Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Who was Shakespeare’s Dark Lady?

William Shakespeare is 455 today – cause for national celebration. Except, we don’t actually know if he was born on April 23 1564, only that his birth was registered on April 26 1564, and it is reasonable to suppose he was born three or four days previously.

Assembling Shakespeare’s biography is an inexact science, based on a few surviving written records, and the content of his plays. We are lucky that most of his works have survived, and arguably this is more important that the identity and actions of one man in the late 16th and early 17th century. Yet there is an enduring obsession with who he was and why he wrote what he did. For example, were the sonnets inspired by real love affairs? If so, who were the lovers in question? Was the Fair Youth – to whom his most romantic sonnets were addressed – the Earl of Southampton? And who was the Dark Lady, the alleged inspiration for his darker, more overtly sexual love poetry (sonnets 127- 152). The object of his passion is a woman with black, wiry hair, and dark, dun coloured skin. This was not the conventional description of a beautiful woman at the time, when the ideal was pale skin and golden hair. Was she a real person, or a poetic convention?
William Shakespeare, Chandos portrait
(Wikipedia, Creative Commons)

The sonnets dedicated to this mysterious woman are anguished and passionate, and suggest that the poet is in the grip of a painful sexual obsession. Who might have inspired such writing? There is a long list of potential candidates, and new possibilities are still coming to light. For example, in 2013 Aubrey Burl, a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, suggested that the Dark Lady wasAline Florio, the wife of an Italian translator.

Other candidates include Marie Mountjoy, the wife of Christopher Mountjoy, a costume maker and Shakespeare’s landlord in Silver Street; Jane Davenant, wife to Oxford tavern keeper John Davenant, whose son William claimed to be Shakespeare’s son and Jacqueline Field, the wife of Stratford-born Richard Field who printed Shakespeare’s poetry. Very little is known about any of these women beyond the fact they would have come into contact with Shakespeare. Another possibility is Lucy Morgan, who is thought to have been one of Queen Elizabeth I’s ladies-in-waiting, and may also have been ‘Lucy Negra’, a prostitute. The name ‘Negra’ suggests that she was of African descent. (How and why she lost status so dramatically is not known.) In his 1977 novel ‘Nothing Like the Sun’ Antony Burgess suggests that Lucy Negra is Shakespeare’s muse, but her role is anything but decorous – both she and Shakespeare are infected with syphilis and the affair has tragic consequences for them both.

More conventionally, scholars have suggested that the Dark Lady must have been a female aristocrat, a woman with wealth and status. Mary Fitton (1578 – 1647) was a well-known lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth. She had affairs several men including with William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke. George Bernard Shaw makes Fitton the Dark Lady in his play ‘The Dark Lady of the Sonnets’ (1910). The most privileged of all possible Dark Ladies is Penelope Devereux (1563- 1607), who married Robert Rich, but had a notorious affair with Charles Blount, Baron Mountjoy, and eventually divorced Rich and married Blount in an unlicensed ceremony. Devereux had blonde hair, a point against her perhaps, but dark eyes, and was certainly an inspiration for other poets.

Only one candidate for role of Dark Lady was herself a writer: Aemilia Lanyer, one of the first women 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 number of aristocratic women, including Queen 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 only surviving example of a woman writing in this way at such an early date.

Portrait of lady who may be Aemilia Lanyer, Nicholas Hilliard
(Wikipedia, Creative Commons)

Lanyer was the illegitimate child of Jewish immigrant musicians who played at the Tudor court; her father died when she was seven. At seventeen she became the mistress of the Lord Chamberlain, Henry Carey; six years later she was pregnant and married off to a cousin, Alfonso Lanyer. A gambler and spendthrift, her husband spent her dowry in a year. Lanyer was a client of the astrologer and physician Simon Forman, who recorded her enquiries about summoning demons in his journal. Her life has inspired a number of novels, including my own ‘Dark Aemilia’ (2014) and the stage play ‘Emilia’ by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, showing at the Vaudeville Theatre, London (8 March – 15 June 2019) .

It's unlikely that we will ever know the true identity of the Dark Lady. But we can be sure of one thing: as long as Shakespeare’s plays are staged and his poetry is read, the speculation will continue.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Talking on the page

Britain Cab Car City Classic England Group

Stoke is one of those spread-out sort of places the Midlands specialises in, pedestrians aren't well catered for. And I don't drive. So when I go up there, I am often in a taxi. There is no half way house with the taxi drivers, they are either wildly cheerful or utterly lugubrious. Here is a recent conversation between a taxi driver and me. I'd just spend the weekend at my Mum's and called a taxi firm called Sid's to take me to the station. It was a Monday morning, average in every way, not overdoing the weather.

Taxi arrives.

Driver says traffic terrible and sticks ‘Sids’ stickers to side of car (?)

I ask him to help me take off my backpack and put it in the boot with my wheelie suitcase. He does this, not happy to be asked.

We get in the taxi.

I say something about the traffic, ask if many people are going to the station

Driver - You are my first station job this morning.

Me - Oh, weird, wonder why it’s so busy on a Monday then? I thought it might be people going off to London or something.

Driver - I’ve been doing my own jobs up till now.

Me - Oh?

Driver - The day is already ruined.

Me - Why is that?

Driver - I’ve been trying to sort out an M & S suit for my daughter’s wedding. And I had these tests at the GP surgery. They phoned me up today, said it was nothing to worry about, got to come in in a couple of weeks and have some other tests, and the wife is there, asking me questions, so I can’t hear what they are saying. Then when I ring off, she’s like, why didn’t you ask this and that? So I lost it completely, and I said, well next time I’ll get them to speak to you and not bother speaking to me, and threw the phone at her.

Me - Oh dear.

Driver - So that’s it. The thing is, it’s my wife’s birthday and we were going to go for a nice meal after we’d collected the suit. And now that’s all off, she’s deep in cleaning now, not going anywhere. There’s no going back now.

Me - When women do the cleaning instead of going out for lunch it’s normally a sign of protest.

Driver - It’s all ruined. She’s not speaking to me.

Me - Can’t you unruin it somehow?

Driver - There’s no going back.