The figure of the mistress

In this post I discuss the representation of the figure of the mistress through a close examination, comparison and contrasting the poetry of William Shakespeare and John Donne, paying special attention to two specific poems, Sonnet 138 and “The Apparition”, respectively.

The figure of the mistress, a character which is present in much of Elizabethan poetry, has its origins in the Petrarchan convention. The mistress is quite simply the one to which the poem is directed; she is both the inspiration for the poem and its addressee. The tendency of writing in this form came from the 14th century Italian poet Francesco Petrarca. His love sonnets were directed towards a woman named Laura who was both virtuous and aloof of the poet’s intentions, causing him to both exalt her and despair for his unrequited love. This tradition was brought to England by the court poet Sir Thomas Wyatt, who translated several of Petrarch’s poems into English.

Nevertheless, both Shakespeare and Donne’s representations of their mistresses are nothing close to the traditional Petrarchan convention of  unresponsive, virginal and virtuous women. Shakespeare’s well-known and controversial sonnet sequence is famous for addressing a young man generally known as the “fair youth” and a lascivious woman referred to as the “dark lady”, who is as far apart from Petrarch’s virginal Laura as the moon is from the sun. Donne’s love poetry also does not conform to Petrarchan convention, often making use of its poetic conventions in order to create ironic and comic effects.  An example is  the poem “The Canonization” where in the second stanza the poet asks, “What merchant’s ships have my sighs drowned? / Who says my tears have overflowed his ground? / When did my colds a forward spring remove? /”. The first line plays with the idea of the lover as a ship as can be seen in Thomas Wyatt’s “My Galley”, the third line makes fun of the idea that the lover freezes over under his mistresses cold stares.

Both Shakespeare and Donne wrote in a period that generally believed women to be fickle, inconstant and mentally inferior to men. Part of the Petrarchan convention was to exalt one’s mistress above such worldly women by praising not only her looks and virginal features, but also her superior intellect and consistency. Shakespeare’s female addressee is hardly represented as such. The “dark lady” sonnet sequence starts with a poems that describes an orgasm being followed by the famous Sonnet 130 – “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”. This openly antagonizes the Petrarchan convention of the blazon. Her infidelity to the poet is made quite clear in Sonnet 135, “Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will,” which describes her immense lust.  Shakespeare does not, however accuse his mistress of inferior intellect, much unlike Donne, as can be seen in his “Love’s Alchemy” last two lines, “Hope not for mind in women; at their best /Sweetness and wit they’re but mummy possessed.”

Donne is often considered the most metaphysical of all metaphysical poets (White, 1936, p. 75) due to his masterful use of these concepts in poems such as “The Flea” and “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”. In “The Apparition” the poets is a ghost visiting his mistress at night only to see her in the arms of another lover. The poem ironically plays on the Petrarchan idea that the mistress’ disdain would be the death of the poet, as it can be seen on the first line of the poem, “When by thy scorn, O murd’ress, I am dead”. It also indicates that the dutiful Petrarchan lover was no more then a burden on the mistress as made clear in the following lines, “And that thou thinkst thee free / From all solicitation from me,” The poet in this piece is a Petrarchan lover turned indignant due to his unresponsive mistress, and who no longer believes her to be virginal or constant, as stated in line 5, “And thee, fained vestal, in worse arms shall see;” and line 11, “And then, poor aspen wretch, neglected thou”.

The word vestal means one of the virgins consecrated to the Roman goddess Vesta (Ferguson et al, 2005, p.  295), while fained means false or fake, thus Donne effectively calls his mistress not only a liar but also a whore. Aspen is a tree whose leaves waver at the weakest of winds, therefore signalling his mistress’ inconsistency. Her promiscuity is represented not only by the fact that she lies with another man, but also in the description of her sweat (line 13), “Bathed in a cold quicksilver sweat wilt lie,” for quicksilver/mercury was used as a means to cure venereal disease. More than anything else this poem is an ode to the death of Petrarchanism and of the Petrarchan poet, as it can be seen when the  lover calls his mistress, “A verier ghost than I;” thus effectively killing off not only himself, the poet, but also the idea of the Petrarchan mistress as a paragon of virtue. To add insult to injury, Donne not only ironically brings the two characters’ lives to an end but also disposes of his love for his mistress in line 15, “Lest that preserve thee; and since my love is spent”; something utterly inconceivable for the Petrarchan poet, whose love is declared to be eternal.

Shakespeare’s sonnets have been subject of much study and analysis under several modes of criticism, especially feminist and gender studies (Schoenfeldt, 2007, p. 125). Shakespeare distorts and antagonizes the Petrarchan convention in his treatment of his two mistresses, the “fair youth” and the “dark lady”. Firstly, he makes use of Petrarchan conventions to exalt and profess love to not a woman, but to a young man. Secondly, he portrays the lady as a woman who is far from being aloof and unresponsive, as the conventional mistress is, but as a lustful lover who welcomes the poet and whose infidelity makes him despair, as seen in the first line of sonnet 144, “Two loves I have of comfort and despair.” Comfort being the fair youth and despair, the dark lady. In spite of Shakespeare’s flagrant violation of Petrarchan convention in sonnet 130, as mentioned before, differently from Donne’s “The Apparition” he still professes his love for the lady in the final two lines, “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare.”

Sonnet 138 also attacks the mistress’ alleged fidelity and virginal attributes as can be seen in the first two lines, “When my love swears that she is made of truth, / I do believe her, though I know she lies,” There is a pun with the word lies as it can also mean her lying in bed with other men. Arguably the following two lines, “That she might think me some untutored youth, / Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties” can be said to belittle the dark lady’s intellect. Such a reading, however, is quickly countered by the following two lines, “Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young, / Although she knows my days are past the best,” which clearly shows us that the poet knows she is aware of their mutual deception, which is made even more apparent in the final two lines, “Therefore I lie with her and she with me, / And in our faults by lies flattered be.”

Consequently, both poets’ portrayals of their mistresses are highly unconventional in the fact that they do not represent exalted untouchable women, but ‘worldly’ ones who are not only lauded objects of adoration but objects of desire and contempt. However, they do vary between the both of them, for although both depict women as generally unfaithful, Shakespeare does not share Donne’s view of their mental inferiority. Moreover, some of Donne’s poems for the mistress, believed to have been his wife, such as “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”, closely resemble a Petrarchan representation of the mistress, although a close reading may arguably prove otherwise. What both of them do show, however, is a certain disregard and even contempt for the classical Petrarchan lover, claiming his protestations of undying love and praise of a goddess like mistresses to be nothing short of self-deceit and empty statements.


  • Donne, J. (2005) The Apparition. In Ferguson, M., M.J. Salter and J. Stallworthy (eds) The Norton Anthology of Poetry. 5th  Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
  • Ferguson, M., M.J. Salter and J. Stallworthy (2005) (eds) The Norton Anthology of Poetry. 5th Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
  • Schoenfeldt, M. (2007) The Sonnets. In Cheney, P. (Ed) The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Shakespeare, W. (2005) Sonnet 138. In Ferguson, M., M.J. Salter and J. Stallworthy (Eds) The Norton Anthology of Poetry. 5th Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
  • White, H.C. (1936)  The Metaphysical Poets. New York: Macmillan.

















Eduardo Lima©2009

Reproducing any content of this paper without proper referencing is considered plagiarism and, therefore, an act of academic dishonesty.