THE DARK LADY’S MASK

Mary Sharratt

A novel of Aemilia Bassano Lanier, the first professional woman poet in Renaissance England, and her collaboration—and star-crossed love affair—with William Shakespeare.

Aemilia Bassano Lanier is beautiful and accomplished, but her societal conformity ends there. She frequently cross-dresses to escape her loveless marriage and to gain freedoms only men enjoy—and then a chance encounter with a ragged, little-known poet named Shakespeare changes everything.

The two outsiders strike up a literary bargain: they leave plague-ridden London for Italy, where they begin secretly writing comedies together and where Will falls in love with the beautiful country—and with Aemilia,

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A novel of Aemilia Bassano Lanier, the first professional woman poet in Renaissance England, and her collaboration—and star-crossed love affair—with William Shakespeare.

Aemilia Bassano Lanier is beautiful and accomplished, but her societal conformity ends there. She frequently cross-dresses to escape her loveless marriage and to gain freedoms only men enjoy—and then a chance encounter with a ragged, little-known poet named Shakespeare changes everything.

The two outsiders strike up a literary bargain: they leave plague-ridden London for Italy, where they begin secretly writing comedies together and where Will falls in love with the beautiful country—and with Aemilia, his Dark Lady. Their Italian idyll, though, cannot last. Will gains fame and fortune for their plays back in London and years later publishes the sonnets mocking his former muse. Not one to stand by in humiliation, Aemilia takes up her own pen in her defense, and in defense of all women.

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  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Paperback
  • April 2017
  • 432 Pages
  • 9780544944442

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About Mary Sharratt

Mary Sharratt is the author of five critically acclaimed novels, including the Nautilus award-winning Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen. She is an American who has lived in Germany and England for more than two decades.

Author Website

Praise

“An exquisite portrait of a Renaissance woman pursuing her artistic destiny in England and Italy, who may—or may not—be Shakespeare’s Dark Lady.”Margaret George, best-selling author of Elizabeth I  

“Sharratt’s historical novel is not just a response to the enigmas surrounding Shakespeare’s sonnets but also an absorbing bildungsroman that grapples with strikingly contemporary issues of gender and religious identification, definitions and discrimination . . . At every turn the reader grows increasingly attached to this sympathetic and admirable heroine, whose weaknesses make her all the more convincingly human.”New York Times Book Review 

“Entertaining . . . Quite touching, a finale befitting a character who has spun many a tale without ever seeing a byline.”Washington Post 

“Atmospheric, well-researched, carefully plotted, this is an intellectual’s romance novel . . . . full-bodied and intelligent, and, like Shakespeare’s plays, chock-full of equal parts mirth and pith to please all.”Minneapolis Star Tribune 

Discussion Questions

1. Aemilia Bassano Lanier was the first English woman to aspire to a career as a professional poet by actively seeking a circle of female patrons to support her. She praises these women in the dedicatory verses to her epic poem, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, a vindication of women couched in religious verse. Her elegiac poem “The Description of Cookham” might be the first country house poem in the English language. Had you ever heard of Aemilia Bassano Lanier before reading this novel? What do you think of her poetry and why do you think she has remained so obscure? What did you learn about women poets in Elizabethan and Jacobean England?

2. When Aemilia travels to Italy, she is astonished that the commedia dell’arte features not only female stage actresses (in England, the female parts are played by male actors) but also female playwrights, such as the accomplished and successful Isabella Andreini whose sparkling comedies feature strong and resourceful heroines. How does this reflect the position of women in Italy versus England during this time period? What do you think of the Venetian courtesan’s remark that England is a nation that hates women? What role does Aemilia’s Italian background play in her literary aspirations?

3. What do you think of Aemilia as a character? How was her life shaped by the choices her father was forced to make? And how did her sister Angela’s tragedy influence Aemilia’s later decisions?

4. Despite being educated by high-minded Puritans, Aemilia, as a very young woman, embarks on an affair with the wealthy, powerful Lord Hunsdon, a man old enough to be her grandfather. Do you see Aemilia, orphaned and without money yet highly educated, as a victim of circumstance, a pragmatist, or an ambitious opportunist? What other choices existed for her?

5. In the novel, Aemilia’s changing fortunes are mirrored in her relationships with three different men: her affair with Lord Hunsdon; her arranged marriage to Alfonse Lanier; and her passionate, star-crossed affair with Will Shakespeare. Which of these men ultimately loves her the most and who has most deeply betrayed her? Which man does she most deeply love and whom does she most betray?

