In a world like Elizabethan England*, where a fair complexion was synonymous with beauty (it was not by accident that “fair” meant both “lovely” and “light-complexioned), here goes the lovestruck Biron, extolling his beloved Rosaline’s dark looks:
O, if in black my lady’s brows be deck’d,
It mourns that painting and usurping hair
Should ravish doters with a false aspect;
And therefore is she born to make black fair.
Her favour turns the fashion of the days,
For native blood is counted painting now;
And therefore red, that would avoid dispraise,
Paints itself black, to imitate her brow.
And this was from Love’s Labour’s Lost (Act IV, scene III), likely written in the mid-1590s. Then, likely a few years later, we have Sonnet 127 singing the praise of the Dark Lady:
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 association with mourning, false beauty and true beauty, changing the tide of fashion on the strength of one woman’s uncommon beauty… Either Shakespeare had a limited number of arguments in favour of dark beauty, or he liked the one he made in the play so much, that he decided to use it again in another, and more sophisticated form…
I wonder if the Dark Lady, whoever she was, had seen Love’s Labour’s Lost on the stage – and what she made of it when she was presented with the Sonnet. It’s great to be praised in unusual terms as a one-of-a-kind creature, lovely enough to turn the very concept of beauty on its head – but I suspect it loses some of the shine when you realise it’s upcycled from a comedy?
* Well, yes – Navarre, but a very Elizabethan and imaginary Navarre.