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Amelia Lanyer, the First Female Jewish English Poet and Shakespeare’s Dark Lady?

On the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death, drawing back into the light the talented woman who may have inspired some sonnets and The Merchant of Venice

Ed Simon
April 22, 2016
Collage: Tablet Magazine; original image: Wikipedia
Collage: Tablet Magazine; original image: Wikipedia

In 1597 Amelia Lanyer visited the astrologer and physician Simon Forman several time at his practice on Philpot Lane in Westminster. Across thousands of pages, Forman, for whom the appellation “physician” is significantly less rigorous than it would be today, recorded his interactions with the residents of London. Forman’s diaries remain of great interest because of the records of his attendance at plays from the Globe to the Blackfriars, his prodigious sexual conquests (for which he invented the odd noun “halek,” as in “I had halek today”), and his testimonies about life outside of the noble coterie. Forman is also interesting because of Lanyer, who some critics have claimed as the real-life model for the “Dark Lady” of William Shakespeare’s sonnets. The evidence, as with many things from what is the undiscovered country that is the past, is incomplete and sometimes difficult to read (often literally, as Forman’s awful penmanship has caused critical problems in past scholarship).

While she may or may not have been Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, Lanyer was most definitely the first professional woman poet in the English language. She is the author of an epic, feminist, mystical rewriting of Genesis titled Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, published in 1611, and which has only recently been given critical attention, including an edition in 1993 edited by Susanne Woods. And just as fascinating, she is perhaps the first “Jewish” poet in the English language.

Lanyer was the daughter of a court musician and the wife of another, former mistress to Henry Carey, the Baron Hunsdon (who was first cousin to the queen). Some years after her associations with the magician Forman, her literary patron would be Margaret Clifford, Countess of Cumberland. It was to the last that she dedicated her Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, attaching several patronage poems to her single volume, taking part in the complex economics of negotiation and validation existing between a poet and her patron. Among these poems was her admittedly treyf-sounding A Description of Cooke-Ham (the name is that of the estate it describes), written in the Augustan conventions of the “country house poem,” celebrating the space of Clifford’s residence, which Lanyer made her home when widowed. Never an aristocrat herself, Lanyer was of the middling yet rising gentry. Her mother, Margaret Johnson, was aunt to Robert Johnson who wrote many of the musical settings for Shakespeare’s plays, her husband Alfonso was a second-generation Huguenot who performed for Elizabeth, and her father Baptista Bassano played for Henry VIII.

It is from Baptista’s side that Lanyer has her Jewish associations, for some scholars with varying degrees of certainty have claimed that the Bassano line were marranos, converted Jews who maintained some connections with their ancestry. Susanne Woods, Lanyer’s most complete biographer and one of the scholars who has done more than anyone to kindle an appreciation of her poetry, finds the evidence compelling but inconclusive. Baptista Bassano was from Veneto, a holding of Venice, where the surname “Bassano” was commonly Jewish, and where Jews were frequently employed as musicians. Lanyer’s nephew was even married into a English converso family, perhaps indicating a community of converted Jews who kept social associations with each other. Tellingly the Bassano coat-of-arms depicts silk worms, hosiery being one of the few occupations granted to Jews in Veneto.

The title of Lanyer’s magisterial poem Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, with its prominent placement of the word “Jews,” could indicate her Jewish background. A literal translation of the title being “Hail God, King of the Jews” would seem to indicate it less so. And yet I would argue that a close reading of the poem demonstrates not just the probability of Lanyer’s Jewish connections, but that she had some knowledge of the faith as well, specifically the kabbalistic traditions so associated with Renaissance Sephardim like Isaac Luria. It is the idiosyncrasies of this heterodox tradition that may have supplied material she used to launch her feminist defense of Eve in that poem. To be clear: I am not arguing that Lanyer herself was secretly Jewish. There are baptismal records at Bishopgate for her, and her father’s relationship with the vehemently Protestant Seymour family implies that they may have been Protestant refugees from Italy (though the father’s name of Baptista would be characteristic of recent converts proving their new Christian bona fides). Rather, what I am arguing is that Lanyer was able to use a particular manifestation of Judaism to produce a borderline heretical Christian re-reading of women’s religious role.


But why the connection to the Dark Lady? Most of what we know is contained in the records of Dr. Forman. She consulted him after her husband had traded in the lute of the ensemble for the sword of the navy, as he journeyed to Cadiz on Essex’s expedition against the hated Spanish. She was not particularly close to him, and their marriage was an issue of professional convenience. Wanting his future read wasn’t an issue of sentiment, it was to divine if a title was to be granted (it would not be). Forman also poignantly records that she suffered several miscarriages (only one son survived, who would also become a musician) and feared for her current pregnancy, which she would also lose. The consistently unethical Forman wondered if Lanyer’s precarious emotional state would lend her to being an easy mark for his sexual advances, and as with so many men of his kind, when she demurred, he labeled her a “whore” in his diaries.

