Peter Bassano

Emilia Bassano - Shakespeare's Mistress?

When I wrote my letter to the Daily Telegraph in 1997 many English Literary scholars
were doing their best to nominate their own candidates for the Dark Musical Lady
of Shakespeare's Sonnets - even though anyone who cared to think about it
seriously must have come to the conclusion that Dr A. L. Rowse was correct
in his nomination of Emilia Bassano - "it is she!" as he said to me most emphatically.

In the intervening decade and a half further evidence, some  of it discovered by me gives further support to Emilia Bassano as Shakespeare’s troublesome girlfriend in the 1590s. In 2013 I was invited by BBC TV to take part Francesco da Mosto’s Shakespeare in Italy  [add link]
I was in very good company since Emma Thompson and Mark Rylance also took part in the programme. Here I am with Francesco on the bridge at Bassano  where Emilia’s father and uncles lived before moving to Venice and finally London in 1539.

da mosto

I hope to prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that the musician and poet, Emilia Bassano - my first cousin, twelve times removed - was the so called ‘Dark Musical Lady’ of the Shakespeare Sonnets, and as such, exerted an enormously strong and long lasting influence on the playwright, poet and actor, and his works.

I argue that many of the female characters in Shakespeare’s plays are based upon Emilia, the obvious ones bearing her Christian name (including a male version of it) these are Aemilius in Titus Andronicus, Emilia in The Comedy of Errors, Emilia in Othello, Emilia in The Winter’s Tale and Emilia in The Two Noble Kinsmen. I suggest that Emilia’s character, her broad and detailed classical education, fierce intelligence, quick wit, scalding tongue and mercurial temperament can be detected in Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew, in Rosaline in Loves Labours Lost, in Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in Beatrice in Much ado about Nothing, in Rosalind in As you Like It, in Cressida in Troilus and Cressida and as Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra.

In The Shrew, the name of Katerina’s father, Baptista, is also the name of Emilia’s father.Before she became Queen Elizabeth 1, she lived at Hatfield House. Baptista visited the young Princess Elizabeth on a least two occasions to provide strings for and technical advice on playing the lute.


What is unlikely to be a coincidence is the names of two characters who appear in the 1593 performance of A Taming of A Shrew,
(an alternative version of The Taming of The Shrew) at the Rose Theatre; the list of characters includes an Aemilia, an Alfonso,
the name of Emilia’s husband, they were married on 18th October 1592 at St Botolph’s Bishopsgate.

In the past year or so there have been two books published both of which staunchly hold the view that Emilia wrote the entire Shakespeare canon. I do not believe that to be the case, however, I do think that Emilia’s literary abilities and views had a huge influence on Shakespeare’s creativity.

multiple images

In 1995 David Lasocki and Roger Prior published The Bassanos: Venetian Musicians and Instrument Makers in England, 1531-1665, in which there is a chapter "Was Emilia the Dark Lady?", written by Professor Prior. Until Lasocki and Prior's book no one had really considered whether the Bassano coat of arms might yield any biographical or musical clues.

Bassano coat of arms

Here is the Bassano coat of arms painted for my father by a local heraldic enthusiast. As you can see there is no heraldic devise which makes it obvious that the Bassanos might be musicians. The Herald Fox-Davies is clear that this is not an English grant of arms, is it likely then that it dates from the 1481 in which the prior of the Holy Cross monastery gave some forested land to the Bassanos (or Pivas as they were known then) - did the forested land include mulberries and by implication silk worms?

Sylvestro di Ganassi's Intitulata Fontegara

The title page of Sylvestro di Ganassi's Opera Intitulata Fontegara (Venice 1535). Maggie Kilbey (Galpin Society) believes this to be a woodcut of the Bassano Brothers.

Shakespeare Chandos Portrait

The Chandos Portrait of William Shakespeare

Flanders Recorder Quartet: Bassano

Flanders Recorder Quartet: Bassano

Click the moth for music
Click the family moth to hear Capilla Flamenca and the Flanders Recorder Quartet performing Henry VIII's Pastime with Good Company from Opus 111 CD OPS 30-239

The Mystery of the Sonnets

Henry Wriothesley, Lord Southampton

Henry Wriothesley, Lord Southampton

For those of you that aren't familiar with this literary mystery I should explain that in a single collection printed in 1609 there are 154 Sonnets which read in sequence have been thought to be autobiographical. Shakespeare who in the sequence refers to "Will" a number of times introduces three further unidentified characters; a Patron, a Rival Poet and a Dark Musical Lady - with the Patron, Shakespeare and the Dark Lady involved in a triangular love relationship. Many scholars believe that the Patron and Rival Poet can be identified respectively as Henry Wriothesley, Lord Southampton and Christopher Marlowe, the playwright and government spy, murdered in Deptford, but when it comes to the identity of the Dark Lady there has until very recently been little agreement.

