Many of you know that I’m a bit of a Shakespeare nut. I have a deep love for his comedies and I’m a Marlovian. (Yes, you will be getting a Shakespeare-was-really-Christopher-Marlowe novel from me sometime in the future.) So when I was asked if Charlene could do a guest post on her book about one of the most enduring mysteries surrounding Shakespeare – the identity of the Dark Lady in his sonnets – I jumped at the chance. So without further ado (or should that be “Much Ado?”) please welcome scholar and fellow feminist Charlene Ball!
I was in the auditorium at the University of Georgia listening to a short, dapper English historian explain his theory that Emilia Bassano Lanyer was the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets. It was around 1975. I was fascinated. Imagine my excitement to learn that someone had discovered a woman who not only might have been close to Shakespeare, but who was a poet in her own right—and, moreover, was an early feminist!
Up until then, my feminism and my love of Renaissance literature were kept in separate areas of my world. Feminism was about marches and demonstrations for the Equal Rights Amendment and Take Back the Night, reading The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, Our Bodies Our Selves, and Sinister Wisdom; listening to talks by popular feminists like Gloria Steinem; reading Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde; and talking with our very own resident radical feminist, Julia Penelope Stanley, who taught linguistics in the UGA English Department and whose mother ran a cool bookstore called The Hairy Hobbit.
Feminism was also about living with my woman lover, identifying as a lesbian, going to softball games to cheer on our lesbian friends who played on a softball team called—what else?—The Hairy Hobbits (the bookstore sponsored the team).
My coursework for my Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, on the other hand, involved attending classes and writing papers on Medieval Narrative, Shakespeare, European Romanticism, French Classical Drama, and Renaissance Narrative Poetry.
I loved it all. But there was a disconnect. My coursework did not overlap at all with my life.
So when I heard A.L. Rowse say that not only was Emilia Lanyer the lover of Shakespeare, but also an early feminist who roundly condemned men for slandering women and called for women’s equality, I could not contain my excitement. I was already fascinated by Christopher Marlowe, or the myth of him as an early gay poet, and I wrote a play about him. I also wrote a play about Shakespeare and Emilia Lanyer.
This was about the time that feminist scholars were beginning to write about early women writers. The decades that followed brought my graduation, my search for academic employment, and the changes in the world and in my life. I taught English composition and literature, and, in between part-time teaching gigs, I took temp jobs. I put Emilia on the back burner. My life changed. My relationship ended. I found a position as an office administrator in a Women’s Studies department. I researched and wrote about feminist utopias and Audre Lorde. I began to write fiction.
When I returned to the literature I first loved, no longer called the Renaissance, but the Early Modern Period, I found that feminist scholars had discovered Emilia (or Aemilia) Bassano Lanyer and had written a great deal about her. But from a very different point of view.
What I had found most troubling about Rowse’s description of Emilia in his talk, the introduction to his edition of her poems, and his books about Shakespeare was that he took an unquestioningly misogynistic view of her, calling her “a bad lot” and “no better than she should be.” Other scholars agreed, including the historians who chronicled the Bassano family of musicians, David Lasocki and Roger Pryor. Pryor assumed she was “a well known whore.”
So I was delighted to discover Susanne Woods’s biography and edition of Lanyer’s poems. Woods makes it clear that there is no evidence at all to believe that Emilia was promiscuous, and even if she were, what would it matter anyway?
The feminist Aemilia was not the same as Rowse’s Emilia. There seemed to be no way to see them as the same person.
Yet—why couldn’t they be? There was no reason I could see that a vehement defender of women could not also have been the lover of, not only Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, but of William Shakespeare as well. And those sonnets of Shakespeare’s that are clearly addressed to a woman are far from flattering. Most of them are angry, mocking, and disparaging. Might not a woman who read them and realized they were about her be offended? Might she not want to answer back in her own defense, in the defense of all women?
So I wanted to write about Emilia (I kept to the spelling of her name that I had first learned) as a woman of her time, assuming just as a “what if” that she was Shakespeare’s lover AND a talented poet. I wanted to portray her as she might have been, doing all the things we know she probably did based on Rowse’s research, but not accepting his easy misogyny and stereotyped thinking. For no scholars deny the basics of Rowse’s research; they just don’t accept his conclusions that she must have known Shakespeare and must have been the woman in the Sonnets.
My Emilia, then, is the daughter of a Court musician and member of the large extended family of Bassanos who came from Venice to London at the invitation of Henry VIII. She is the one whose father died when she was young, who was fostered by Suzan Bertie, Countess of Kent, who became the mistress of Lord Hunsdon at a young age, who married her cousin Alfonso Lanyer when she became pregnant, and who visited the astrologer Simon Forman and endured and may have encouraged his sexual advances. My Emilia is also the mother of two children, one of whom died in infancy. My Emilia is the friend of literary women and a poet herself. She is the woman who published a book of poetry in 1611 and who dedicated it to nine of these women, thus becoming one of the first women in England to publish her work and the first to seek patronage as male authors did.
So—shameless plug!—my novel, Dark Lady: A Novel of Emilia Bassano Lanyer, brings together my feminism and my love of this fascinating time in history called the Early Modern Period, the time of the incredible burgeoning of drama and poetry by Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, Phillip Sidney, and so many other men. And now we know about some of the women: Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke; Lady Arbella Stuart; Isabella Whitney; Mary Wroth; Anne Vaughan Locke Prowse. And Emilia Bassano Lanyer.
Books for Further Reading:
David Lasocki with Roger Prior, The Bassanos: Venetian Musicians and Instrument Makers in England, 1531-1665 (Scolar, 1995).
A.L. Rowse, The Poems of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady: Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum by Emilia Lanier (Clarkston N. Potter, 1979).
Susanne Woods, ed., The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer: Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Oxford UP, 1993).
____________, Lanyer: A Renaissance Woman Poet (Oxford UP, 1999).
Thank you, Charlene! I, for one, can’t wait to read your book! If you have questions for Charlotte, please put them in the comments. I’ll let her know and she’s be around to respond.