dare not be so bold = I dare not be so rash and audacious (as to contradict them). The suggestion here is that the world cannot be entirely wrong in saying that she cannot hold sway over men, or at least he is not prepared to openly contradict what seems to be an obvious fact. Nevertheless he has to reconcile this fact with the turmoil in his heart, and that is what he finds impossible. He is just as much racked with desire as if she were one of those of whom the world declared to be subduers of men’s souls.

8. Although I swear it to myself alone.

Although I admit in the secrecy of my heart that you are as tyrannous and have just the power that those other beauties have to make lovers groan for you. You are just as fair (beautiful) as they are, and are just as cruel.

9. And to be sure that is not false I swear,

And to be sure = and to assure myself. Possibly the modern meaning of ‘certainly, undoubtedly’ is also present, although OED does not record that meaning before 1657, in the Book of Common Prayer.
that is not false I swear = that what I swear is not falsehood.

10. A thousand groans, but thinking on thy face,

A thousand groans. – Hamlet in writing to Ophelia speaks of his groans:
‘O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers;
I have not art to reckon my groans: but that
I love thee best, O most best, believe it. Adieu.
HAM.II.2.119-121.
And Sidney, overcome by woe, seeks words to express his groans:
WOE, having made with many fights his own
Each sense of mine, each gift, each power of mind :
Grown now his slaves; he forced them out to find
The thoroughest words, fit for WOE’s self to groan
. A&S. 57.
but thinking on thy face = merely thinking about you. Ostensibly the thousand groans are doing the thinking, but one tends to read it as an amplification of how the thousand groans came about. It was the thinking on the beauty of her face that caused them.

11. One on another’s neck, do witness bear

One on another’s neck = thick and fast, in hot pursuit of each other. The imagery is identical to that used in The Unfortunate Traveller, by Thomas Nashe, (1594). ‘Passion upon passion would throng one upon another’s neck‘. See the note by GBE, p.249. Shakespeare evidently knew the work, and he is likely to have known Nashe, who possibly had a hand in writing parts of Shakespeare’s earlier plays.
do witness bear
– the subject is ‘a thousand groans’. They all testify to the fact that the oath he makes to himself (that she is fair) is not a false oath, and to the fact that, in his judgement, her darker colours are more beautiful than the fairness of a blonde beauty.

12. Thy black is fairest in my judgment’s place.

Thy black is fairest = your beauty, though tinged with darker colours than those of the traditional fair woman, is still the most beautiful.
in my judgement’s place
= in my mind. The phrase is reminiscent of’the ‘seat of judgement’ and suggests a courtroom setting, a hint which is reinforced by do witness bear and the references to swearing in 8 and 9 above. His mistress is effectively being put on trial for her misdemeanours.

13. In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds,

nothing – the word had sexual connotations, as a slang word referring to female sexual parts. Compare Hamlet:
HAMLET Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
[Lying down at OPHELIA’s feet]
OPHELIA No, my lord.
HAMLET I mean, my head upon your lap?
OPHELIA Ay, my lord.
HAMLET Do you think I meant country matters?
OPHELIA I think nothing, my lord.
HAMLET That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.
OPHELIA What is, my lord?
HAMLET Nothing
. Ham.III.2.108-116.
black = dark coloured; morally blemished.
save in thy deeds
= except in your actions. You are in fact a traditional ‘fair’ beauty, but your actions and behaviour contradict that fairness.

14. And thence this slander, as I think, proceeds.

thence = from your deeds, as a result of your deeds.
this slander
= the accusation that you are not a fair beauty who causes men’s hearts to groan.
as I think – the parenthetical comment helps to maintain the conversational tone. But, as many commentators note, the suggestion that she is morally degenerate is rather more damaging to her reputation than the original slander, which other observers have made, that she is not entirely beautiful, and against which he is supposedly defending her.
proceeds = results, derives from.

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