Christopher Marlowe

Christopher Marlowe

In 1973 in his inimitable fashion Dr Rowse announced to the world through the pages of The Times that he had discovered the identity of the Dark Lady at the Bodleian Library in the diaries of Simon Forman, the Elizabethan Astrologer. A number of eminent scholars refuted that Rowse had enough evidence to publish such a confident claim. In addition Stanley Wells noticed that Rowse had made two reading errors whilst translating Forman's handwriting, which didn't help his case. I think it true to say that opinion was broadly divided with very little academic support for Rowse's nomination. Roger Prior, Professor of English at the Queen's University of Belfast though was a supporter and thought it more than just a coincidence that in the two Venetian plays there is an Emilia in one and a Bassanio in the other and that Titus Andronicus has an Emilius and a Bassianus. But it was an heraldic and literary pun in Sonnet 150 and in the Somerset Herald's description of the coat-of-arms that clinched the matter for him. Most recently Michael Wood in his television series and book for the BBC In Search of Shakespeare seems in no doubt that Emilia is the Dark Lady.

Whether or not incontrovertible proof finally emerges to prove, one way or another that Emilia was or wasn't the dark lady one thing is certain. She was a fascinating lady. The daughter of Baptist and his common law wife Margaret Johnson she became one of the foremost women poets of her age, second only to Mary Sidney. In 1611 shortly after Shakespeare's Sonnets were published Emilia published her own collection of poems Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. In our time this collection has been championed as a pioneer in feminist writing by the academics of the English Departments of the American Universities.

Objets de splendeur

Anne Cuneo's French Novel on Emilia and Shakespeare

Emilia was a client of Simon Forman, she consulted him for astrological predictions in the same way that Elizabeth I consulted Dr Dee. Forman's diaries reveal much confidential information: she had lost her father when she was only seven and her mother when she was eighteen. After she was orphaned she was accepted into the household of the Countess of Kent in Cookham which is very likely where she met Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon the illegitimate son of Henry VIII (although this fatherhood is contested by some) by Anne Boleyn's sister Mary. This gave him a complex personal relationship to the Queen, a consanguinity that made him both cousin and half-brother and a powerful political appointment as Lord Chamberlain to boot. Hunsdon later became patron of Shakespeare's company of actors: The Lord Chamberlains Men and William Byrd dedicated a collection of pieces to him. Despite an enormous age difference Emilia became Hunsdon's mistress until 1592 when she became pregnant, she was hurriedly married off to poor old Alphonso Lanier. The son she bore was baptised Henry after his father and grand-father. Henry Lanier also became a musician joining the Kings Musick in 1629. It would take a constitutional historian to work out the hierarchy of this hapless young man's claim to the English throne.

Title page of the Sonnets

Title page of Shakespeare's Sonnets - T.T. are the initials of Thomas Thorpe, the publisher

Here are Shakespeare's own words on his adulterous lover, she is identified as dark in the extreme in Sonnet 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:

The bastard shame according with Emilia's unfortunate position in the days of life before birth control!

She is shown to be a player of the virginals in the next Sonnet 128:-

How oft when thou, my music, music play'st
Upon that blesséd 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;

There might have been as many as 26 paintings mentioned in Jeronimo Bassano II's will and so I had always thought there would be a portrait of Emilia Bassano awaiting discovery. If anyone deserved a right to discover it in modern times, that right should surely go to an actor/playwright. Tony Haygarth is just such, he has been an actor for forty years performing for all the major National companies and in recent years has been productive as a playwright too. You will probably recognise his face from various television films: Hornblower, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Bill, etc. and his distinctive Liverpudlian voice as that of Mr Tweedy in Chicken Run. He, like many actors was convinced by Dr Rowse and was moved to begin writing Dark Meaning Mouse, a three character play exploring the relationship between Emilia, Shakespeare and Forman. Whilst working on the play he investigated this Hilliard miniature known as Mistress Holland dated 1593 held in the V & A.

Hilliard Shakespeare
Emilia Bassano

Two portraits by Nicholas Hilliard - Shakespeare and his mistress?

Here are some of the pertinent points Tony Haygarth makes about it: It is the portrait of an elegant young woman of pale complexion with black hair and dark eyes. She is wearing a white bodice decorated with stags, winged insects and trees. There is also a "fleur-de-lis" to the right of the picture. As was the custom in Elizabethan times , the image is painted on the back of a prepared playing card, in this case the five of spades. In the C18 the painting was thought to be of Mistress Holland. In the C19 it became known as Elizabeth, Lady Russell. At first Haygarth thought it was Emilia's sister Angela who had married Joseph Holland, an antiquarian, but he realised that Angela had died in the 1580s. He then wondered if the two sisters had been confused in the C18 and the C19 identification of Lady Russell just an incorrect one. He concluded that it is a portrait of Emilia Bassano. He explains:

Under the magnifying glass I inspected the decorations on the white bodice described in the brochure as "bees, trees and deer". I was staggered to see that the silkworm moths of the arms were identical to the "bees" on the lady's bodice, the four front legs, the turned-out antennae and the double wings. The trees could certainly be mulberries. What of the deer, the deer were in fact stags, with one of their forelegs raised - in heraldry this is known as the stag trippant. The lord whom Alphonso Lanier (Emilia's husband) served at the siege of Rouen, in Cadiz, on the Islands Voyage to the Azores, and in Ireland was Robert Devereux Earl of Essex whose badge was the Stag Trippant. The fleur-de-lis in the right directs us to Emilia's husband whose family originally came from Rouen, where the symbol appears three times in "chief" in the arms of that city.
Peter Bassano