Oct 19, 2016

Latest developments

A new edition of the second volume of my trilogy, DARK VENUS, is due out in June, 2017. 

Dark Venus continues the story of Alexander Cooke, actor in the company that includes William Shakespeare, weaving in her friendship with Amelia Bassano Lanyer. Cooke, called Sander (or, to Amelia, Sandro) was born female, a secet which Amelia is among the few to know. Each woman contends in her own way with the man's world of Queen Elizabeth's England, Sander by concealing her feminine charms, Amelia by making use of them. Each is driven by the need to assert her creativity and wit, employing different sorts of deception to that end.

Political complications, theatrical events, and love all play a part, the latter most insistent with Amelia, who becomes the muse to William Shakespeare as the Dark Lady of his sonnets. She too is a poet; her gifts play out in this twisting tale.

Contact: JinnySB@aol.com   


Sep 14, 2016

2016 Update

This blog is temproarily on hiatus. It began as  background to my novels about the historical actor Alexander Cooke, whose name is included in the list of actors in Shakespeare's First Folio of 1623. Later Cooke was credited by Edmond Malone, the early critic of Shakespeare's works, as having originated his principle female roles. My historical twist: Cooke was born female, which adds an extra layer of gender disguise on and off stage.

The subject of gender fluidity in the late sixteenth and early seventeeth century is varied and endlesslly fascinating, as these blogs indicate. I'll be participating on a panel at the 2017 Historical Novelists' Society conference on just this topic.

Now that publication of my Shakespeare's Actor Trilogy is uncertain, I'm taking a break from the blog. When details are finalized for new editions of the novels, I'll begin again from the first post, as they serve as an informal readers' guide. Thank you for your interest! 


Dec 14, 2015

Maid Marian's Holiday Revels: Part Two

The next night when they close the door behind them and step into the busy street, Angelika cannot believe her eyes. The crowd moving towards the Town Hall looks more fantastical than a gypsy caravan. Most everyone is masked, and all wear bizarre garments, from shabby velvet and spangles to rough homespun. One tall fellow is covered with a mouldery old bearskin! She looks closely at those in homespun; if Gemma is right, some of these could be the most prosperous townsfolk.

In the reception room inside the Town Hall, a table is laden with tankards and cups. Wassail warms on the hob, where a boy wearing an elfin mask ladles out their drinks. The room is already full, musicians warming up on one side of the giant hearth. Angelika catches a glimpse of her father and his fellows dressed in their finest Flemish garb and wearing masks decorated with paste jewels as if they’re the three kings from the East.

After a few jaunty tunes, the musicians launch into the song of the season:

With a rink tink tink

We lift our drink

Now let the old bell sound:

A joyous Yuletide to us all

May happiness abound!

Angelika joins in the rounds, her voice drowned in the off-key enthusiasm of the crowd. At the end of the song the musicians carry on playing: recorders, a viol, drums, mandolin and tambourines at a merry pace.

Gemma whirls her into the dancers. When a Robin Hood in green homespun grins at Anglelika and touches her hand through the first set, she lets herself go, moving from partner to partner, circling back to her Robin Hood, whose eyes gleam from behind his domino.

The Lord of Misrule in his pointed purple hat stands well above the other dancers—which would seem to give away his identity. But coming close to him, Angelika sees he’s wearing clogs that increase his height.

As soon as he waves the musicians to stop, dancers follow a motley procession of well-muscled men carrying the yule log into the spacious hall set with long tables, all singing the Boar’s Head carol.

The boar's head in hand bring I,

Bedeck'd with bays and rosemary.

And I pray you, my masters, merry be

All many many in the feast.

Everyone joins the chorus:

The boar's head I offer here

Giving praises to the Lord for all that’s dear.

All the men sing the next verse:

The boar’s head, as I understand,

Is the rarest dish in all this land,

Which thus bedeck’d with a gay garland

Let us serve with joyous song.

Even Angelika joins in the last chorus.

The boar's head I offer here

Giving praises to the Lord for all that’s dear.

There’s no actual boar’s head, just the massive log which they throw onto the fire. Angelika gasps at the tables lit by the sudden flare. Bountiful dishes are laid from end to end, and as centerpiece, a whole roasted peacock, complete with brilliant tail-feathers!

