For those who do not know of Emilia (or Aemelia) Bassano Lanier, I recommend Martin Green’s essay, “Emilia Lanier IS the Dark Lady of the Sonnets,” which gives convincing evidence that she is the elusive Lady. Apart from finding a match between the description and temperament of Emilia Bassano and the girl in “Shakespeare’s” Sonnets, Green’s main thrust is that the word “basané” or “basanée,” according to Randle Cotgrave’s Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), means “duskie, swart, blackish, of a tawnie hue; also, smutched, bedusked." It was used in Montaigne’s Essais in the 1580s to explain that natural beauty need not be “fair” but can be “more," from the Italian moro, black or dark-haired. The Italian basano and basana had the same “dark, tanned or dirty” meaning. “Basan” or “bazan” was also a 16th-century leather tanning term in both Italian and English. Emilia’s family name had several forms, including Bassano, Bassany and Bassoni. Bassany-basanée is the sort of wordplay that the author of the “Shakespeare” plays loved. Emilia’s name, by definition, makes her a “femme basanée” – though her family origins lay not in France but in northern Italy, specifically the Veneto region.
A passionate and unsettling love affair between Emilia and the author of the Sonnets raises the question of the identity of the author. Relevant to this is the date of authorship. The best evidence shows that the Dark Lady Sonnets were written in the period 1591-95, indicating that the love affair started during this time.1
It is important to sketch certain established details of Emilia’s biography. She was born out of wedlock in 1569 to Margaret Johnson and Baptista Bassano, one of the numerous Venetian Bassano family (as above, Bassani or Bassany), many of whom worked in London as musicians for the Tudor and Jacobean courts and the theatres. Their family crest included the mulberry tree and silk moth whose Italian translation, “mora," means both “moth” and “moor” and in heraldic terms can be interpreted as a pun on their Mediterranean appearance. Much that is known about Emilia comes from the diaries of Dr. Simon Forman, a physician-astrologer whom she first consulted in 1597. She had black hair, black eyes and was strikingly beautiful. She was educated and musical. She was high-minded and fickle. She was a “lover of rank” and reputedly a courtesan. She was famously the teenage mistress of Sir Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, the Lord Chamberlain, 45 years her senior, who kept her in splendour for several years. To avoid scandal, in October 1592, Hunsdon married her off, pregnant, to her musician cousin Alfonso Lanier whereupon she lost her privileged position in court circles. The marriage was unhappy. She tried over time to be re-accepted into the houses of the nobility. Aged 41 in 1611, she published a series of her own spiritual poems called Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. She was exotic, intelligent, ambitious and determined at a time when the ideal of female beauty was fair-haired and temperamentally compliant. Simon Forman, who found her fascinating, tells us a very odd detail about her. She had “a wart or mole in the pit of the throat or near it."
So, who is the writer of the Dark Lady sonnets? There is no documentary evidence that William Shakespeare was connected with the London theatres before December 1594, leaving him little time to meet Emilia and write these Sonnets before the end of 1595.2 Quite apart from that, it seems very unlikely that such an ambitious girl would have looked twice at a minor actor without rank or fame, working for the theatre company whose patron was her ex-lover, Lord Hunsdon. So, if not Shakespeare, who?
Christopher Marlowe was living in London by 1587 and had already written his hit play Tamburlaine. It is highly probable that Emilia, mistress of the Lord Chamberlain who was responsible for the entertainment at the Tudor Court, would have known about the most famous playwright in town, perhaps admired his plays and would have met him in this context during the late 1580s. They could have met another way. By 1589, Marlowe was lodging in the Liberty of Norton Folgate, at that time little more than a village surrounded by fields where European immigrants, down-at-heel poets, and theatre folk rented rooms or leased properties. When Emilia’s mother died on July 7, 1587, Emilia inherited the unexpired leases on the family’s three Norton Folgate “messuages” or tenements that stood on the site of the former priory of St Mary Spital. There is evidence that she held on to one or more of the properties till at least Sept 6, 1599, when she buried her daughter Odilia at St Botolph’s, Bishopsgate, the local church for residents of Norton Folgate.3 With such a small population in the area, Marlowe and Emilia could easily have met as neighbours round about the time that Marlowe was writing Doctor Faustus.
