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Dark Aemilia: Shakespeare’s Dark Lady and the story of Aemilia Lanyer

Sally O’Reilly describes the continuing mystery that surrounds the identity of Shakespeare's Dark Lady Aemilia Bassano Lanyer in her novel Dark Aemilia...

Posted on 23rd April 2014 by Sally O’Reilly
Emilia Lanier

There are no known portraits of Emilia Lanier. In 2003 the actor and writer Tony Haygarth argued that this miniature portrait by Nicholas Hilliard, 1593, depicts her.(via Wikipedia)

Given that Shakespeare is our national poet, we know remarkably little about his life. So it’s not surprising that we know even less about the mysterious Dark Lady who inspired his later sonnets. These are dark and obsessive, and contrast sharply with the earlier sonnets which are addressed to an equally mysterious Fair Youth.

Shakespeare never used the title "Dark Lady" himself.  The name has been given to the woman who inspired the sonnets because he refers to her black hair and eyes and ‘dun’ skin. This was an unfashionable look at the time, and a conventional poem would have referred to fairness as a mark of beauty.

There are numerous candidates for the title, and new theories are still being put forward. For instance, in 2013 Aubrey Burl suggested that the Dark Lady was Aline Florio, the wife of an Italian translator. Burl listed eight possible candidates in an article in the Daily Telegraph: Aline Florio was his choice because she had dark hair and was married, musical, a mother and unfaithful to her husband.

Some women have been suggested because they would have known Shakespeare through their husbands. Marie Mountjoy was the wife of Christopher Mountjoy, a costume maker who rented rooms to Shakespeare in his house in Silver Street. Jane Davenant was married to an Oxford tavern keeper called John Davenant. Her son William became an influential figure in the seventeenth century literary scene, and famously claimed to be Shakespeare’s illegitimate son. A third possibility is Jacqueline Field, the wife of Stratford-born Richard Field who printed Shakespeare’s poetry in London and is thought to have been a lifelong friend of the poet.

One of the most intriguing "Dark Ladies" is Lucy Morgan, who has inspired both Anthony Burgess and (more recently) Victoria Lamb. She is thought to have been one of Queen Elizabeth I’s lesser known ladies in waiting, and may also have been the notorious "Lucy Negra", a prostitute in London. (The name "Negra" suggests that she was of African descent.)

The best-known candidates are Mary Fitton and Penelope Devereux, both from aristocratic families. Mary Fitton (1578 – 1647) had affairs with William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke, and others, and children by various men. Fitton’s relationship with Pembroke was certainly scandalous, and he was sent to the Fleet Prison when she became pregnant with his child. More affairs and two marriages followed. Both William Herbert and George Bernard Shaw make Fitton the Dark Lady of their plays.

She later became a client of the astrologer Simon Forman, who talked to her about summoning demons.

Penelope Devereux (1563- 1607) was the sister of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. Another scandal-prone woman, she married Robert Rich, but had a notorious affair with Charles Blount, Baron Mountjoy, and eventually divorced Rich and married Blount. Devereux would have been a glamorous figure in Shakespeare’s world, and was certainly an inspiration for other poets. (Her hair was not black, but blonde, however, so loses points for that.)

My choice was Aemilia Bassano Lanyer. Why? I was attracted to her is because she was the first woman to be published professionally as a poet in England. Her poetry collection Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum includes a justification of Eve and a retelling of the Crucifixion from the point of view of the women in the New Testament. Published in 1611, it is dedicated to a long list of aristocratic women, starting with Anne, the wife of James I. This is the way in which a professional male poet would introduce his work, and Lanyer’s volume is the first surviving example of a woman writing in this way.

Lanyer’s was the illegimate child of Jewish immigrant musicians who played at the Tudor court; her father died when she was seven and she was educated at court. At seventeen she became the mistress of the Lord Chamberlain, Lord Hunsdon. Six years later she was pregnant and married off to a cousin, Alfonso Lanyer, a recorder player who spent her dowry in a year. She later became a client of the astrologer Simon Forman, who talked to her about summoning demons. (Most of these facts have been gleaned from his journal.)

I found the facts of Lanyer’s life an inspiring cue for my novel. One of the themes of the story is ambition and over-reaching, and Aemilia’s own experience is an illustration of this. At one point, she was centre stage, a confidante of the Lord Chamberlain, living in close proximity to the Queen herself. What must she have felt, when she was banished from Whitehall Palace to a cramped house in Westminster? And yet, rather than disappearing, she wrote her poetry and found a publisher. Five hundred years later, we can still read her words and hear her voice.

How would this woman, an aspiring poet, feel about being the subject of those obsessive, cruel sonnets? I decided to tell the story of her flawed love affair with Shakespeare from her intense point of view. The relationship between Shakespeare and Lanyer is a battle of wills and a clash of egos. It is a love story, but also dramatizes the conflict between men and women, and about the desire to create beauty and meaning in the midst of chaos and pain.

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Dark Aemilia (Hardback)

Dark Aemilia (Hardback)

Sally O'Reilly

In the boldest imagining of the era since Shakespeare in Love and Elizabeth, this spellbinding novel of witchcraft, poetry and passion, brings to life Aemilia Lanyer, the 'Dark Lady' of Shakespeare's Sonnets - the playwright's muse and his one true love.