Robin Hood escorts her to the table, smiling at her wonderment. “The chief cook for Windsor Palace serves us a peacock every year—with Her Majesty’s approval.” He points out a fat man dressed in red and green motley with a fool’s belled cap on his head. “There’s the cook—and those goblins are his assistants.”

A dozen fellows wearing raggedy brown woollen and caps with stag horns attached hover near the table looking as if they’ll pounce on the diners. No one pays them any mind as they take places at the table. The Lord of Misrule carves the peacock and the goblins keep the dishes circulating, pouring out wassail and cider until trenchers and cups overflow.

The Hall smells of fir and bay, roast meat and the sweat of dancers, but sitting by Angelika, Robin Hood gives off a spicy perfumed fragrance. He whispers a few words of Flemish in her ear, a lovely little verse to her beauty, badly pronounced and rhymed.

“You know my language?” She hopes her blush is masked in the glow of pine torch and candle sconces.

“For you, Maid Marian, I can speak in any tongue.”

After the meal Robin Hood stays beside her through the mumming. Gemma’s gift for drama surprises Angelika. Short though she is, she makes a manly Prince George, and her mock-fighting the Turk with wooden swords is the comic highlight of the show. A group of clownish woodsmen tumble and somersault across the stage, and the program ends with little elves and fairies singing old carols in their honeyed voices.

The children form a line roughly according to age. At the front are those who can barely toddle; at the end, boys and girls old enough to smile shyly at each other. Angelika guesses which are more prosperous: likely the most tattered. The finery of children who are truly poor has a cast-off look that she finds moving. All mingle together, till the Lord of Misrule gives out wrapped sweets.  On Epiphany the poor, no longer in costume, will receive coins, Gemma told her, but tonight, handfuls of sweets to every child.

The trumpet sounds a fanfare and the lord calls out: “Now we honor the Prince and Princess of tonight’s revels.”

Sweeping towards Angelica and Robin Hood, his cape spangled with stars and moons like a very Merlin, the lord takes them by the hands and leads them to the stage. Under his green domino Robin is regal, impassive. Angelika feels uncomfortable to be so singled out in this unknown place, but Robin’s firm demeanor gives her strength to smile graciously.

When the lord directs them to kneel before him, she’s thrilled. Who would imagine that a girl weaver of Flanders would be honored as royalty for a festive night! He produces two golden circlets from beneath his robe and holds them above their heads, his arms raised high. “I pronounce you prince and princess of the revels.”

He sets one on Robin’s head and one on hers. “Now: begin the royal pavanne.”

Robin Hood takes Angelika in his arms. In Flanders she knows how to dance well enough, but with this partner she feels herself a true princess, light-footed, stately, floating with him through the measures. Even when the floor fills with others, she’s aware of none but the two of them on their private cloud. They dance until the torches burn low, moving through patterns with other partners, always returning to each other. She has no sense of time passing, and is startled when the musicians put down their instruments.

In his carrying voice the Lord of Misrule begins the last song, with voices rising on each line:

With a rink tink tink

We lift our drink

Now let the old bell sound:

A joyous Yuletide to us all

May happiness abound!

After verses go round and round in increasing volume and jollity, the drummer beats a sharp rat tat tat a tat. The celebration is over. Revelers drift reluctantly toward the door, as those who’ll sleep cozy in the Town Hall return to the dining room to roll out their beds, tables with remnants of food remaining, pushed against the wall.

Outside a gentle snow is falling. Angelika feels the snowfall as a blessing and a loss, beautiful but erasing all the joy she knew inside the Hall. She sees Gemma—Prince George—coming her way.

Angelica turns to her Robin Hood, her feelings in tumult. They hold each others’ eyes for a precious long moment. Then Robin Hood bends down and kisses the snowflake on Maid Marian’s upper lip. He lifts the gilded circlet from her head and gives it to her with a grand gesture.

“Farewell, my Princess,” he says in English. “I shall remember you always.” He vanishes into the snowy street.

Angelika lets herself be pulled along to Gemma’s cottage, clutching her crown as snowflakes fall on her shoulders. Her rare evening as Maid Marian has become a dream, sure to warm her many a cold Flanders night.

