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“Let us have our liberty again”: Emilia Bassano's lives in fiction

This essay was first published by The Attic On Eighth in July 2019, edited by Olivia Lindem. I have attempted an intersectional analysis of the fiction surrounding Emilia Bassano, but acknowledge the limits of my own positionality and received knowledge.

Image: Jasmin Savoy Brown as Emilia Bassano in TNT original series 'Will'

The dark-haired, olive skinned lady of Nicholas Hilliard’s 1593 miniature portrait stares directly at the viewer, her curls framing strong, wide features and her eyebrows plucked into painstaking lines — the “black wires” lusted-after in Shakespeare's sonnets. Looking at her mouth, it is difficult to tell what she is thinking: is there a small smile playing about her painted lips, a witty wryness half- captured by the painter? Or is she expressionless, disapproving, even belligerent within her corseted prison? Her features are attractive, yet not openly seductive, though we presume sex and seduction were her only currency in the world of the Elizabethan nobility. Her nose is Romanesque, her skin dark. In Elizabethan England, a country Protestant to the point that other religious practices were punishable by death and favouring muted and submissive feminine gender presentation despite its queen, she sits confidently, beautifully, outside the Eurocentric beauty standards that still plague us all today. And yet she made it to that seat and to the court at which Hilliard painted miniatures, tiny portraits to be passed between the pockets of nobles, perhaps tokens of love, social advancement, or lust.

Who was she, and why haven’t we heard of her till now?

This image of an anonymous woman is now believed to portray Emilia Bassano Lanier, an Italian immigrant (likely to be of Sephardic Jewish heritage) to Shakespeare’s England who performed as part of a family of musicians at Elizabeth I’s court. Mistress to Lord Hunsdon — an illegitimate son of Henry VIII and the Lord Chamberlain who would go on to become Shakespeare’s patron — hers was an enigmatic, mysterious life full of sparkling contradictions that seem to lie just slightly out of history’s reach.

That’s not to say she doesn’t live on in ambiguity, a silhouette flitting through the writing of

her contemporaries and a feminist firebrand in her own poetry collection, Salve Deus Rex

Judaeorum. Here, I’ll explore her life in fiction through three drastically different representations: Shakespeare’s ‘dark lady’ sonnets, thought to draw upon his relationship

with Bassano, Morgan Lloyd Malcom’s 2018 stage play Emilia, and Sandra Newman’s latest

novel The Heavens, “a story of love complicated by time travel.” In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, the speaker inverts the conventional poetic blazon to rhapsodise his mistress’ real beauty rather than a poetic (and whitewashed) ideal: “If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; / If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head."

Here, it is the subject’s actual features which are blazoned, her darker skin tone contrasted with the “coral”, “roses,” and “sun” of Elizabethan — and excessively white — beauty standards. Through the repeatedly antithetical structure of the lines, she is presented as real and (in the Eurocentric eyes of the time) imperfect, yet vastly more beautiful than accepted idols to the speaker, whose final couplet emphasises his earthly lover as a person of agency and beauty more true and “rare” than the universally WASPish muses addressed in earlier Petrarchan poetry, who Shakespeare disdains even to compare her with (hurrah for some largely non-comparative celebration of female beauty): “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare.”

Here, the adversative conjunction signals a tonal volta from seeming dismissiveness to the

hyperbole of traditional love poetry expected from the sonnet form; “by heaven” elevates

the vows of the speaker and the beauty of his love without denying that his mistress is human, the eleventh syllable it provides simultaneously ensuring that even the implied

harmony of the closing rhyme is undercut by imperfection. While we will never know the

identity of Shakespeare’s ‘dark lady,’, or indeed whether she was more than a fictional

creation, we can be certain that he knew Emilia Bassano, and that her names at least

provided ample creative inspiration; think of Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice, whose

name appears nowhere else in literature —and who appears in a play centring around Jewishness, othering and life in the Italian city-states, one which addresses the rule of mercantile Christian patriarchs and its effect on those born outside this dominant identity grouping.

Though Emilia is much more than a cipher for themes of feminine beauty and sexual

intrigue, it seems improbable that she is not in some way referenced, particularly in light of

the conventions of poetic discourse amid Elizabethan literary circles, where the ribbing,

admiration, and defamation of peers and contemporaries via published poetry was not just

commonplace but practically epidemic. In Sonnet 128, the woodwind instruments Emilia

played professionally are alluded to in sexual innuendo, a further example of her potential influence on Shakespeare's sonnet cycle.

Her influence is even more evident in the light of her further influence on

Shakespeare’s works: Emilia is the most-frequently-used name for his female characters, appearing in The Comedy of Errors, Two Noble Kinsmen, Othello, and The Winter’s Tale; and all these Emilias are vociferous and powerful, untameable and capable of plot-defining restorations and destructions, of both motherhood and rage. In Sonnet 127, “my mistress’ eyes are raven black” and Blackness described as “beauty’s successive heir.”

While I’m not a fan of the age-old Shakespeare authorship debate, I know that if I were, I’d

be turning my attention to Emilia’s shadow presence in his works, and her uncanny links to

Shakespeare’s world-encircling knowledge. In Othello, an extant painting of an African

noble is described — one which existed only in the tiny corner of Italy where Emilia Bassano was born, and which we know she must have seen. Consider also his preoccupations with shrewishness, Jewishness and Italy itself: locations and traditions are described accurately, with the Bergamask dance of the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream directly referencing cultural in-jokes of 16th century Napoli that an untraveled working class Englishman would be highly unlikely to know.