6. Aemilia’s life is also profoundly shaped by her relationships with other women as mentors, patrons, and friends. Discuss what impact Anne Locke, Susan Bertie, and Margaret and Anne Clifford have on her life. How would have Aemilia’s life played out without the support of other women?

7. Masks are a recurring theme in the novel. What different masks does Aemilia wear in the course of the story? What masks do the other characters wear?

8. Female cross-dressing is another major theme in The Dark Lady’s Mask, as well as in Shakespeare’s comedies and the work of other dramatists of the period. The notorious cross-dressing Mary Frith was the real life inspiration for Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker’s comedy, The Roaring Girl. Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina’s 1615 play Don Gil of the Green Breeches features the cross-dressing Donna Juana who constantly switches gender identities as she pursues her absconding lover. What do you think explains this popular fascination with women masquerading as men? In taking on the guise of Emilio, is Aemilia ultimately liberated or self-alienated? How does this relate to our postmodern notions of gender identity?

9. Aemilia is born in an era marked by religious warfare and intolerance, with Christians pitted against Jews and Muslims, and Protestants and Catholics against each other. When Aemilia finds her voice as a poet, she writes religious verse, the only genre considered acceptable for women in England at that time. The daughter of a Marrano, or secret Jew, she is raised by Puritans, and later befriended and supported by Margaret Clifford, a devout Anglican. Where do you think Aemilia’s spiritual loyalties lie? What does she truly believe in? Or do you think the religious poetry is just one more mask?

10. The novel opens with Aemilia seeking the advice of astrologer Simon Forman. Her servants practice folk magic and one of them is later accused of witchcraft. Later Aemilia’s beloved friend and patron Margaret Clifford reveals herself as an alchemist and prophet. Why do you think magic, divination, and visionary powers seemed to important, particularly to women in this time, even as the witch persecutions raged across Britain and Europe? Do you find it significant that the Weird Sisters in Shakespeare’s Macbeth represent the first portrayal of a witches’ coven in English literature? Why do you think the idea of women convening in secret to work magic seemed so terrifying to people in this era?

11. What do you think of this novel’s portrayal of William Shakespeare—his character, his motivations, his sexuality, and his feelings and behavior toward women? How do you interpret the deep gulf between the spirited heroines of his early comedies versus the much weaker and more poorly developed heroines who appear in his great tragedies, such as Hamlet? What do you think of the Dark Lady mythos—do you think the historical Shakespeare actually had a bittersweet affair with a mysterious, unknown woman that cast a shadow on his later life and work?

12. As a historical figure, William Shakespeare remains a cipher to a large degree because, despite his prolific output as a poet and playwright, we have so few documented facts about his life and about him as a man. Some of the facts we do have seem unflattering: he hoarded grain during a famine, neglected his wife in his last will and testament, and his daughters, Susanna and Judith, were probably illiterate. How does his status as a literary icon, arguably the greatest and most enduring writer in the English language, affect the way we want to interpret his character? Why do you think there are so many theories and debates concerning Shakespeare and the authorship of the plays? Do you think that cultural icons like Shakespeare are fair game for historical novelists, or should Shakespeare be left alone?

Excerpt

The Liberty of Norton Folgate, 1576

Papa was a magician. No one was ever more loving or wise than he.

Seven years old, Aemilia nestled by his side in the long slanting light of a summer evening. Friday, it was, and Papa was expecting a visit from his four brothers. This was a change in custom, for previously Papa had always gone to meet them at Uncle Alvise’s house in Mark Lane. But this evening was special, Aemilia thought, glancing at Papa’s expectant face. The air seemed golden, filled with blessing, even as from outside their garden walls came the cries of the poor lunatics locked up within Bedlam Hospital. From the west came the baying of the beasts held within the City Dog House. Drunken revelers sang and howled as they spilled out of the Pye Inn just down the road. Yet none of it could touch them here within the boundaries of Papa’s magic circle. Aemilia imagined his sweet enchantment rising around their family like fortress walls. This garden was his sanctuary, his own tiny replica of Italy on this cold and rainy isle.

The pair of them sat beneath an arbor of ripening grapes, planted from the vine Papa had carried all the way from Veneto. Around them, his garden bloomed in abundance. Roses, jasmine, honeysuckle, wisteria, and gillyflowers released their perfume while from within the house echoed the music of her mother singing while Aemilia’s sister, Angela, played the virginals. Beyond the flower beds, Papa’s kitchen garden brimmed with fennel, haricots verts, and rows of lettuce that they ate in plenty. Papa even ate the bloodred love apples, though Mother swore they were poison and she would not let her daughters near them. It was an Italian habit, Papa said. In Veneto, people prized the scarlet pomodoro as a delicacy.