To order The Secret Player or Dark Venus, see http://www.oldhandpress.com


Dec 9, 2015

Maid Marian's Holiday Revels: Part One

On December 24, 1594, a delegation of Flemish weavers arrives in Windsor with a tapestry ordered for the castle. Queen Elizabeth is spending the holiday season at Greenwich Palace, leaving only a steward and handful of servants in Windsor Castle.

The steward greets the weavers and two men servants help carry their heavy load into the chilly entry hall.

“You’re lucky you arrived on that last coach. There will be no more in or out of town until after St. Stephen’s Day,” the steward tells them. “Stay and celebrate Christmas with us. Services at St. Andrew’s tonight, and afterwards, jolly times until Twelfth Night.”

The weavers, whose English serves, book the last room at the hospitable Rose and Crown inn. Angelika, daughter of the master weaver and the only female in their party, lodges with Gemma, the town seamstress.

Gemma welcomes her guest with open arms. Her son is grown and gone, her apprentice off to her village for the holidays. This Flemish girl not only shows a modest disposition but is remarkably pretty, with russet colored hair, innocent brown eyes, a winning smile, and charmingly accented English.

As Gemma and Angelika sit together drinking cider in the fading afternoon light, the girl asks, “How do you have a shop of your own? No woman can do in Flanders. I learnt weaving from my father because he owns the workshop. He brings me here, but my mother does not like.”

“Lucky you to have such a father,” Gemma says. “My husband, God rest his soul, was fine father too—and a tailor. We worked here together for years. After he died, the business became mine. When the Court is here, I sew for the Queen’s ladies and maids-of-honor, but mostly for the town folk. Windsor is prosperous, near enough to London but well out of London’s crowds and London’s competition.”

Angelika takes in the glowing fire, the flagon of cider warming on the hob, fragrant stew in the pot and a trundle bed for her. The dresser shelves are crowded with pewter and slipware, and the room is swagged with ivy, bay and holly tied with red ribbons. A fat candle splutters its uneven light in the darkening room. “You do well, Mistress Gemma.”

“Yes, I’m fortunate—and grateful. Time to fetch our cloaks. We’ll eat after Christmas Eve services.” Gemma swings the pot to the side of the fire to simmer.

The two of them walk to St. Andrews, the air crisp and frosty, their fellow churchgoers calling out greetings. A pine torch welcomes them at the door and inside, candles shimmer over the carved stone. Angelika can follow the service well enough, but best of all is the music, especially the tender soaring voices of the boy sopranos, like angels to her ears.

She walks back to Gemma’s in the starlight, moved to an unfamiliar joy. Warm company, mutton stew, cider and slices of cake end their evening, festive yet sacred.

Next day three of Gemma’s widowed friends dine on roast goose at Gemma’s generous Christmas board, laughing and gossiping. Angelika joins in the merriment, though she catches but half of what they say, snatches of stories and too many names.

Over the plum pudding, Gemma asks her what she will wear to the revels at the Town Hall the following night.

Angelika indicates her dark blue woollen skirt and embroidered bodice. “This is my best.”

“I shall find you something more apt. We go in masquerade. There’s feasting every day until Twelfth Night, but tomorrow, St. Stephen’s Day is special. Usually I’m a respected woman of business, but for this feast and our mumming show, I become Prince George. This cloth of gold,” Gemma goes to a large wooden chest and lifts out a wide raggedy strip, “will be my royal robe. My jeweled sash will be decorated with holly berries, my cloak of ermine this piece of felt, my regal boots clogs.”

“You joke. A woman cannot be a man.”

Gemma’s friends laugh and Alice says, “You are in England, my girl. You must forget the ways of Flanders.”

“During these holidays all is turned upside down,” Gemma says. “The mayor gives no orders; the poor show no humility. Until Twelfth Night we know no difference of degree or of sex. All are in disguise, and the Lord of Misrule reigns supreme.”

“The Lord of Misrule?” The words sound strange to Angelika’s tongue.

“That’s what he’s called,” Alice says. “We reverse all customary behavior for revelry, dance and song. Listen closely, for you’ll soon be singing this with us.”

Gemma sings the first line, with each of her friends joining in a line later:

With a rink tink tink

We lift our drink

Now let the old bell sound:

A joyous Yuletide to us all

May happiness abound!

