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Revealing Shakespeare’s Dark Lady and Her Texas Relatives

Nuts to you: Nick Canon as Will Shakespeare and Anne Armenta as Emilia Bassano in The Lady Revealed. Photo by Justin Curtin.

The University of North Texas just presented The Lady Revealed, a play about the Dark Lady of the sonnets. She’s the mysterious lover who appears in William Shakespeare’s poetry. As KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports, one North Texas couple has a personal interest in her identity.

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“Evil men — like vipers — do deface the very wombs wherein they were bred. It was by men such as these that Christ, his apostles and prophets were dishonored.”

These are the words of Emilia Bassano. She published them in a book in London in1611, titled Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail God, King of the Jews). The volume features Bassano’s account of her conversion from Judaism to Christianity (hence, the title). It’s a notable volume because it also includes several poems extolling great women as well as Bassano’s early, one might say pre-feminist defense of women against men.

But Bassano’s book is also noteworthy, some scholars believe, because she is specifically defending herself – against William Shakespeare.

Bassano was the young, kept mistress of the man who would become the patron of Shakespeare’s theater company, Henry Carey, the Lord Chamberlain (and Queen  Elizabeth’s cousin). When Emilia became pregnant, Carey had her married off to Alfonzo Lanier, a court musician — who also knew the Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s other patron, the man to whom he dedicated his poetry. With all these connections, it’s extremely likely Bassano knew Shakespeare — and may have been his lover, the famous ‘Dark Lady’ of the sonnets. Printed in 1609, Shakespeare’s sonnets depict a bewitching and unfaithful woman – he calls her “my female evil.” And two years after the poems were printed (some believe, without Shakespeare’s permission), Bassano published her fiery attack against men slandering women.

Was it, perhaps, a pointed reply, a specific, personal counterattack?

Pat Bassano is a 70-year-old banker from Paris, Texas. He says that several months ago, Andrew Harris called him. “And he asked if I was aware that my great-great-aunt, Emilia Bassano from England, was a mistress of William Shakespeare. And I told Andy, ‘That’s news to me.’”  

That’s right. There are relatives in Texas of the woman who may have been Shakespeare’s adulterous lover. Andrew Harris is a UNT theater professor and the former chair of SMU’s theater department. He’s been developing a play about the Dark Lady called The Lady Revealed. (The play ran last weekend at UNT and is currently under consideration as a workshop for next season at Theatre 3.) Harris was researching the Bassano family when he found a London website for a Peter Bassano. Harris says when he spoke to the British Bassano, the subject of American relations came up. “He said, ‘By the way, I have relatives in Texas.’ He didn’t know much more than that, so I started looking around and found a Pat and Julie Bassano in Paris, Texas.”

All these Bassanos – the ones in England and in Texas – descend from six brothers. They were Italian Jewish musicians whom Henry VIII brought to England in 1540 to play for his court. Emilia Bassano was a daughter of one, and as an Italian Jew, Emilia likely fit Shakespeare’s description of his black-haired, black-eyed lover — the ‘Dark Lady.’ What’s more, in sonnet 128, the poet describes her playing music. We don’t know for certain if Emilia played an instrument, but centuries later, music still runs in the family: In England, Peter Bassano is a prominent trombonist, conductor and recording artist.

Julie and Pat Bassano with Andrew Harris, attending The Lady Revealed

As for the Texas Bassanos, Pat has an old family genealogy prepared by London’s College of Arms. He describes it as a “long scroll” — with his notes on it saying his grandfather copied the original document in 1892.

While Emilia doesn’t appear on Bassano’s family scroll, some of her uncles do, some of the original six brothers. In 1850, descendants of one of the uncles emigrated to America. Their carriage-wheel business in Manchester,  England, had failed because of a country-wide depression. So they came to Paris, Texas, and eventually bought land and built a grist mill. They were Pat Bassano’s great-great-grandparents.

Emilia Bassano has figured in plays about the Dark Lady before this. In fact, some scholars argue she was the inspiration for some of Shakespeare’s liveliest female leads, notably Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Her name is also that of Iago’s wife in Othello, while Bassanio is a name Shakespeare added to the Italian characters in The Merchant of Venice — it doesn’t appear in his source material.

In order to avoid any possible competition or duplication of effort with other would-be playwrights, Andrew Harris wrote Emilia’s story using the investigations of A. L. Rowse as his main storyline. Rowse was the British historian who first claimed Emilia was the Dark Lady — he’d been researching the diary of Simon Forman, a prominent Elizabethan astrologer who wrote one of the rare accounts of attending a Shakespeare play in the 1590s.

