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.
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.