 “Now you join in.” Angelika chimes in the second round.

“Louder,” Gemma cries. “Loud and clear.”

“A girl’s voice must be soft,” Angelika says.

“Not during this season. Gentlemen and ladies may soften theirs, but we women are free to bellow.”

“Will we not be punished?”

“Not at all,” Alice says. “There’s no order this holiday season, male or female, high or low. Little lord Jesus was born in a manger, his parents lowly. Here the poor who haven’t a snug roof over their heads sleep in the Town Hall for the next twelve nights. Crowded together they may be, but with bellies full of spiced wine, roast boar and cakes, and a fire night and day.”

“You are not poor,” Angelika says.

“No, but everyone joins the feasting in the Town Hall,” Alice says. “The mayor and council and townsfolk. Rich and poor cannot tell one from another. We drink wassail together, bring in a yule log, eat and drink—”

Gemma interrupts: “And perform. As Prince George, I fight a Turk.”

“That would be me,” says Mary, the stoutest of Gemma’s friends. “Beware: I make a frightening Turk!”

Gemma takes a piece of green gossamer out of the chest. “Here’s your kerchief.”

Angelika takes it, looking at Gemma’s very feminine self. “I’ve never heard of anything like this.”

“Surely you have revels in Flanders.”

“We do not, not like this. What does your Lord of Misrule do?”

“He rules over the celebrations.”

“Or mis-rules,” Mary laughs.

“We play our mummers’ show to him,” Gemma continues, “costumed tradespeople performing scenes from Prince George’s life, or as he’s now known, St. George’s. Afterwards we dance, every age together. The Lord of Misrule leads the musicians and the festivities.”

“Who is he?” Angelika asks.

“We don’t know. Well, sometimes we guess,” Gemma smiles. “But only the mayor knows for sure. His last official duty before the revels begin is drawing from his hat the name of this year’s Lord of Misrule. Secretly he delivers to him his wizard’s mask and cloak. Most everyone else is masked as well. I have a gold vizard—” she lifts a tarnished domino from her chest, “and you may wear this green one.” Gemma reaches deeper into the chest. “This skirt and bodice will suit you. You will be Maid Marian. Do you know her story?”

Angelika shakes her head.

“Maid Marian is the sweetheart of Robin Hood, an outlaw who lives in the woods and robs rich folk to give to the poor. Some say Marian was once a noblewoman who ran away in boy’s clothes. As Robin Hood’s close companion, she wears green skirts like a woodland princess.”

Angelika holds the skirt up to herself and smiles. Made of layer upon layer of tattered green muslin, it’s short enough to show her ankles. The brocade bodice is edged with shirred green lace. “If I’m Maid Marian, shouldn’t one of you be Robin Hood?”

“Oh, there’ll be two or three Robin Hoods I should think,” Mary says. “Perhaps a woman, but more likely a councilman’s son or merchant’s—or mayhap a pauper. Who knows? You may not be the only girl in green, but surely the fairest, even under this mask. Enjoy yourself!”

“Within the bounds of virtue,” Angelika says in her quaint accent.

“Of course,” Alice laughs. “The virtue of Yuletide.”

At the look of distress on Angelika’s face, Gemma says, “This isn’t May Day; don’t worry. All Alice means is, you need not be overly modest. Dance to your heart’s content, flirt from behind your mask, please yourself. Do you understand?”

Angelika nods, but looks doubtful.

“It’s a pleasure to be courted by earnest swains, be they of noble or humble birth,” Gemma continues. “We can’t be sure who’s behind the visors and false beards. Some no doubt are women. Look at me!” She takes a piece of charcoal and marks her upper lip with a moustache.

“To me you still look like a woman,” Angelika says.

“Candles flickering in the dark room cast mysterious glow over us all. None resemble their ordinary selves. You may not even recognize your fellow weavers.” At the surprise on Angelika’s face, Gemma says, “No one misses St. Stephen’s Day! Of course they’ll be there.”

“Wearing costumes?”

“Perhaps as men of Flanders.”

Angelika laughs along with the others.


Oct 8, 2015

A sad development

Bedtrick, due to come out this November, has been postponed indefinitely. George Spitzer, publisher of Nebbadoon Press, died suddenly this summer in a freak accident. He'd had the manuscript for some months; the cover was designed and the press at last ready to begin the copy-editing process. I had an outreach plan for the entire trilogy in process. That sadly has come to a halt.