Marlowe’s Faustus was entered into the Stationers Register on December 18, 1592. It was written sometime in the period 1588 – 1592, the most likely date being 1588-89.4 In Scene 10 of both the A-Text and the B-Text, an Emperor asks Faustus to conjure up Alexander the Great and his “beauteous paramour." He does so. In order to verify that they are the real thing, the Emperor says to Faustus (A-Text): “Master Doctor, I heard this lady while she lived had a wart or mole in her neck.” On examination of the “beauteous paramour," the identifying “wart or mole” is found – in the same location as Emilia’s “wart or mole” as described by Simon Forman!5
There is another contemporary literary reference associating Marlowe with Emilia in Robert Greene’s moral fable, A Groats-Worth of Wit Bought with a Millionth of Repentance, printed just after Sept 20, 1592. In the first part, a character called “Lucanio” is taken to meet a “beauteous” Italian courtesan called “Lamelia," who seduces Lucanio with her musical skills. She then brings Lucanio to a state of emotional misery. If “Lamelia” represents Emilia Bassano, who is “Lucanio”? There are two pointers to Marlowe. In Greene’s fable, the character Gorinius presents Lucanio with a copy of Machiavelli’s works and suggests that he follows the wisdom therein. As is well known, Marlowe used Machiavelli’s theories to good dramatic effect and several of the characters in his plays follow Machiavelli’s “wisdom." Secondly, surely “Lucanio” is Christopher Marlowe, the translator of Lucan’s First Book, already written by 1592 but not yet presented at the Stationers Register.6 It appears that Greene is saying that Marlowe embarked on an affair with Emilia Bassano prior to September 1592.
If Marlowe did not “die” at Deptford on May 30, 1593, but instead went into exile in northern Italy, a love affair with the Dark Lady makes sense. Through Emilia’s family connections, Marlowe’s Italian destination comes into view. In the 1590s, Emilia’s Anglo-Venetian relatives had business connections in the Veneto region. Her musician uncles owned property in Venice, Borgo de Leon, and possibly Crespano, both villages just outside Bassano, a small sleepy town on the River Brenta, 40 miles north of Venice and 30 miles from Padua. Bassano was so well off the beaten track it would have made a good hiding place for a man who wanted to lie low for a couple of years.7
As the “Shakespeare” plays are peppered with references to a lady of Emilia’s name, appearance, behaviour and relatives (see post-script), these several strands support the view that Christopher Marlowe was not only the author of the Dark Lady Sonnets but also of the plays attributed to Shakespeare. This would explain why so many of the plays were set in the Veneto region of northern Italy.
* * *
Post-script: Evidence of Emilia Bassano’s relatives’ names in the “Shakespeare” plays
The “Shakespeare” plays are full of references to the Bassano or Bassany family. There are Amelias or Emilias in The Winter’s Tale, The Comedy of Errors and Othello. She can be found as Rosaline (R & J), Phoebe (AYLI), Rosalind (Love’s Labour’s Lost), Hermia (Midsummer Night’s Dream), Cleopatra; Katherina (Taming of the Shrew) and Cressida (Troilus and Cressida). They are all dark-haired, black-eyed, striking, and of tempestuous or wanton behaviour.
