Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Shakespeare's Dark Lady * Identity Revealed Through Embroidery

Some theories suggest that the Dark Lady was a man - Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, and William's sometime patron. However, in 1978, acclaimed historian A L Rowse, having studied the papers of the court apothecary Simon Foreman came up with the name Emilia Bassano. Not only was Emilia the love of Shakespeare's life, but she also appeared in his plays as Cleopatra, Beatrice, Ophelia, Portia and Lady Macbeth. At some point the link was made to a miniature limned by Nicholas Hilliard, now in the V&A. Formerly titled Mistress Holland the woman was first identified as Angela Bassano, Emilia's elder sister and wife of Joseph Holland. However, the dates did not match. Angela died in 1584, but Emilia, her half-sister, was exactly the right age in 1593. (The inscription states the likeness was painted in 1593 when the sitter was 26). Born in 1570, Emilia Lanier was the illegitimate daughter of Baptiste Bassano, a Christianized Venetian Jew and one of the foremost musicians in King Henry VIII's court, Emilia was left without means upon her father's death. Emilia became the mistress of the Lord Hunsdon, the patron of Shakespeare's theatre company. But on becoming pregnant, an unavoidable but bad career move for a consort, she was married off for appearance's sake to another musician, Alfonso Lanier. The clincher for researchers is the sitter's bodice, which is decorated with silk worm moths and mulberry trees - the Bassano coat of Arms - and the stag of the Earl of Essex, a favourite of Queen Elizabeth in the 1590s, in whose service Alfonso Lanier had at one time been.


  1. Fascinating story - and I love the symbolism of the embroidered bodice, a subject that has endless interest.

  2. Love the history and hearing "the rest of the story"! Thank you.