As a professor who sometimes teaches a Shakespeare class and as a poet who has written a book of sonnets, I gently propose that for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death we stop reading Shakespeare and instead shift our attention to the poems of Aemilia Lanyer, one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, a contemporary who happens to be a woman. Lanyer is the first female poet in England to ‘publish a substantial volume of poetry’, and it has been proposed that Lanyer is the infamous ‘cruel mistress’ of Shakespeare’s so-called ‘Dark Lady’ sonnets (sonnets 127-154). There is reasonable cause for such speculation: Lanyer was a Jew of Italian descent (and could have been called ‘black’ in the Elizabethan age) and she might have come in contact with Shakespeare through her family of court musicians. She was also an enormous talent and an important figure in the history of English poetry.
Whether Lanyer was, in reality, the ‘dark lady,’ I think actually misses the point. As critic Lisa Schnell notes, although it’s not inconceivable she was the ‘dark lady,’ it’s the desire itself for her to fit this role that is troubling. And what is her role within this construct? In Shakespeare’s ‘dark lady’ sonnets, the male – the speaker – is tortured by his mistress, experiences a range of heightened emotions from ecstasy, disbelief (how could someone like him fall for such a deceptive manipulator?), jealousy and on and on while her seeming lack of interest drives him crazy.
What’s important, then, is to ponder the misogynist construct of the ‘dark lady’ in the sonnets where the archetypical femme fatale emerges. We see it again in Western culture from opera to later iterations in film noir, and pop songs.
But it’s an anniversary, and so we must celebrate! And for this very special anniversary, I say, let’s celebrate one of our first feminist poets by reading her work! Here you can find her entire book, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail, God, King of the Jews) which she published in 1611 at the age of 42. The poems are full of sensuous and luscious descriptions of a culture of women (many of the poems in the book are addressed to powerful aristocratic women), as well as a spirited defense of Eve. In addition, Lanyer published the first ‘country house’ poem, ‘To Cooke-ham’ (a genre most widely associated with Ben Jonson’s ‘To Penshurst’).
Now, who knows if these two were ever a thing. If they were, it’s hard to say what she saw in him. But as the old saying goes, ‘love is blind,’ a phrase of which Shakespeare himself was quite fond.
Aemilia Lanyer, from Salue Deus Rex Iudæorum
‘That pride of Nature which adornes the faire,
Like blasing Comets to allure all eies,
Is but the thred, that weaves their web of Care,
Who glories most, where most their danger lies;
For greatest perills do attend the faire,
When men do seeke, attempt, plot and devise,
How they may overthrow the chastest Dame,
Whose Beautie is the White whereat they aime.
Twas Beautie bred in Troy the ten yeares strife,
And carried Hellen from her lawfull Lord;
Twas Beautie made chaste Lucrece loose her life,
For which prowd Tarquins fact was so abhorr’d:
Beautie the cause Antonius wrong’d his wife,
Which could not be decided but by sword:
Great Cleopatraes Beautie and defects
Did worke Octaviaes wrongs, and his neglects.’