The British historian A.L. Rowse in his 1973 Shakespeare the Man controversially (and for many unconvincingly) claimed that Forman’s writings proved that this supposedly raven-haired, black-eyed, olive-complexioned woman was the adulterous companion of the greatest writer in English and was the Dark Lady of his sonnets. The sonnet was invented in the Middle Ages by Catalan troubadours; perfected by the Italian Petrarch, whose influence emanates through the Renaissance; introduced into English by Henry Howard, who was the final execution of Henry VIII’s reign; and explored in cycles by Wyatt, Sidney, Spenser, Drayton, and Donne. But Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence is the penultimate one, and the Dark Lady is its beating heart. The Dark Lady’s ghost has haunted English literature ever since. As a game of puzzle solving, scholars have obsessively tried to identify the “characters” in the 154 sonnets which comprise the greatest compendium of lyric poetry in English. For critics of an autobiographical bent (which is largely out of fashion) the narrator is obviously Shakespeare. The “fair youth,” whom he often describes in homoerotic terms, is often thought to be the young aristocrat William Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton. The rival poet’s identity? For these critics it must be Christopher Marlowe, the brilliant, tortured author of that most diabolic of texts, Dr. Faustus, who was stabbed through the eye in a Deptford tavern at the age of 29.

And the Dark Lady, the most enigmatic of these already faint shadow identities, who was she? She whose “eyes were nothing like the sun,” whose “heart torments” with her “false-speaking tongue,” and yet whose dark complexion proved that black is “beauty’s successive heir.” The Dark Lady, mistress of the poet whose dalliances with both the fair youth make a cuckold out of the narrator. The Dark Lady is simultaneously evocative, independent, intelligent, sensual, loving, and cruel. The Dark Lady who is slandered with that ancient slur against women, which impugns sexual desire and desiring, and which perhaps owes more to the perceived sin of Lilith than Eve. The Dark Lady, who is an example of Shakespeare’s genius in creating characters who seem to be live beings.

It is impossible to not see what is intensely attractive about the Dark Lady—and it’s hard not to sympathize with the inclination to try and uncover who she was based on. But this is assuming that she was indeed based on someone. Though we don’t know her name, her personality is viscerally, almost materially conveyed through the subtle language of the poet. Elizabethan and Jacobean England valued physical fairness in a woman, strawberry blonde hair and stereotypically rosy cheeks. Exemplified by Laura in Petrarch’s Il Canzoniere, or by Stella in Phillip Sydney’s eponymous sequence of c.1580, or in the pale visage and red hair of the female regent who oversaw this Golden Age. Yet Shakespeare subverted this ideal, describing his beloved as “dusky,” “dun,” “dark,” and most provocatively as “black.” He took the generic convention of the blazon (in which the anatomical perfections of a woman were enumerated) and turned it upside down, celebrating what would have marginalized the Dark Lady during the period.

Early modern Europeans tended to be prejudiced more on theological difference than perceived racial ones (this period saw the origins of describing people as “white” and “black”). Catholics, various dissenting sects of Protestants, a conflation of Turks, “Saracens,” and Moors into one amorphous Islamic menace (not so different from today), so-called “Blackamoors” (or people of African descent who Elizabeth tried to expel from her kingdom), and, of course, Jews, were all marginalized people in England. Although the Bassanos may have had Jewish ancestry, the Jews were a people who were seemingly mentioned everywhere and who existed nowhere. Officially expelled in the thirteenth century, it seems unlikely that men like Shakespeare, Marlowe, or Donne had ever met a practicing Jew. And yet Shakespeare gave us his Shylock, Marlowe his Barabbas in the anti-Semitic The Jew of Malta, and Donne said (at least metaphorically) that the Jews did “Buffet, and scoffe, scourge, and crucifie” him. Yet communities of Jews did live within London, mostly exiles from the Reconquista in Portugal and Spain, and all converted Protestants. The most famous was the queen’s personal physician, Roderigo Lopez, who fell afoul of Elizabeth, and was implicated in a conspiracy to have her assassinated (historians have subsequently exonerated him). Before he was hanged, drawn and quartered at that bloody field of traitors and blasphemers known as Tyburn, the converso who most likely remained true to his adopted faith, screamed that he “loved the queen as well as he loved Jesus Christ.” The crowd, assuming him to be ironic, erupted into laughter. Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt has conjectured that Shakespeare may have been a witness: Only four years later Shylock would prowl and slink on the stage of the Globe, wearing the kinky red fright-wig and the over-sized fake nose that were standard costuming for Jewish characters.

