Shakespeare’s Dark Lady

15 Nov

The seductive Dark Lady who inspired some of Shakespeare’s most famous and explicit sonnets has remained a mystery for centuries. This mysterious woman is described in Shakespeare’s sonnets and so called because the poems make it clear that she has black wiry hair and dark, brown, “dun” coloured skin. What was to become perhaps one of the most famous poetic works of all time was a slim volume on publication in 1609, containing 154 poems over 67 pages, and the edition is now extremely rare: only 13 copies survive. But its influence has been all-encompassing, providing a template for language, for literature, for love, ever since. Recent years have seen the sonnets disseminated in ways that Shakespeare could never have imagined. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” is quoted 5m times on the internet. Apps have been created in which famous voices recite the poems, sonnets are tweeted, T-shirts are printed, and poetry that was once said to circulate only among Shakespeare’s “private friends” is now stored for ever in the cloud. But what remains one of the great mysteries of English literature is who, exactly, was the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s Sonnets? Did she even exist? And, if so, who was this tantalising woman with “raven” brows and black hair to whom Shakespeare addressed a string of overtly passionate and sometimes explicit poems? Scholars have debated the issue for decades — potential candidates include Aline Florio, wife to a translator, Mary Fitton, a lady-in-waiting, and “Black Luce”, a brothel-owner.

But for many, the chief contender is Emilia Bassano, an accomplished poet and musician, whom historian A L Rowse identified as the elusive Dark Lady in 1973. Bassano certainly seems to have been beautiful: a portrait, probably of her, by Nicholas Hilliard shows a composed, oval-faced young woman with bright dark eyes, an astutely intelligent expression and a hint of mischief about her. But she was much more besides. She was the first woman in England to establish herself as a professional poet, publishing a volume of original verse, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, in 1611, under her married name Aemilia Lanier. Moreover, her work has a strikingly feminist drive: dedicated to a collection of female patrons, it takes on Genesis, exonerating Eve of bringing “original sin” into the world and blaming this accusation on “evilly disposed men”. Bassano was born in Bishopsgate, London, in 1569 to Baptista Bassano, an Italian musician at Elizabeth I’s court, and his common-law wife, Margaret Johnson. Bassano’s family may have been Sephardic Jews. Aged seven, following her father’s death, Emilia was sent to live with the highly literate Susan Bertie, Countess of Kent, who gave her the sort of education generally bestowed on boys. Moving to court, she became mistress to Henry Carey, the Lord Chamberlain (patron of Shakespeare’s troupe), 45 years her senior; he kept her in style, enabling her to pursue her artistic instincts. At 23, she became pregnant with Carey’s child — a fact hastily covered up by marriage to her cousin, Alphonso Lanier. Her husband’s poor handling of money left her struggling when he died, at which point she opened a school. She outlived all the men in her life, dying at 76.

A couple of tantalizing connections also survive from the plays to indicate that Emilia Bassano is indeed the Dark Lady. The Merchant of Venice was written only a few years after the earliest sonnets. The chief suitor in the play is named Bassanio. Also notable is the character of Shylock, a Jewish father who is native to Venice, but is treated as an outsider. Shakespeare’s well balanced treatment of a Jewish antagonist was rather unique for the period. While his contemporaries reviled Jews or any other aliens for that matter, Shakespeare made his character sympathetic and human, while still keeping him a sufficient villain for his role in the plot. Even the name of Shylock is an enigma, derived from the Hebrew word Shallach meaning an abusive usurer. This is not found in the play’s source material nor would it have been commonly known, but is perhaps derived firsthand from someone who knew Hebrew. In Othello, Shakespeare’s other play taking place in Venice, the fiery character of Emilia gives an interesting monologue on how women are powerless in a man’s world except when using feminine wiles to get their way and how men then berate them for it. Several other similarities in Shakespeare’s heroines are peppered throughout his plays. Could all these be from a memorable liaison in his younger years with a lovely and fiery courtesan?

In 1611, Emilia published the proto-feminist tome called Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, a long poem on the women of the Bible with dedicatory letters to prominent women of the period. The piece also featured an angry letter accusing men of being ungrateful to the females in their lives. She writes that without women none of these powerful men would exist due to giving birth or being reared by women. Many sentiments in this letter echo Othello’s Emilia. Why in her long life did she choose to publish these works at this time? Could it be that she wanted to respond to a set of poems that did not present her in the best light? Though the work was not popular in her time, Bassano’s poems and thoughts have been championed by modern feminist thinkers and today she is considered one of the foremost female poets of the period. Given that she was a fellow poet, her connections with the court and Shakespeare’s company, Emilia Bassano is perhaps the most convincing Dark Lady candidate to date. However, the question of who the Dark Lady is an unsolved, controversial issue because of the insufficiency of background detail. Some believe that she might be of Mediterranean descent with dark hair and dark eyes of Greece, Spain, Italy and Southern France. Other scholars have suggested, given Shakespeare’s description of her dark, dun-colored skin and black wiry hair, that the Dark Lady might have been a woman of African descent. The enduring puzzle of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady remains one of English literature’s great mysteries.

2 Responses to “Shakespeare’s Dark Lady”

  1. Wee Jim November 15, 2020 at 2:50 am #

    “She writes that without women none of these powerful men would exist due to giving birth or being reared by women.”

    Did this inspire the exchange in Joe Orton’s Loot, perhaps: “Your own mother – She gave you birth,”
    “I’m supposed to thank her for that?”


  1. Bard Bits: Sonnet 18 (and then some) | Pam Webb - March 21, 2023

    […] Image: Ghost Cities (discusses the Dark Lady) […]

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