Beyond the vegetable beds lay the orchard of apples, plums, and pears, and beyond that the chicken run and the small paddock for Bianca, the milk cow. Food in London was expensive, so what better reason to plant their own? Aemilia’s family never lacked for sustenance. While Papa was away, a hired man came to look after the gardens for him.

They dwelled on the grounds of the old priory of Saint Mary Spital, outside London’s city wall. The precinct was called the Liberty of Norton Folgate, Papa told her, because here they were beyond the reach of city law and enjoyed freedom from arrest. Some of their neighbors were secret Catholics, so it was rumored, who hid the thighbones of dead saints in their cellars. But Papa’s secrets lay buried even deeper.

When Aemilia begged him for a fiaba, a fable, a fairy tale, he told her of Bassano, the city that had given him and his brothers their name. Forty miles from Venice, it nestled in the foothills below Monte Grappa. Italian words, as beautiful as music, flew off his tongue as he described the Casa dal Corno, the villa where they had dwelled that occupied a place of pride on the oldest square in Bassano. A grand fresco graced the Casa dal Corno’s façade. Holding Aemilia close, Battista described the fanciful pictures of goats and apes, of stags and rams, of woodwinds and stringed instruments, and of nymphs and cherubs caught up in an eternal dance.

Aemilia turned in her father’s lap to view their own house that had no fresco or any adornment at all, only ivy trained to grow along its walls. Loud black rooks nested in the overhanging elm trees.

“Why didn’t you stay there?” she asked, thinking how lovely it would be to live in that villa, to be sitting there instead of here. She pictured white peacocks, like the ones she had seen in Saint James’s Park, strutting beneath the peach trees in that Italian garden.

Papa smiled in sadness, plunging an arrow into her heart. “We were driven away. We had no choice.”

“But why?” Her fingers tightened their grip on his hand. “It was so beautiful there. Bellissima!

Aemilia believed that Italy was paradise, more splendid than heaven, and that Papa was all-powerful. How he could have been chased away from his home, like a tomcat from her mother’s kitchen? Aemilia’s father and uncles were court musicians who lived under the Queen of England’s patronage. They performed for Her Majesty’s delight and wore her livery. Papa was regarded as a gentleman, allowed a coat of arms. Though the Bassanos of Norton Folgate weren’t rich, they had glass windows in their parlor and music room. Their house boasted two chimneys. They’d a cupboard of pewter plates and tankards, and even two goblets of Venetian glass. A fine Turkish rug in red and black draped their best table. Their kitchen was large, and they’d a buttery and larder attached, and a cellar below. Battista Bassano was eminently respectable, a man of means. How could such a fate have befallen him?

Papa cupped Aemilia’s face in his hands. “Cara mia, you will never be driven from your home. You’ll be safe always.”

“When I grow up, I shall be a great lady with sacks of gold!” she told him. “I’ll sail to Italy and buy back your house.”

With the red-gold sun dazzling her, it seemed so simple. She would grow into a woman and right every wrong that had befallen her father.

Papa stroked her hair, dark and curling like his own. “How will you earn your fortune, then? Will you marry the richest man in England?” His voice was indulgent and teasing.

Solemnly, she shook her head. “I shall be a poet!”

“A poet, Aemilia. Truly?”

Even at that age, it was her desire to write poetry exquisite enough to make plain English sound as beautiful as her father’s native tongue. Poets abounded at court, all vying for Her Majesty’s favor. The Queen herself wrote poetry.

As Papa held her in his gaze, she offered him her palm. “Read my future!”

He took her hand in his, yet instead of looking at her palm, he stared into her eyes. Aemilia imagined her future unfolding before his inner vision like one of the court masques performed for the Queen. Cradling her cheek to his pounding heart, he held her with such tenderness, as though he both mourned and burned in fiercest pride when he divined what she would become.

“What do you see?” she asked him. “What will happen to me?”

Before he could answer, her uncles slipped through the back gate, which Papa had left unlatched. She watched as Uncle Alvise carefully bolted it behind them. Her uncles were usually boisterous, making the air around them explode with their noisy greetings, but this evening they were as quiet as thieves. Aemilia’s heart drummed in worry. What could be wrong? Papa was old, already in his fifties, and her uncles even older, their hair thinning and gray. Giacomo, Antonio, Giovanni, and Alvise kissed her and patted her head before Papa instructed her to go inside to her mother and leave them to…