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Emilia Lanier: The ‘dark lady’ of the Shakespearean era

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Emilia Lanier: The ‘dark lady’ of the Shakespearean era

Emilia Lanier (née Bassano) is considered the first female to become a professional poet in England. Her anthology of poems published in 1611 asserted her professional career as a poet, later regarded as a forward-thinking feminist writer.

Setting out to change her lack of historical representation, Emilia presents the life and career of Emilia Lanier on the stage, making its West End premiere at the Vaudeville Theatre. To celebrate previews of Emilia commencing on International Women’s Day, we take a look at the lauded writer for ourselves, presenting the life and career of Emilia Lanier, as well as her involvement with William Shakespeare and commenting on whether she really was the assumed ‘dark lady’ of Shakespeare.

All about Emilia Lanier

Early life

Emilia Lanier

Born Emilia Bassano, she was the daughter to Englishwoman Margaret Johnson and Italian Baptist Bassano on 27th January 1569. Growing up with the privilege to circle in Elizabethan courts after her father’s death, she garnered the attention of Henry Carey, Queen Elizabeth I’s lord chamberlain. As well as this, Carey was the master of entertainment for the royal household, who also served as patron for William Shakespeare’s acting company at the time; Lord Chamberlain’s men. Over forty years her senior, Bassano became pregnant by Carey in 1592, giving birth to a son, Henry.

However, Bassano caught the eye of others, notably Alphonso Lanyer, who she was married off to while courting with Carey. With such a complicated love-life, it’s no surprise that Emilia’s early life sparked proto-feminist thoughts, with the to-be poet thinking about all aspects of life through a female lens.

Early poetry career

Surrounded in the world of entertainment and being creative from an early age, Emilia became interested in poetry. Writing from her twenties, she was the first woman to produce a volume of poetry which would be read by the upper classes. Her first noteworthy poem was ‘The Description of Cooke-Ham’, printed in English in the 1610s. Using words to convey her compliments to Cookham House, the poem caught the attention of wealthy individuals.

The opening and closing lines indicate her praise to how she grew up:

“Farewell (sweet Cooke-ham) where I first obtained
Grace from that grace where perfect grace remained;
And where the muses gave their full consent,
I should have power the virtuous to content”

Continue reading the rest of ‘The Description of Cooke-ham’ here.

Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum

Emilia Lanier
Photo credit: Wikipedia (under CC 4.0)

Arguably Emilia’s greatest retrospective success came with her largest volume of poems; Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum translating to Hail, God, King of the Jews. Published in 1611 (the same year as the King James version of the Bible), the poems did not receive initial praise, and only nine copies were printed, of which five were completed. Providing religious commentary with a feminist stance, each part of the text is dedicated to female queens, countesses and ladies including Princess Elizabeth Stuart, Countess of Pembroke Mary Sidney and Anne of Denmark, wife to James I, then the King of England.

Setting the template for females writing about religion and a wider commentary on society, Salve Deus shows that Emilia longed for women to be free of masculinity, centuries before the feminist movement would gain traction.

Switching between quoting religious texts and arguing her point of view, Salve Deus has earned its place as an influential text in the Elizabethan period that began to place the voice of women in the centre of political and religious conversation.

Read the complete works of Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum here.

Rumours of the Dark Lady

Writing and living at the same time as William Shakespeare, it is often remarked that Emilia is the ‘dark lady’ that is described in Shakespeare’s sonnets, acting as the Bard’s muse. Although it is not certain which figure Shakespeare based the dark lady on, the diaries of 16th-century astrologer Simon Forman describe Emilia with similar alluring qualities that were attractive to men around her.

Later years

After Salve Deus was published, Emilia continued to write, but spent time with her son and his family, later becoming a grandmother to Mary and Henry Bassano. Not much is known about the finer details of her life, but it is known that Emilia was listed as a ‘pensioner’, passing away in 1645 at the age of 76.

Legacy

Paving the way for females to write poetry and make a career out of it, her legacy is unprecedented. However, writing at the same time as William Shakespeare in a male-dominated society meant her works would never be looked upon with the same rigour.

But, even though her life comes into the limelight as a result of Shakespeare, there’s no denying that Emilia Lanier was a literary genius, with Emilia putting her at the centre of her own story.

Interested in learning about the history of the West End? You’ll want to check out our beginner’s guide to Theatreland as well as productions based on past decades and events.