But the Bassanos were different in other ways as well, for the English had a conflicted relationship with Baptista’s homeland. Italy was the origin of the Renaissance and in regard to fashion and literature was to be emulated. But it was also the home of that fabulous beast, the Whore of Babylon whom all good Protestants associated with the pope’s throne of St. Peter. Italians were physically and perhaps spiritually dark, impetuous, violent, scheming, Machiavellian, overly physical, and superstitious. We can sense the English sentiment about Italians when we read Thomas Nashe’s 1594 The Unfortunate Traveler, possibly the first novel written in English, which depicts an Italian nobleman forcing his enemy to pray to Satan and then killing him immediately. The blood-soaked plays of Jacobean revenge drama were replete with over-the-top Italian names, defined as such by simply ending in a vowel more than because of any verisimilitude.

The malleable borders of whiteness can be seen if you look at the globe that sits behind two staid French diplomats in Hans Holbein’s 1533 masterpiece The Ambassadors. Europe is surrounded by the white-space of all the continents separate from Christendom—North Africa, the western border of Asia, the recently uncovered lands of the Arctic north and the eastern fringe of America—all a neutral white. Europe alone, and her partner island Britain at her western edge, is a blazing, celestial gold. The only exceptions to this are two other more unfortunate islands off of Europe’s coast, who we are to assume aren’t part of Europe and her civilization—Ireland and Sicily.

In this scheme, Venice in particular held a special fascination. In that independent, liberal, and perhaps licentious city-state the English saw a dark mirror-image. Also a powerful naval state defined by trade, Venice’s churches and bishops operated semi-independently of Rome. It had been a way-station for Italian Protestants who had made their way to London’s so-called “stranger churches.” Venice fascinated with its claustrophobic alley-ways and canals, its grand squares and opulent palaces, its ominous masked balls and its printing-houses willing to trade in any manner of heresy. Lanyer’s family may have been Jewish, but they wouldn’t have had to have been Jews to be outside the mainstream, no matter how successful they were at their trade: Their Venetian origins would have been enough. Still, the Bassanos were non-dissenters, which is to say that they were faithful attendees of the Church of England. But even if her baptismal certificate said she was an Anglican, and even if her own beliefs were faithfully Christian, I believe that her prayers were uttered in a Jewish tongue.


Lanyer’s only book of poetry appeared in an auspicious literary year. The printing presses of London also inked three Shakespeare quartos, Chapman’s translation of Homer, a Jonson play, Donne’s Anatomy of the World, the complete works of Edmund Spenser, a reprint of Dr. Faustus, and perhaps most monumentally of all, the first edition of the King James Version of the Bible. Lanyer’s slim book of verse would have competed in the books stalls crowding the square in front of St. Paul’s and in the print shops lining Grub and Fleet Streets along the river Thames from the City of London to Westminster. And yet nothing in the corpus of English literature was quite like Ms. Lanyer’s accomplishment. Women had certainly written in England before, the 14th century had authors like Margery Kemp and Julian (née Jillian) of Norwich, closer to Lanyer’s era Anne Lok reflected on the penitential psalms in a magisterial sonnet sequence, and Mary Sidney, the sister of Philip, produced an almost unparalleled version of the Davidic songs configured in every single poetic form available. Mary Wroth had written her massive romance Urania, and even Queen Elizabeth composed verse. But all of these women were noble in some way. Lanyer was something new, a woman who professionally wrote. Noblewomen were willing to pass their poems about in manuscript form, all of them steadfastly avoided the “stigma of print,” like an author disdaining the Internet. Among the coterie of working-class authors like Jonson and Shakespeare, Lanyer’s writing was sold for money, in the bookstalls of the metropolis.

What was just as surprising were the contents of her book. In her prescript to Salve Deus Res Judaeorum she writes “this have I done, to make known to the world, that all women deserve not to be blamed.” She targeted the Augustinian view of original sin being Eve’s fault, and blames this orthodoxy on “evilly disposed men, who forgetting they were born of women, nourished by women, and if it were not by the means of women … would quite be extinguished out of the world.” She defends Eve from the accusation that she was responsible for man’s fall by explaining that if Adam had full knowledge of the prohibition that ultimate responsibility must lay with him; furthermore if she was supposedly made from the material of Adam, than that initial sin must be traced ultimately back to him. Considering that the bulk of the poem then focuses on Christ’s passion, what is particularly Jewish about all of this? There is a precedent for the appropriation of Judaism in an act of creative subversion. Theresa of Avilla, the sixteenth century Spanish nun was of converso progeny, a fact which ran her afoul of the Inquisition before she would find herself celebrated by those who attempted to persecute her. Though a fervent Catholic (she is a saint obviously) she consciously utilized the rhetorical tropes of kabbalistic texts like the Zohar in her baroque writings. Lanyer does something similar. When she writes “This honey dropping dew of holy love, /Sweet milk, wherewith we weaklings are restored. … Lilies and with roses … Your constant soul doth lodge between her breasts, /This sweet of sweets, in which all glory rests” (all spelling has been modernized by the author). The references to honey, milk, dew, roses, and the bridegroom (who she references three times in the poem) seem distinctly Solomonic. The Hebraic parallelism of “sweet of sweets” conjures the biblical poetics of the Jewish scriptures, which Christian rhetoricians were only beginning to categorize. This Jewish poetics of the erotic was common in Lurianic kabbalah, indeed compare the following 15th-century Spanish poem Shiur Qomash which is narrated by a woman to her beloved (who is God) with a passage from Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. First the section from Shiur Qomash:

