The Dark Lady Reflections
By Stuart Diamond
All Original Materials Copyrighted 2008
The last 27 sonnets of William Shakespeare are often referred to as the Dark Lady Sonnets. Though the actual identity of The Dark Lady remains a mystery, a leading candidate is Amelia Lanyer.
Notes on The Dark Lady Sonnets
Short Bio on Amelia Lanyer (from The Literary Encyclopedia)
Aemilia Bassano Lanyer (1569-1645) published a collection of verse, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum [“Hail God, King of the Jews”], 1611, which has gained considerable attention for its variety, quality, and proto-feminist stance. Lanyer may also be the first woman writing in English both to claim divine calling as a poet and to seek patronage through a community of intellectual women whom she praises and seeks to represent.
Aemilia Bassano was born in 1569 (the year of Spenser’s first publication), the daughter of court musician Baptista Bassano and his “reputed wife”, Margaret Johnson. Her father was a native of Venice, the youngest of several brothers brought to England by Henry VIII to enrich the music of the court, and may have been of Jewish background. Her mother was an Englishwoman with ties to families associated with the reformation wing of the English church. Baptista died when Aemilia was seven, and her mother when she was eighteen. At some point in her childhood she was educated in the household of Susan Bertie, the young Dowager Duchess of Kent, where she was exposed to standard renaissance humanist texts and ideas. Probably after her mother’s death, Aemilia became the mistress of the much older Lord Chamberlain, Henry Cary, Lord Hunsdon, Queen Elizabeth’s cousin. According to what she told the astrologer Simon Forman in 1597, “the old Lord Chamberlain kept her long and she was maintained in great pomp”, he “loved her well”, and she “had been favored much of her majesty [Queen Elizabeth I]”. When Aemilia became pregnant by Hunsdon in 1592, she was married to a musician cousin, Alfonso Lanyer (in October, 1592) and in early 1593 gave birth to a son, whom she named Henry.
Shakespeare’s sonnets were published in 1609. Lanyer's "Salve Deus Rex Judæorum" is published in 1611. Their affair, if it took place, occurred approximately 10 years prior. Thus it very possible that Amelia read the Sonnets before she published her poetry and that it may have had an influence on her writing.
The Dark Lady Reflections imagine what Amelia may have thought upon first reading and recognizing herself in Shakespeare's sonnets. The Reflections are divided into two columns. Shakespeare's sonnets appear on the left. Amelia's stream of conscious response – her internal dialogue to each sonnet - appear on the right. In the center apropos selections of Lanyer's poetry are inserted, perhaps acting as a bridge.
The Reflections cover a range of contradictory feelings, thoughts and insights (much like the sonnets). Some are a matter of fact, some angry and resentful. Others poetic and philosophical. The work briefly explores her background and put forth a rationale how born Jewish she becomes such an ardent feminist Christian. While The Reflections begin in a matter-of-fact style, they progress, becoming darker, more intense and rhapsodic. The reflections end with a sensual, erotic reverie to parallel the highly charged eroticism of Lanyer's writing on her relationship with Christ.
Also included are two poems. The Prologue, The Serpent's Bite, parallels Lanyer's "Eve's Apologie". The Epilogue , Cupid's Fall, parallels the last two Sonnets.