This short, illustrated book is a ground breaking study which provides the best explanation so far for William Shakespeare’s knowledge of Italian and Latin literature, of the court, and of his other creative achievements, including insights into romantic love and passion.
Shakespeare drew on the plots of some 37 Italian “novelle” (“little novels”) and Latin plays to write his own plays. Many of his best plays used novelle which had never been translated into English. Did he teach himself Italian or did someone help him?
The book also reveals the literary and personal accomplishments of Emilia Bassano-Lanier. Fluent in three languages, including Italian, and educated by two countesses, she was the former mistress of the Lord Chamberlain, Henry Carey, who was patron of Shakespeare’s company of players. She was one the first women to write a book of poetry in English and her inspiration and assistance provide a plausible explanation for some of Shakespeare’s remarkable accomplishments.
Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets are addressed to a “Fair Youth” (probably the young Earl of Southampton, to whom his two long narrative poems are dedicated and who also knew Italian), and a musical “Dark Lady”, with dark hair and dun coloured breasts, who is “the fairest and most precious jewel”.
Shakespeare’s Sonnets 135 and 136 privately expressed his anguish about their adultery and her unfaithfulness, making him “frantic mad”. When published in 1609 they provide one of the earliest examples in English of “revenge porn” (sexual images of individuals without their consent). Ten scholars now believe the Dark Lady of the Sonnets was Emilia Bassano-Lanier. Rightly or wrongly, many ladies of the court would have formed the same conclusion. By studying Emilia Lanier’s book of poetry, together with her 1610 preface, we understand the fury of her language, and her determination that men and good Christian women should “speak reverently of our sex.”
Having garnered patronage from successful women aristocrats, her book offers an intellectual construct grander than the “Me Too” movement. She champions Old Testament avenging women, praises New Testament saintly women and proclaims to all women “Then let us have our liberty again”. Rediscovered in 1974, she became a flag-bearer for feminists.
“They precariously circled an abyss around a deep complex civilisation”.
Many historical documents and official records throw light on the complex life of William Shakespeare. Yet few of them satisfy our curiosity about his inner life. His letters and private papers have not survived; and the characters in his plays are too vividly themselves to be taken as portraits of him. Human nature abhors this vacuum of information; and so it has become a common literary practice for authors to create their own preferred fictional Shakespeare.
Those, like Paul Kauffman, who want to get close to this elusive author often focus upon his Sonnets, in which he seems to speak so confidently and so personally to unknown yet intimate friends, as in Sonnet 104:
“To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Such seems your beauty still” …
That the sonnets may contain intimate personal details was hinted by the Elizabethan commentator Francis Meres who in 1598, after listing Shakespeare’s public books and plays, referred to “his sugred Sonnets among his private friends” – perhaps implying that the sonnets might never be published because they referred to private or secret affairs.
Somehow a manuscript of the sonnets was published just eleven years later, in 1609. Yet its text is hard to interpret. We do not know if some sonnets were omitted, or if names were removed from others. It is not clear in what order the poet wanted them read, or if the person (or imagined person) who speaks in one sonnet is the same person (or is speaking to the same person or persons) in the next sonnet.
Despite this, many or most readers detect a shadowy back-story behind the sonnets. It goes something like this. The person who speaks in the sonnets (and who may or may not be the “real” Wil Shakespeare) has two great friends. One, the “Fair Youth”, seems to be a young man of great brilliance and of intense (somewhat feminine) beauty, of which he himself is very proud. The poet promises to give him immortal fame (though in the printed version of the Sonnets he does not mention his name!) and also urges him to marry and beget children through whom his beauty may live on to posterity.
The poet’s other great friend is the famous musical “Dark Lady” (“dark” meaning that she is, unfashionably, black-haired, and perhaps also dark-skinned (at least by the very pink and white standards of Elizabethan England) – “if snow be white … thy breasts are dun”. This time the relationship is clearly sexual, seemingly adulterous on both sides, and gives rise to intense feelings, including guilt and jealousy. Then it seems as if the Fair Youth (younger, more handsome, and perhaps more high-born) also falls in love with the Dark Lady and takes her away from the poet – who is left disconsolate, yet, out of his great love for the young man, forgives him!
Even if this story is pure fiction, it surely suggests something about the circle of private friends among whom these sonnets circulated. And if the Fair Youth and the Dark Lady are real, then who were they? To finally name them might be to give them the immortality the poet promised.