As Bedtrick will not be published by Nebbadoon, it is available to another press or literary agent. My contract, however, was for the entire trilogy, so rights to all three books are tied up in probate. As Of December, 2015, all rights have reverted to me.

At the news of George's death, knowing I'd have to make other publishing arrangements, I reread the much-edited manuscrip and cut 3000 words, then rewrote with sufficient backstory for this book to stand alone. It is now ready to go out in the world! 

Hard copies of The Secret Player and Dark Venus are available through Old Hand Press: http://www.oldhandpress.com


Mar 19, 2015

The Bedtrick

The bedtrick: sex with a partner who pretends to be someone else. [Introduction, Wendy Doniger, The Bedtrick: Tales of Sex and Masquerade, University of Chicago, 2000.]

Two of Shakespeare’s plays, All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure, make use of the plot device called a bedtrick, an ancient motif in stories—and occasionally in life, according to Wendy Doniger’s study which shares a title with my novel. Like me, Doniger, is intrigued by masquerade and pretense in sexual encounters—for her, from a mythic point of view. Thus her definition of the term “bedtrick” is broader than that in Shakespeare’s plays, whereby a man sleeps with the woman he rejected believing she’s the one he lusts after. The overall definition of a bedtrick is a lie about sex, whatever form that lie takes.

In these two so-called problem comedies of Shakespeare, the man sleeps with a woman who gives him her virginity while he believes she’s someone else. We’re left to imagine how successful their marriage will be. Helena, in All’s Well, and Mariana, in Measure for Measure, each loves her misbehaving partner more than he deserves. Perhaps each man will, as Bertram says at the end of All’s Well, come to love her dearly.

According to Doniger, this sort of bedtrick was legal, and she documents cases to prove it. She adds that in fact, such a deception could be regarded as a valid way to secure a husband. Some men may agree with Stanley Wells’ assertion in Shakespeare, Sex, and Love that a bedtrick is tantamount to rape: the man does not desire union with this particular woman.

I encountered Doniger’s book after I devised the plot—and title—of this novel and was relieved that her analysis is inclusive enough that my fictional bedtrick warrants the name. Those perpetrating the bedtrick in my book are both women, fully aware of who slept with whom: the lie is to the world.

The historical actor Alexander Cooke, protagonist of The Secret Player and Dark Venus, fathered children. In my trilogy, Sander Cooke was born female. Pregnancy would destroy her male persona and her acting career, so another means is needed for her to become a parent. A bedtrick.

To preorder Bedtrick or volumes 1 and 2 of this series in text or e-book, see



Jan 27, 2015

Writing "in collaboration with" Shakespeare

Author credit for Tales of Woo and Woe, A Journey of the Heart is: by Jinny Webber, in collaboration with William Shakespeare.

How am I so daring as to “collaborate” with the bard, dead for 399 years? And how can I call myself the writer?

A writer structures words. In this play, over 90% of the words are by Shakespeare, but reordered around our theme. DramaDogs, a theater company, commissioned me to put together this play. It’s the second Shakespeare-inspired work they’ve asked me to write. Queen Undaunted: Margaret of Anjou ran in 2011 and 2012 and continues in a lecture-demonstration version. That one-woman show performed by DramaDogs’ co-artistic director, E. Bonnie Lewis, tells the story of Queen Margaret as she appears in Shakespeare’s three Henry VI plays and Richard III.

Tales of Woo and Woe has a different sort of theme: the joys and challenges of love as presented in Shakespeare’s plays, poems, and songs. Originally I found the task unwieldy, with so much to choose from. Finding the structure made all the difference: a five-part development of the theme of wooing and woe. The play now moves through Love at First Sight, the Follies of Love, Vows, and Torment and Pain, to Love’s Fulfillment. There we have our arc through the vicissitudes and delights of the heart. 

The play is designed for 6-8 actors (we have 8 in our preview performances this February), with short scenes, monologues, and debates interspersed with a song for each section. We want to illustrate universal emotions, which Shakespeare is so renowned for but which in his plays are seen in context. For example, his words on jealousy are psychologically acute—and most are found in Othello. How to present the ideas without going into the details of the plot and that fateful handkerchief?