It turns out, Forman also drew up a birth chart for Emilia Bassano and, as he did with a number of his female clients, tried to bed her. He describes Emilia as flirtatious and frustrating (he didn’t get anywhere with her). It’s  the same tormenting quality, Harris notes, that Shakespeare ascribes to his Dark Lady.

But if Emilia Bassano is a figure of some contention, Rowse was outright contentious. He grew up poor, the son of illiterate clay-pit workers, yet he managed to climb to the top of Oxford University’s academic ladder. To the end of his long life (he died in 1997 at the age of 93), Rowse firmly believed he had solved all four problems presented by Shakespeare’s sonnets: when they were written, who was the “Fair Youth” some of the poems are addressed to, who was the ‘rival poet’ Shakespeare mentions and, of course, the identity of the Dark Lady. Rowse dismissed any contradictory opinions — particularly if they came from literary scholars and not historians like himself.

 

Jake McCready as A. L. Rowse and Paul Vaughn as John Sparrow. Photo by Justin Curtin.

Harris says that “Rowse had a low opinion of the literature faculty. He called them all ‘third-raters.’ Which, of course, didn’t help when they found a few errors. They were on his back immediately.”  

In his eagerness to announce his find, Rowse may have misread a few words in the often-difficult-to-decipher Elizabethan handwriting. People still disagree with his conclusions, still offer new candidates — last year,  “Lucy Negro,” an African brothel owner was proposed as the Dark Lady.

But Emilia remains a leading contender. Whether she was Shakespeare’s mistress or not, she was a remarkable woman. She was the first non-noblewoman to publish a book of poems in the English language, the first to identify herself as a poet.

And she makes for a colorful, even scandalous ancestor.

 “Well, we’ve given that some thought,” says Pat Bassano. “She was kind of a wild girl back in her younger days. But you know, her dad died when she was 7, her mom when she was 17. And so she’s out on her own and apparently was an aggressive and intelligent lady.”  

And perhaps, the Dark Lady who tormented England’s greatest author.

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The first four ‘Dark Lady’ sonnets, # 127-130, are some of Shakespeare’s more famous poems.

Shakespeare never actually uses the term ‘dark lady,’ but it arose because of his repeated treatment of his lover’s black hair, black eyes and dusky skin color (and the term distinguishes this sequence from his earlier poems addressed to the “Fair Youth”). Shakespeare plays off the Petrarchan sonnet tradition of idealizing his lover as pure and noble by emphasizing, instead, her physical reality, her less than conventional ‘beauty’ – and turning those into favorable aspects.

But then, he also twists them into accusations (“In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds” – #131). As the child of Italian Jews, Emilia Bassano probably fit the physical description (there is only one, possible, disputed portrait of her by Nicholas Hilliard). Sonnet #128 describes Shakespeare’s lover playing the ‘virginal,’ an early harpsichord. Although Bassano was the daughter of a court musician, there is no conclusive evidence she played the virginal. The Bassanos, for instance, actually specialized in brass instruments.

It’s characteristic of the entire ‘Dark Lady’ sequence that we shift immediately from that erotic vision of Shakespeare’s lover swaying and ‘tickling’ the keyboard to sonnet #129, which is one of the bitterest ‘love’ sonnets ever penned. That’s made doubly so when one understands that “spirit” could be Elizabethan slang for “semen” and “hell” for vagina.

127

In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name;
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame:
For since each hand hath put on Nature’s power,
Fairing the foul with Art’s false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland’ring creation with a false esteem:
Yet so they mourn becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so.

128

How oft when thou, my music, music play’st,
Upon that blessed wood whose motion sounds
With thy sweet fingers when thou gently sway’st
The wiry concord that mine ear confounds,
Do I envy those jacks that nimble leap,
To kiss the tender inward of thy hand,
Whilst my poor lips which should that harvest reap,
At the wood’s boldness by thee blushing stand!
To be so tickled, they would change their state
And situation with those dancing chips,
O’er whom thy fingers walk with gentle gait,
Making dead wood more bless’d than living lips.
Since saucy jacks so happy are in this,
Give them thy fingers, me thy lips to kiss.

129

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action: and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad.
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

130

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.

  • sagan22

    I suggest if you would like to see another version of who the Dark Lady was…Visit the Caesar’s Messiah Web site.