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Aemilia Lanyer as Shakespeare’s Co-Author

Posted on: September 7, 2022

Aemilia Lanyer as Shakespeare’s Co-Author presents original material which indicates that Aemilia Lanyer – female writer, feminist, and Shakespeare contemporary – is Shakespeare’s hidden and arguably most significant co-author.

The author of the book - Mark Bradbeer - shared a bit about his recent book. 

The New Oxford Shakespeare Authorship Companion (2017) proposed that about eight other men were involved in the writing of some of the Shakespeare Canon, despite being unacknowledged on the title pages of the published plays. Aemilia Lanyer as Shakespeare’s Co-Author (2022) provides evidence that a woman is missing from this analysis of Shakespeare’s work. In Early Modern publications, silent collaborators were not unusual, and a play by a woman in Shakespeare’s time ‘would have gone unsigned’, wrote Virginia Woolf, adding that “the desire to be veiled still possesses women”. So, it is stunning that in 1611, the year that Shakespeare wrote one of his last plays, The Tempest, Aemilia Lanyer published a book of her own poetry under her own name. This suggests that she was discreetly writing during preceding years, when Shakespeare was also writing.

It would be surprising if Shakespeare and Lanyer did not know one another. As an actor, Shakespeare was one of The Chamberlain’s Men. There was the Chamberlain’s woman too. Aemilia Lanyer was the mistress of the aged Lord Chamberlain, Henry Carey. The Lord Chamberlain employed most of Lanyer’s family who were musicians in the Royal Court, much as the Lord employed the Chamberlain’s Men. While the Lord may have shown off his pretty, young mistress, who was a third of his age, she could not be overtly acknowledged, particularly in print. This would create an extra reason for discretion.

There is circumstantial evidence for Shakespeare knowing her, with the name “Emilia”, and versions of her maiden name “Bassano”, recurring throughout the Shakespeare Canon (Comedy of Errors, Winter’s Tale, Othello, Titus Andronicus, Merchant of Venice, Antony and Cleopatra, Two Noble Kinsmen). Indeed, inspiration for the two merchants, Antonio and Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice appears to be Aemilia’s uncle and her husband’s grandfather, Antonio Bassano, a London-based merchant of Venice. The feminist speeches by Othello’s Emilia are in sympathy with Aemilia Lanyer’s poetry. It is also known that a source for Othello and Measure for Measure is the untranslated Italian work by Giovanni Giraldo. The anomalous reference to “Giraldo, Emilia’s schoolmaster” in Two Noble Kinsmen suggests that the Italian-speaking Aemilia Lanyer was the source of this source.

There is further intertextual evidence. In Antony and Cleopatra (3.13.129-131), Shakespeare’s Antony makes a lustful and lecherous cry “O, that I were upon the hill of Basan, to outroar the horned herd! For I have savage cause”. In the section entitled “An invective against outward beauty unaccompanied by virtue” of her long poem, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, the newly-evangelized Aemilia Bassano Lanyer seemingly responds with a cruel and penitent self-reflection as the sinful Cleopatra to Shakespeare’s Antony (lines 213-224, 1417-1448).

Beyond circumstantial evidence, how does one detect her hand in Shakespeare’s plays if we do not have her name on any title pages, nor have a definitive sample of her playwriting which can be subjected to computational stylistics analysis?

Lanyer’s poem, Description of Cookeham reveals her epithet for herself as “Philomel”. Philomel is the maid of Classical legend who was used and abused by a Roman lord. This matches Lanyer’s experience as a young maid at the hands of an aged but all-powerful lord. But Philomel also escaped and got her revenge by the power of her writing. She has been called the archetypal #MeToo woman, and Aemilia identified with her.

Shakespeare’s most popular play in his lifetime was Pericles (1608). It is also arguably his most feminist. Currently, the misogynistic criminal, George Wilkins, is thought to have written half the play, as well as the whole novella from which the play is sourced. But Wilkins’s other play, Miseries of Enforced Marriage (1607), is shown to be an allegory of Lanyer’s enforced marriage after becoming pregnant to the Lord Chamberlain, even mentioning the lord’s name as the marriage enforcer in the speech prefixes.

Miseries was published fifteen years after her enforced marriage in 1592. But Comedy of Errors (with abbess Emilia) and Titus Andronicus (with Aemilius and Bassianus) were written one year after her enforced marriage. In The Unfortunate Traveller (1594), Thomas Nashe makes satirical references to the play, The Comedy of Errors, and its Emilia. Nashe’s work also alludes to the lost source play of Titus Andronicus, called Titus and Vespasian – and “Flavia Aemilia”. It is proposed that Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is a deliberate corruption of the original allegory in which the original Philomel-like partner of Caesar Flavius Titus in Titus and Vespasian was an allegorical portrait of Aemilia Bassano Lanyer’ as the Lord Chamberlain’s partner.

Nashe also noted that this Flavia Aemilia had, curiously, “devised the means to make me immortal.” This matches the unnamed gentlewoman writer and supporter of Nashe’s bête noire, Gabriel Harvey. In 1593, she threatened to “immortalize the kill-cow ass” of Thomas Nashe, and an unnamed male writer promised to help her in the task. Over half a dozen of Shakespeare’s early comedies have “an ass/a Nashe” who is identifiable as a satirical portrait of the satirist, Thomas Nashe – such as Dromio who speaks Nashe’s distinctive words in Comedy of Errors.

Gabriel Harvey described her as “neither the noblest, nor the fairest, nor the finest, nor the richest lady; but the gentlest, and wittiest, and bravest, and invinciblest woman that I know”. Her unnamed male collaborator in immortalizing Nashe, embellished this, adding that she was “more sweetly brave, than nicely fine, yet fine, as finest Gentlewomen be”. Although she “standeth upon masculine, not feminine terms” in 1593, – that is, publishing as a man – Harvey wrote that “whatsoever she writeth must needs remain an immortal work”. This review of her contribution to the works of Shakespeare, suggests that Harvey may be right.

The book is available for purchase here.