My beloved is fresh and ruddy,
To be known among ten thousand.
His head is golden, purest gold,
His locks are palm fronds
And black as the raven.
His eyes are doves
At a pool of water,
Bathed in milk,
At rest on a pool;
His cheeks are beds of spices,
Banks sweetly scented.
His lips are lilies,
Distilling pure myrrh,
His hands are golden, rounded,
Set with jewels of Tarshish.
His belly a block of ivory
Covered with sapphires.
His legs are alabaster columns.

The imagery is unmistakably similar to that from Song of Songs. Not only that, but the convention of a bride writing a love letter to her bridegroom who is God is a mainstay of kabbalistic poetry from the middle ages. It’s hard not to see Lanyer as working in this exact same tradition when she writes:

This is that Bridegroom that appears so faire,
So sweet, so lovely in his Spouses sight,
That unto Snowe we may his face compare,
His cheeks like scarlet, and his eyes so bright
As purest Doves that in the rivers are,
Washed with milk, to give the more delight;
His head is likened to the finest gold,
His curled locks so beauteous to behold;
Black as a Raven in her blackest hew;
His lips like scarlet threads, yet much more sweet
Than is the sweetest honey dropping dew,
Or honey combs, where all the Bees doe meet;
Yea, he is constant, and his words are true,
His cheeks are beds of spices, flowers sweet;
His lips like Lilies, dropping down pure myrrh,
Whose love, before all worlds we do prefer.

Or take the section where Lanyer writes “Long may thou joy in his almighty love,/Long may thy soul be pleasing in his sight,/Long may though have true comforts from above,/Long may thou set on him they whole delight” with its uncanny similarity to the priestly blessing of the kohanim. Not only that, but there are phrases where she seems to reference the Shekhinah, God’s indwelling presence within the tabernacle, which in Hebrew is grammatically feminine and which she may have understood as functioning like the Holy Spirit in the Christian Trinity. She writes of “an immortal Goddess on the earth/Who though she dies, yet Fame gives her new berth,” a possible allusion to the Shekhinah, which after all would take the form of an “immortal Goddess on the earth.” There are strikingly Jewish images, including the bridegroom, the tabernacle, possibly the Shekhinah, and the Book of Life where she writes “By his deserts the foulest sins to clear; /And in the eternal book of heaven to enroll,” a sentiment that many Jews may recognize from the Yom Kippur liturgy. Though the Book of Life does appear in Christian writing such as the Pauline Epistles (though Paul was a Jew of course) its association with the High Holy Days makes it seem particularly Jewish. Lanyer mentions it six times, a notably high amount for a Christian author. And what would being enrolled in the “eternal book of heaven” be but being inscribed in the Book of Life? And what Zion was Lanyer dreaming of when she wrote “Yay, look how far the east is from the west,” eerily similar to the most celebrated line of the medieval Jewish poet Yehuda Halevi who wrote “My heart is in the east, and I am in the uttermost west?”

Did Lanyer have Jewish ancestry? I believe that a biographical reading as well as a literary analysis demonstrates that she probably did. Was Lanyer the Dark Lady? Anyone who argues that with any degree of certainty is being purposefully naïve or disingenuous. Yet when A.L. Rowse conjectured that Lanyer may have been the Dark Lady, he claimed that the only record of her existence was in Forman’s diaries. It’s true that the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford where Rowse was working contained Forman’s writings but none of the nine surviving copies of Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. Yet a short walk to the Bodleian Library and Rowse could have found this book by a woman he claimed was silent, only speaking through Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Thankfully literary scholars have given the “Dark Lady” an afterlife; professors like Susanne Woods, David Bevington, Marshall Grossman, and Barbara Lewalski among many others have ensured that Lanyer will occupy a place in the canon she was denied because of her gender. Conservative critics like the always-pugnacious Harold Bloom attribute this widening of the canon to “political correctness.” Far from it, the inclusion of a poet like Lanyer is not a denigration of the canon, it’s an acknowledgment that she should have always been included. Now, 370 years after her death, it’s impressive enough that Amelia Lanyer is herself.

Ed Simon is a senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books and an adjunct assistant professor of English and Media Studies at Bentley University. He is the author of America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion. His Twitter feed is @WithEdSimon.