I was not the only one who had never heard of Emilia Bassano before I saw the theatre production. Surprising, since she was a well-educated and accomplished writer, and the first woman to have her poetry published in the UK, all of which was highly unusual in 16th century Britain. Furthermore, she was incredibly well-connected as the mistress of Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon, Mary Boleyn’s (and likely Henry VIII’s) son, as well as playing a big part in William Shakespeare’s life.
Strong indications allude to Emilia being the Dark Lady featured in a number of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Some historians consider her to be Shakespeare’s muse, whereas others go as far as to suggest that Shakespeare plagiarised her work and passed it off as his own. Emilia was from an Italian family with possible Jewish and Moroccan origins, who had been employed as musicians in the royal courts by Henry VIII and subsequently Elizabeth I. The fact that Shakespeare’s work displayed excessive use and intricate knowledge of Italy, sporadic Hebrew references, and three times the amount of musical references than other literature of the time makes theories of Emilia’s contribution to Shakespeare’s work incredibly plausible. As well as the fact that many of his characters share the names of Emilia and her family; Emilia (used five times in different plays), Alfonso (Emilia’s husband), Baptiste (Emilia’s father).
I saw the production of Emilia written by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and was blown away by the powerful performance of the all-female cast; an appropriate antithesis to the all-male casts of performances in the 16th century. Words cannot describe how compelling the cast were, embodying the characters wholly and immersing the audience in the politically harsh and somewhat scandalous Elizabethan world. The script is inspired, with outrageous humour and sly mockery of current issues, as well as the message of a serious reality. It comes at such a relevant time, when modern day inequality is being challenged, and the widespread movement in feminism is encouraging more women to have strength and conviction in themselves.
A “fierce” woman in the 16th century sounds unbelievable as we remember all women before us to be much more diminished, yet many of Shakespeare’s female characters were incredibly strong-willed, independent and courageous women. Since Emilia’s significance was first recognised in the 1970s, it has been thought that the strong female characters in Shakespeare’s were modelled by her shrewdness and resilience to societal constraints. The three actresses that play Emilia at different stages of her life all convey her determination and courageous spirit to stand up for herself and help other women that had no voice, which reminds the audience how imperative it is to do the same for the many women around the world that are still trapped today.
If you haven’t yet seen the production, I highly recommend it! Emilia has moved from Shakespeare’s Globe and is now playing in the West End at Vaudeville Theatre until 15th June 2019.