Emilia Bassano: Shakespeare’s Muse and Feminist Icon

If you are even slightly familiar with the sonnets of William Shakespeare, you will know that an elusive figure, referred to as the ‘dark lady’, is mentioned in many of the poems. Various women have been suggested as the name behind the sonnets and Emilia Bassano is one of them.

Born into a family of royal musicians, possibly from Venice, Emilia was part of the minor gentry during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Despite not knowing Emilia’s hair colour, historians have noted that the Bassano family were often described as ‘black’, which was a common way to describe someone with dark hair or Mediterranean colouring. This made it likely that Emilia, too, would have been ‘dark’ in her complexion, and adds the interesting possibility that she might also have been of African descent. ‘Sonnet 152’ describes how Shakespeare’s lady is ‘forsworn’ to another, and Emilia was both married to one man and mistress to another. The most convincing evidence, however, comes from the fact that Emilia is one of the most common female names present in Shakespeare’s plays, with the most famous being Desdemona’s maid in Othello.

However, an exploration of Emilia’s life reveals that she is important for reasons much more interesting than simply being Shakespeare’s muse. Emilia Bassano was actually the first Englishwoman to assert herself as a professional poet, publishing a volume of poems called Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail, God, King of the Jews) in 1611. If that wasn’t impressive enough, Emilia also used her voice to present protofeminist views that were hardly common for the period.

Take a look at this line from the title poem:

You came not into the world without our pain,

Make that a bar against your cruelty;

Your fault being greater, why should you disdain

Our being your equals, free from tyranny?

Her words aren’t dissimilar to the views of modern-day feminists. Throughout her poetry, Emilia included messages such as this, pushing for equality. At the time, women were only allowed to publish religious poetry and so she took up the plight of women within the context of the Bible. She attacked the idea of Original Sin and the blame placed on women, stating ‘but surely Adam can’t be excused; Her fault though great yet he was most to blame’. The story of Christ’s crucifixion is likewise told entirely from the point of view of women, such as drawing attention to Pilate’s wife, who attempted to prevent Jesus’ unjust trial.

It therefore does not seem a far stretch to suggest that Emilia Bassano was the inspiration for the character of Emilia in Othello, who’s powerful speech cries out ‘let husbands know Their wives have sense like them. They see, and smell, And have their palates both for sweet and sour, As husbands have.’ But to see her only as muse to the great bard is to do her a disservice. Her name should be known for her own achievements.

It was in August 2018 that the time finally came for Emilia’s story to be heard, when a play about her life, written by Lloyd Malcolm, was first performed in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Now moved to the West End, Emilia is a brilliant, funny and moving insight into the life of an incredible woman. The play also pushes against the dominance of men in theatre by having an all-female cast and production team. Emilia is running until June 15th and I can’t recommend it enough, if you get a chance to see it.  

The message of the play is a powerful one: ‘we are only as powerful as the stories we tell’, and the stories of women have often been erased from history. But now, it is time those unknown stories were heard.

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