The young man is certainly not a million miles from Shakespeare’s patron, the brilliant young Earl of Southampton, to whom in 1594 he dedicated his Rape of Lucrece, in terms reminiscent of the sonnets:
“The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end … What I have done is yours; what I have to do is yours; being part in all I have, devoted yours.”
That the Fair Youth was Southampton is a common assumption. But who was the Dark Lady?
In 1974 the literary scholar AL Rowse (in his book “Sex and Society in Shakespeare’s Age”) published sections from the case notes of Simon Forman, a kind of Elizabethan psychiatrist cum astrologer. In these, Forman describes consultations and a sexual affair that he had with a client called Emilia/Aemilia Bassano. (After marriage she became Emilia Lanier). She told him that in the 1590s she had been the teenage mistress of the elderly Henry Carey, Baron Hunsdon, who was first cousin of Queen Elizabeth and later the patron of Shakespeare’s company. Emilia’s father and uncles were court musicians, part of a family who had emigrated from Italy in the time of Henry VIII (probably from the village of Bassano del Grappa in the region controlled by Venice).
We know, independently of Forman’s case notes, that Emilia was a poet, one of the first English women ever to have a book of verse printed. Titled “Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail, God, King of the Jews”) it appeared in 1611; and in it she expressed some notable proto-feminist ideas. Emilia was one of the best-educated women in England, and seems to have spoken English, Italian and Latin. Some scholars have suggested she may also have had Jewish ancestry and some knowledge of Jewish liturgy and scriptures.
Among those Elizabethan persons whose lives have been recorded, Emilia Bassano is perhaps the best match for the role of the Dark Lady (and for other dark ladies in Shakespeare, like Rosaline in “Love’s Labour’s Lost”). We know that Shakespeare got many of his plots from Italian short stories (called “novelle”), some of which seem not to have been translated into English. Did Emilia translate them for him? Or teach him to read Italian? And was she the inspiration for some of his highly intelligent, well-read and strong-minded heroines. Paul Kauffman thinks so; and he has set out to imagine how she might have moulded the life and imagination of our language’s greatest poet.
“William Shakespeare … has twenty-some plays, 154 sonnets, and a couple of lengthy poems that centrally engage the madness and poetry, the hypocrisy and higher reason, of romantic love.”
– Cristina Nehring. 2004. “Shakespeare in Love, or in Context”. The Atlantic December 2004.
Whether or not they had collaborated or had a consummated sexual relationship, taken together, the corpus of William Shakespeare and Emilia Lanier’s work provide a basis for a modern understanding of the vast ocean of depth and complexity which we call “romantic love”.
Many people are moved by William Shakespeare’s plays, poetry and sonnets which consider ideas about romantic love. How did he have such insight? Germaine Greer and other scholars concluded that Shakespeare probably invented romantic love, in the modern sense of the term. Greer and nine other scholars think that Emilia Bassano-Lanier was probably the Dark Lady of the sonnets with whom he had an adulterous affair sometime after 1592  . Their knowledge and acquaintanceship with each other is almost certain, because of the small social circles of 1590s theatrical and poetic London.
Emilia Bassano, of Italian ancestry, was brought up by the highly educated Susan Bertie, Countess of Kent. When aged about 18 she became the mistress of Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon, who was 61, married with 14 surviving children. He was the first cousin of Elizabeth I of England and probably her half-brother, as his mother Mary Carey nee Boleyn had sexual relations with Henry VIII for some years  . Henry Carey was patron of William Shakespeare’s Theatre Company. In 1592 Emilia became pregnant and was married off to her cousin, Alfonse Lanier. He “dealt hardly with her, hath spent and consumed her goods”, and she had sexual relations with her physician Dr Simon Forman in 1597  . One year after Shakespeare’s book of sonnets was published, Emilia registered her own book of poetry, “Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, Hail God King of the Jews”.
Shakespeare’s obsessions with sex, sexual jealousy and romantic love, and the poetry of Emilia Bassano-Lanier, are explored in this book. In his own day Shakespeare first came to attention when a university-educated rival playwright described him as “an upstart crow, beautified with others’ feathers” like the crow in the fable by Aesop, who borrowed the feathers of more beautiful birds and tied them to his own tail. Shakespeare’s achievements can be partly explained by his frequent use of Italian “novelle” (short novels) and Latin histories for the plots of his most enduring plays. He expanded upon these stories and created characters of great psychological depth. He displayed genius and insight into how men and women spoke and thought, particularly women of the court. Such accomplishment is best explained by his falling in love with an articulate courtly woman. Shakespeare’s wife and daughters lived in Stratford-upon-Avon and were illiterate. He must have known and interacted with a woman or women like Emilia Bassano-Lanier to express his emotional angst in his sonnets, and to gain such plausible insights into how women think, act and speak. Emilia is the most credible candidate and often cited source for his sexual and romantic infatuation. She became a published poet in her own right. I conclude that Emilia Bassano or a woman like her, is most likely to have been one of his informants, and his muse.