It is the character Emilia who, in Othello, delivers these unabashed statements with perfect

rhetorical balance, reading like a feminist companion piece to Shylock’s impassioned “Hath

not a Jew eyes?” in The Merchant of Venice, which ends with a similar couplet of

warning, reminding his tormentors that they simply teach their victims how to revenge:

“But I do think it is their husbands' faults

If wives do fall: say that they slack their duties,

And pour our treasures into foreign laps,

Or else break out in peevish jealousies,

Throwing restraint upon us; or say they strike us,

Or scant our former having in despite;

Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace,

Yet have we some revenge. Let husbands know

Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell

And have their palates both for sweet and sour,

As husbands have. What is it that they do

When they change us for others? Is it sport?

I think it is: and doth affection breed it?

I think it doth: is't frailty that thus errs?

It is so too: and have not we affections,

Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?

Then let them use us well: else let them know,

The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.”

As history scholars turn their interest from Shakespeare and Jonson to their more

overlooked and underrated female counterparts, public interest in Emilia has begun to

flourish, leading to a slow but steady increase in media surrounding her. Morgan Lloyd

Malcom’s play Emilia tore onto the Globe stage in late 2018 to immediately positive

reviews and feminist fervour, introducing generations to an accurate yet tongue-in-

cheek portrayal of early modern England and Emilia Bassano as a Tudor icon of

intersectionality for our times. Although bursting with good humour and righteous rage,

both the eponymous heroine and Lloyd Malcolm’s play itself sometimes feel a little too

convenient: though Emilia is asked “where she’s really from,”, her Blackness occasionally feels secondary to her symbolic role as “convincing symbol of exploited women through the ages", leaving minimal story space for the complexities of her experience as a working-class person of colour and faith who managed to achieve social and financial stability in racist, patriarchal and theocratically Protestant Elizabethan England, not to mention how she used her voice to her advantage at a court both hostile towards and fascinated by her foreignness and femininity.

In celebrating Emilia’s relatability as a sort of Elizabethan everywoman representative of 21st century struggles, there is a sense that we lose some of the complexities of her personality and history, particularly as the possible friend and mistress of William Shakespeare and his patrons Lord Hunsdon and the androgynous, closeted Earl of Southampton. That said, Lloyd Malcolm undoubtedly succeeds in reviving Emilia with a powerful and eloquent voice, her final speech echoing through the crowd as a demand never to be forgotten or exploited by the patriarchy again: “let’s burn the fucking house down.”

In Sandra Newman’s novel The Heavens, Emilia’s complex world is drip-fed to the audience in strange, beautiful detail, just one important facet of an intricately crafted story

interweaving past, present and alternate futures like glimmering cloth-of-gold thread:

“She’d danced under the eye of Elizabeth, an onyx head among fair heads. She had danced, and the pipers playing were the men of her childhood, her onyx-headed cousins.” Reading the novel, I felt her precarious and at times controversial life amongst Southampton’s coterie as if it was being performed with sweat and fury around me; I was utterly held, with Newman’s prose radiating off the page to capture me in the simultaneous decadence and despair of Emilia’s life.

However — and here I add a potential spoiler warning, though I’m not sure it would be

possible to spoil the many twists, turns and, trapdoors of The Heavens— the Emilia of

Newman’s novel deviates dramatically from her true historical path towards the end. While

the climactic death she is given is wrenchingly beautiful and written with ambitious

panache; as Matthew Keeley writes in his review, “entire books I’ve known possess less

originality than one of [Sandra Newman’s] tweets”; Newman’s brilliant revisionist denouement fails to acknowledge her immense capacity to survive: Emilia outlived every one of her purported and confirmed lovers, going on to write her own eminently feminist poetry and die of old age at seventy-six, more than double the average life expectancy for women of her time, especially those who conceived.

Where Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Emilia is neat, convenient, modern — but gloriously

celebrated for her fire and intellect – Newman’s blisteringly truthful portrait of “Albion”

takes Emilia beyond the sonnets but suddenly veers away from history; a bold choice, but

one which many readers might not realise is far from Emilia’s impressive truth. In her poetry collection Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, Emilia Bassano Lanier cleverly buries feminist gems between layers of biblical storytelling, her title plainly framing her own God as “King of the Jews” lest Elizabeth readers forget which people he is said to have chosen as his agents on earth. It is only fitting to end with a quote from the [dark] lady herself, free of analysis and commentary as she never was in life:

“Then let us have our liberty again,

And challenge to yourselves no sovereignty.

You came not in the world without our pain,

Make that a bar against your cruelty;

Your fault being greater, why should you disdain

Our being your equals, free from tyranny?”


Billington, M (2018). The Guardian, (accessed 23/7/19)

Keeley, M (Accessed 23/7/19)

Lanier, E, ed. Woods, S. (1993) The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer: Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum.

New York: Oxford Univ. Press

Malcolm, L.M (2018). Emilia. London: Oberon Books

Newman, S (2019), The Heavens. New York: Granta

Shakespeare, W. ed. Brooke, T (1936). Shakespeare's Sonnets. London: Oxford University Press.

Shakespeare, W (1916). The Merchant of Venice. London: Arden

Shakespeare, W. ed. Honigmann, E A. J. (2014) Othello. London: Bloomsbury Publishing

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