Lanier’s Pale Man

Emilier Lanier, certain poet and possible muse

Emilia Lanier (1569–1645) is acknowledged as the first Englishwoman to be published as a professional poet. Her only collection was printed in 1611.

Some academics cite her as a prime candidate for Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, suggesting that she may have had a Mediterranean or African heritage. Some even go so far as implying she wrote some – or even all – of Shakespeare’s plays.  Historian Michael Wood doesn’t push things that far, but thinks she had a direct influence on the writing of Othello and The Merchant of Venice, perhaps enhancing the bard’s sympathies for people of colour and those of non-Christian faiths.[1] All of this is open to conjecture, but of what we can be sure, is her competence as a poet.

She was born Emilia Bassano the daughter of a royal musician and it is very likely that she also became an accomplished instrumentalist. She was, for several years, the mistress of Henry Carey, the first Baron Hunsdon, cousin of queen Elizabeth I of England and one of Shakespeare’s patrons; hence the playwright must have known her, or at least known of her. It is suggested that she wedded court musician Alfonso Lanier in 1592 after becoming pregnant by Hunsdon and that the marriage was unhappy.

Her only published collection of poetry Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail, God, King of the Jews) is dominated by the title poem of over 200 verses. It tells the story of Christ’s passion almost entirely from the point of view of the women who surround him. The main poem is accompanied by ten shorter works, some dedicated to aristocratic women, including the queen. The collection also contains the first published English country house poem.

The book was radical for its time because it contained topics such as the maltreatment of women. Lanier defended Eve, arguing that she had been wrongly blamed for the original sin of eating the forbidden fruit, while Adam was equally at fault. She also drew attention to the dedication of the female followers of Christ who stayed close to him throughout the Passion, unlike the male apostles who abandoned him, and even denied being associated with him. She applauds Pilate’s wife for attempting to intervene and prevent the unjust trial and crucifixion.[2]

Gentle Reader, if thou desire to be resolved, why I give this Title, Salue Deus Rex Judaeorum, know for certaine, that it was delivered unto me in sleepe many yeares before I had any intent to write in this maner, and was quite out of my memory untill I had written the Passion of Christ, when immediately it came into my re-membrance, what I had dreamed long before; and thinking it a significant token, that I was appointed to performe that Worke, I gave the very same words I received in sleepe as the fittest Title I could devise for this Booke.

What makes her stance all the more intriguing is that some scholars assert that Lanier’s family roots were Jewish. Michael Wood points out that the prime date for an assignation between Shakespeare and Emilia would be in 1597 which is about the time he wrote his play about a Venetian merchant Jew, and containing a character called Bassanio. (Wood also suggest that Bassanio would have been pronounced with three syllables in Elizabethan times making it aurally a close match with Bassano.)

A few years later (circa 1603) Shakespeare wrote Othello about a black man amid a predominantly white society, and in which there is a principal character called Emilia. Some academics have argued that the title Othello may refer to the Jesuit Girolamo Otello from the town of Bassano. 

Another play, Titus Andronicus contains two noble characters by the names of Bassianus and Aemelius. The earliest known record of this play is 1594, though it could have been written before the playwright came to London; even if this is so it may have been revised prior to its London debut which was after Will would have met Amelia.

The Bassano’s coat of arms bears a mulberry tree, which is morus in Latin and can also mean ‘moor’, perhaps contemporarily signifying their cultural origins.  Her alleged dark complexion is not supported by court painter Nicholas Hilliard’s portrait – but neither is it known for certain that the subject was Lanier. There are no sources citing her colour, but when two of her cousins appeared in a London court case they were described as ‘black men’.[3]

A pale portrait of a dark lady? Nicholas Hilliard

We have no way of knowing what Emilia’s ethnicity was or how it manifested itself, but there is less uncertainty regarding the woman alluded to in Shakespeare’s sonnets whose hair is black and skin is ‘dun’.  Analysis of the sonnets puts the composition of the Dark Lady verses in the late 1590s when Emilia was free of her husband’s attention as he was away accompanying the Earl of Essex on an expedition to the Azores.

There is understandable irritation that Emilia Lanier should be brought to our attention by reason of her speculative attachment to Britain’s best-known playwright, but once we leap over that prickly hurdle, we can leave it behind, turn our consideration to her work, and celebrate her achievements in their own right. She was Elizabethan historically, and feminist philosophically.

You came not in the world without our paine,

Make that a barre against your crueltie;

Your fault being greater, why should you disdaine

Our being your equals, free from tyranny.

Lanier may have operated totally independently of Shakespeare, though it is inconceivable that she would not have been aware of him. They may have influenced each other’s work.  We will never know.  Her achievements have their own validity, but it is alluring to consider that some characters, plots, or even much-quoted Shakespearean text could have been formed first in Lanier’s mind. 

She might not have been his Dark Lady, but he may have been her pale man.


In Strictly Done Dancing I chose to partner Amelia not with William Shakespeare, but with one of his players Will Kemp, who was, by all accounts, a more accomplished dancer.

Strictly Done Dancing paperback

[1] M Wood, In Search of Shakespeare, BBC Books, 2003.


[3] M Wood, In Search of Shakespeare, BBC Books, 2003, page 215.

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