One has to examine inferences in the sonnets, poetry and plays to assume a more familiar relationship. The alleged borrowings, correspondences, specialist knowledge and similarities between Lanier’s work and Shakespeare’s were sufficient for the Shakespearean director John Hudson to argue that she is the secret author of the entire Shakespeare cannon. His book is summarized in the audio “John Hudson's thesis, that Lanier was the author of Shakespeare's plays” under the Wikipedia entry for “Emilia Lanier”. A simpler and more likely explanation is that they knew of each other’s work and influenced each other’s writing.
Shakespeare’s sonnets were published in 1609. Some of them would now be considered “revenge porn”. The subject matter of those particular sonnets and the timing of their publication, provide an explanation for Emilia Lanier’s extraordinary outbursts in the Preface to her book of poetry registered in 1610. She railed against “men [who] like vipers deface the wombs”, against “their want of discretion …their unjust speeches”. In an intellectual construct grander than “Me Too”, she championed Old Testament avenging women, praised New Testament women saints and sought the patronage of successful independent women. Rediscovered in 1974, she became a flag-bearer for feminists.
Whether or not Emilia Bassano-Lanier was the Dark Lady of the sonnets, it is very likely that courtly women would have thought she was that person. My play “Shakespeare and His Mistress: Emilia and Wil” speculates how intelligent copying, learning and adapting earlier popular works, and inspiration from an educated woman or women, might partly explain Shakespeare’s genius. It is hoped that these academic and imaginative works provide additional enjoyment and insight into his sonnets and plays and her book of poetry.
Rowse, Arthur L. 1974, 1975, 1976, Lasocki D. & R. Prior 1995, Hughes, S.H. 2000, Wood M. 2005, Greene M. 2006, Weis, R. 2007, Bassano, P. 2016, Packer T. 2016, Greer G. 2016 cf. Speaight, R.1977, Holden A. 2000, Kauffman, Paul Richard 2017
Eagar Charlotte 2011. “Another Boleyn girl” The Spectator 13 March. Hudson J. 2014: 29
Rowse 1974: 100-101
Shakespeare’s most popular plays continue to be our greatest source of literature and inspire moving films. Up to half of all English people have read Romeo and Juliet (51%), ahead of Macbeth (47%), Midsummer Night’s Dream (42%), Hamlet (31%) and the Merchant of Venice (28%)  . Prior to the internet the sonnets were the most purchased of all Shakespeare’s publications. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Shakespeare’s most performed play – accounting for 7.1% of all Shakespeare productions, ahead of Romeo and Juliet (7%), Twelfth Night, Hamlet (each 5%), and Much Ado About Nothing (4.9%). A Midsummer Night’s Dream has a simple structure. The play is funny and relates how four lovers go out to the woods and get confused, because falling in love can have a magical element to it. It is intriguing to ask why these five or six plays are so successful. They are considered among the greatest works of literature, and are also extremely popular. How were they created? How original were they? Are they creations of William Shakespeare by himself, was he adapting earlier versions of the same stories, and were there essential co-contributors, as co-writers or as muse? 
There is a mystery about Shakespeare’s knowledge of Italian and Latin literature upon which he based many of his plays. He learnt basic Latin and read poetry by Ovid in Stratford-upon-Avon before leaving school at age 13 because of his father’s financial difficulties. It is just possible that he taught himself Italian, learnt about relevant Italian “novelle”, and then came to love those stories in order to transform them into plays. It is far more likely that he received help, from a bilingual educated poetic person such as Emilia Bassano-Lanier. They were both married. Public acknowledgement of a relationship or collaboration would have brought disgrace upon them both, at a time when women could only write non-religious poetry if their contribution was “Anonymous”.
YouGov poll of 1,660 in 2016. https://www.indy100.com accessed 22 April 2016
Evans, G. Blakemore. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. 2006; Kopf, Dan 2011-2014. Priceconomics accessed 22 September 2016