We have just one image of her, a miniature, painted by Nicholas Hilliard, noted at the time for his mini-images of the shakers and movers of the Elizabethan world. Who was she? Well she was/is in the mix with the likes of Christopher Marlowe, Edward de Vere, Francis Bacon and others. A woman you might cry, as others have! A woman suspected of ghost writing Shakespeare’s plays! Preposterous has been the common refrain to the notion. But why not? Given, the evidence is by and large circumstantial as with all the other candidates – but, it is there. As there is for an affair with the playwright in 1598 – perhaps in doing so giving the poor fellow a dose of the clap. There is increasing suggestion that she was the ‘Dark Lady’ he refers to in his sonnets, produced the following year – the ‘dark’ being a linkage because of her Mediterranean complexion. It is not unknown for a famous man in his middle age – age 33 was considered this back then – to be bewitched by a known beauty. Think, dare I say it, Rupert Murdoch and Jerry Hall. Shakespeare had made certain promises to his Anne back in Stratford, but he was a low ebb through these years due to the death of his son. He’d be no doubt susceptible to her advances – and she certainly was not backward in coming forward, as we know from her history in contemporary sources. It is all certainly very interesting.
Emilia Lanier was, from all accounts, stunningly beautiful and out to use her assets to work her way to the top of the pile – to the degree a maiden could in those times. Much of what we know of her wantonness comes from her doctor. Doctor was a very loose term back then – they were as much astrologists as medical practitioners and it is possible that the good Dr Simon Foreman was also very keen to bed her as well. It is thought he was rebuffed. He was one of the first to religiously keep notes on his patients, but there weren’t too many scruples involved in the information those notes contained. He refers to the young miss as one ‘to lie upon’ – women of easy virtue were termed ‘mattresses’ in the common vernacular. Lanier, around the time in question, was certainly moving in the same circles as William S. With her looks and being forward by disposition, there would be no doubt she’d be known to him – but many suggest there was far more to their relationship. Some of these ‘many’ are experts, particularly of his sonnets. But there is a great deal of drawing of a long bow between having a fling and the woman actually penning some of his plays. But she did have another string to her bow. At a time when it was frowned on for one of the fairer gender being engaged in such pursuits, in 1611 Emilia came out of the shadows and published her own book of poetry – the first English lady to do so. She was 42 by this stage – and ‘Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum’ (‘Hail, God, King of the Jews’) is a milestone. So, she had literary chops – but did she employ them on the great bard’s behalf. Even if there is not nearly enough evidence for this admittedly far-fetched claim, surely for the feat of being Britain’s first recognised poetess, it would be enough to have her join the pantheon of ground-breaking protofeminists (definition – the term is applied to a woman in a philosophical tradition anticipating modern feminist concepts, who lived in an era when the term “feminist” was unknown, that is, prior to the 20th century). There is, as well, much we do not know about her. Decades of her life are lost to the record. So here’s what we have ascertained about the ‘Dark Lady’ – and it is fascinating.
Lanier was born Aemilia Bassano in Bishopsgate in 1570-ish. Her father was an Italian – and possibly Jewish, hence her looks. He was a musician at Elizabeth’s court. Her mother was one Margret Johnson. When her father died at age six or seven she was sent to live with, or to serve, Susan Berlie, the Countess of Kent. For the rest of her childhood she resided with a number of the influential women of her time – thus possibly her strong streak of independence exhibited later in life? Soon after turning eighteen Ms Bassano became the mistress of Henry Carey, a baron some forty-five years her senior. She became pregnant to him, which was unfortunate as the imminent birth caused her to be palmed off to marry a cousin, Alfonso Lanier, another court musician. By this stage Mrs Lanier, as a heavyweight’s bit on the side, had accrued a fair amount of capital. But her wastrel hubby soon disposed of that in a short period of time, exercising his rights as a man. This found her heavily in debt. Needless to say the marriage was not a happy one – as the good Doctor Foreman was only too willing to report in his notes. A son was born to her in ’93, followed by a short-lived daughter. She was by now, though, a regular at court, as was the dramatist – and so the speculation begins. Into the picture comes a younger paramour, one William Herbert, whom Shakespeare also adored. Some have suggested it was a triangular tryst, others that the Bard was insanely jealous of Emilia’s relationship and of being usurped in her affections. All rumour, mind you, but where there’s smoke there may well be fire. William Herbert also figures in his sonnets.
We have no idea how all this panned out, or if indeed there really is any substance to the allegations at all. The next we know she is publishing her poetry. And again, after that, little is to be found. It has been discerned her husband departed this earth and she tried to support herself by running a school, but that all came to zilch when she became involved in legal action over some unpaid rent money, causing a fall from grace. In 1630 she sued a relative of her deceased husband’s over more owed monies. She died in 1645, being described on the death certificate as a pensioner.
Summing up, it would be a strange kettle of fish to discover that the hand that held the quill penning some of WS’s works was in fact that of a woman. But I reckon we’ll never conclusively know that, as is the case with the other pretenders. But whatever she may or may not have been to William S, I am of the opinion that as a flag-bearer for the cause of women, in a period that decidedly was a man’s world, she deserves credit and greater fame – as opposed to infamy. There is more than a tinge of mystery with this woman who, through her verse, attempted to give advice to her gender about loyalty to each other and the rampant male misogyny of the time. Here’s her take on my gender:-
Forgetting they were born of woman, nourished of women, and that if it were not by the means of women they would be quite extinguished out of the world, and a final end of them all, do like vipers deface the wombes wherein they were bred.
And here’s a taste of her work in ‘Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum’ :-
Thrice happy women ! that obtain’d such grace
From Him whose worth the world could not containe,
Immediately to turne about his face,
As not remembering his great griefe and paine,
To comfort you, whose teares povvr’d forth apace
On Flora’s bankes, like showers of April’s raine :
Your cries inforced mercie, grace, and loue,
From Him whom greatest princes would not moue.
To speake one word, nor once to lift his eyes,
Vnto proud Pilate—no, nor Herod, king,
By all the questions that they would deuise,
Could make him answere to no manner of thing:
Yet these poore women, by their piteous cries,
Did mooue their Lord, their louer, and their king,
To take compassion, turne about and speake
To them whose hearts were ready now to breake.