Emilia’s family name Bassan(i)o appears in the plays as do the first names of many of her relatives : Antonio (Twelfth Night, Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, The Tempest, Two Gentlemen of Verona); Bassanio (Merchant of Venice), Bassanius* (Titus Andronicus), Baptista (Taming of The Shrew), Lodovico (Othello). Isabella and Angelus (Measure for Measure & Comedy of Errors). Isabella was Emilia’s cousin. Angela was Emilia’s sister. In A Taming of A Shrew, (a possible version of The Taming of The Shrew, performed in 1593 at the Rose Theatre) there is an Aemilia and Alfonso. This list does not include Emilia’s cousin, Mark Antony, as his name represents a historical figure.8
*Bassanius is also the Roman name for the town of Bassano del Grappa.
© Maureen Duff, August 2011
Thanks to Dr. W. Anderson and Peter Farey for their invaluable comments.
Maureen Duff was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and was educated at the University of Glasgow (MA, English Literature and Philosophy). She has worked in the entertainment industry for many years, first as a theatrical agent, then as a casting director in films and television. She worked for Director Richard Attenborough on Closing the Ring and Director Danny Boyle on several films, including The Beach and 28 Days Later. Her filmography can be found on the imdb. She has won or been a finalist in several UK national magazine writing competitions, notably winning a trip for two to Hawaii for a short story entitled "Krakatoa, East of Java." She once cast As You Like It for the Northcott Theatre, Exeter. She lives and works in London.
1Hieatt, A. Kent, Hieatt, Charles W., & Anne Lake Prescott. 1991. "When Did Shakespeare Write 'Sonnets 1609?'" Studies in Philology, Vol. 88, No. 1 (Winter, 1991), pp. 69-109. The authors show that there are early rare words but no late rare words in the Dark Lady Sonnets 127-152, hence their claim for early composition, 1591-95.
2Shakespeare first appears connected with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in the Tudor court payment records of December 1594.
3The suggestion is that while Emilia was living first with Hunsdon in the Strand (1588 – 1592) and then after October 1592 with Alfonso Lanier in the parish of Aldgate, she still retained a financial interest in the Norton Folgate properties, as the purpose of “tenements” was to rent them to “tenants."
4Scholars’ opinions vary on the date of composition of Faustus. David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen, eds., Revels Plays (Manchester University Press, 1993), suggest 1588, due to topical references concerning Antwerp, Dutch fire-ships and the Duke of Parma. Dr. F. S. Boas suggests it was written in 1592, when its German Faustbuch source was translated into English, though manuscripts could have been in prior circulation.
5Sir Henry Carey was a successful military leader, hence the comparison to Alexander the Great. Regarding blemishes: according to John Lyly in his Introduction to Euphues: the Anatomy of Wyt (1578), blemishes such as moles were an indicator of special beauty. He tells us: “Venus had her mole in her cheek which made her more amiable: Helen her scar on her chin which Paris called cos amoris, the whetstone of love. Aristippus his wart, Lycurgus his wen.” In Faustus Text A, the line reads “a wart or mole in her neck." In Text B, it reads “a little wart or mole in her neck." This shows that the phrase was in the original text, no matter which version came first. Moles or warts also turn up as identification marks in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Comedy of Errors and Cymbeline. So far I have not been able to find them used in this way by any other English Renaissance playwright.
6Regarding the dating of Marlowe’s translation of Lucan’s First Book, some scholars prefer 1582, others 1592.
7Ruffatti, Alessio. 1998. “La Famiglia Piva-Bassano Nei Document Degli Archevi Di Bassano Del Grappa.” Musica e Storia (2 Dec. 1998). I have not read this essay but according to an article on the Laniers which can be found at www.rootsweb.ancestry.com, I understand that Dr. Ruffatti says that the Bassanos were called “Piva” while they lived in Bassano. They changed their name to that of their ancestral town only when some of them departed to live in Venice. Their silk moth and mulberry tree heraldic motif may be associated with the town of Bassano itself and may not be a reference to a former family occupation of working in the silk trade.
8The Bassano family tree can be found in The Bassanos by David Lasocki & Roger Prior (Ashgate, 1995).Emmerich Anonymous movie
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