Emilia at the Curtain – Elizabeth Sylvia

Descend. Be stone no more.
			– The Winter’s Tale
“Was Shakespeare a Woman?”
			– Elizabeth Winkler, The Atlantic
Remember, when absence comes along
ringing his empty bell of doubt
that everyone will someday dream about
the loves they lost and those they left among
the ruins when the bonds
they built in bed were broken
by the stricter social rules (spoken
and not) that say a man must respond
to jealousy or pregnancy with equal
aversion and shuttle off the woman,
who has revealed her monstrous form
before his eyes so all her secret
charms shatter on the floor, to death
or banishment. Take Emilia Bassano, whom
some scholars have looked to
name Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, with
her brunette hair, her foreign
skin, her Italian musicality,
her well-read intellectual vitality.
All unusual enough that she became
the first English woman to publish
a book of her own verse and seek
for patronage, and so unique
that some would establish
her as the true author of the plays
(see: Elizabeth Winkler, writing in The Atlantic,
on the controversy around that dramatic
provenance), an argument that reappraises
the rich development of female
characters as feminist imagination
on the Tudor stage, the insinuation
being that Emilia railed
against the restrictions of her sex and life
in Shakespeare’s name.  Did she put
herself in every blameless heroine who lets
a fake demise resolve the strife
her witless husband puts her through?
Emilia adored her life at court, but when
her lover Henry Carey, the Baron
of Hudson impregnated her, he shooed
her out and made her by marriage
an exile from all the glitter and wit
she loved. Her whole existence closeted
shamed small forgotten wreckage
to the Baron, but for Emilia, curtained
like Hermione in the The Winter’s Tale,
hope that memory would soften to recall
her, to breathe love once again
into the statue of her day, so that she
could step down from the endless waiting
and grasp the hand of life, persuading
everyone with her forgiveness and beauty,
her poetry and song, to take her back
and set her high on the only stage
that mattered, where courtiers arranged
language to pleasure, refracted
one another’s novelty, and delights like
sugar cakes were plentiful.  In the plays
this happens often, but in Emilia’s
life there was no Act V,
only miscarriages and poverty,
the husband who disparaged her
and sold her jewels, unheralded work,
the hopeless wish for sovereignty
over one’s own days and reputation,
for control of pen, body and mind
instead of the convent/casket/closet designed
to trap female humanity in its low station.

Read: Reading and Writing about Shakespeare by Elizabeth Sylvia

Elizabeth Sylvia (she/her) is a writer of poems and other lists who lives with her family in Massachusetts, where she teaches high school English and coaches debate. Elizabeth’s work is upcoming or has recently appeared in Salamander, Pleiades, Soundings East, J Journal, RHINO, Main Street Rag and a bunch of other wonderful journals. She is currently working on a verse investigation of the writer Elizabeth Barstow Stoddard.

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