This I solved by making the jealousy section into a debate. The actors throw the wonderful lines back and forth: “Jealous souls . . ./are not ever jealous for the cause,/But jealous for they are jealous: 'tis a monster/Begot upon itself, born on itself” and the like. The longest speech in that section is Leontes’, “I have drunk, and seen the spider” speech that ends, “My wife is nothing; nor nothing have these nothings,/If this be nothing.” Another actor retorts with Luciana’s line in A Comedy of Errors: “Self-harming jealousy—fie, beat it hence.”

Debates, choric readings, and stand-alone vignettes make up the play, flowing from one aspect of desire and grief to the next and ending with love that endures beyond time. Songs and music weave through: after all, music is the food of love. That line isn’t in the play; it’s spoken by the fickle Count Orsino, but we do include “When Love speaks, the voice of all the gods/ Makes heaven drowsy with the harmony,/ A heavenly gift that turns the mind” from Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Shakespeare compilations aren’t unknown; I recall attending one years ago at the Royal Shakespeare Company. What we hope to do with ours is create a new work that brings Shakespeare’s insights and poetry to life afresh. The actors enjoy the chance to cut their teeth on Shakespeare before committing to a full play, and the audience gets a delightful taste that we hope will encourage further enjoyment of Shakespeare in text and performance. Many of us involved with this play, myself included, are connected to Santa Barbara City College and our “pay what you can” matinees are particularly aimed at students.

In the script I credit the source of each passage used, though not the actor and scene. Some are obvious: Romeo and Juliet and Beatrice and Benedick in particular, and some are clearly sonnets. The program will list the sources in order.

We’re also offering a special ticket deal for those who want to return to for a second viewing. If they bring their ticket stub and are accompanied by a paying guest, they get free admission. This gives an opportunity to those who wish to get a deeper experience and fuller understanding. However, our intent is to bring the words to life effectively enough to constitute a full theatrical evening.

Information on Tales of Woo and Woe: A Journey of the Heart in Santa Barbara, California, February, 2105:

Center Stage Theater , 751 Paseo Nuevo. February 6-7 and 12-14, 8 p.m.; Feb 8 and 14, 2 p.m. Tickets available at htttp://www.centerstagetheater.org ; 805.963.0408  . General $23, $18 Students/Seniors.  

Special "Pay what you can" matinees at 2 p.m., February 7 and 14. Minimum $8.; tickets at the door, cash or check only. 


Please join us if you can!


Jul 12, 2014

Marriage Rituals in Elizabethan England, II

My book due out in 2015 is entitled Bedtrick. This refers to a dramatic device in two of Shakespeare’s plays, All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure, which he wrote close together in the early seventeenth century. In these plays the rites of marriage are scrambled and the endings are problematical.

Although I don’t use the exact “bedtrick” that Shakespeare employs, my novel too is problematical so far as marriage goes. In these two plays, a man refuses to complete the third stage of marriage, consummation, but is tricked into having sex with his affianced woman, believing that this bedmate is the one he lusts after. Thus each is tricked into the fulfillment of his marriage.

For Bertram in All’s Well, his marriage to Helena has been solemnized before a priest, but he did not consent. The King dictated that they should marry. Immediately after he is wed to Helena, Bertram flees to the Tuscan wars, vowing never to bed her. Helena follows him in the disguise of a pilgrim and befriends Diana, the woman Betram is attempting to seduce. Diana agrees to a bedtrick, whereby she will promise to meet Bertram and Helena take her place. Not only does Helena bed Bertram, but she secures his ring.

Before Measure for Measure opens, the zealously puritanical Angelo was espoused to Mariana. They exchanged mutual consent, but when her dowry was lost at sea, he refused to marry her. Believing he’s having sex with Isabella, novitiate in a convent, Angelo consummates his bond to Mariana. In the final scene the Duke orders that the missing step be taken: Angelo must solemnize his marriage to Mariana.

The ending of neither play convinces us that these will be happy unions—and in Measure for Measure there are two additional intended marriages of questionable results: the Duke’s to Isabella and Lucio’s to the whore Kate Keepdown.

In Shakespeare’s Common Prayers, Daniel Swift says that the “cautious sequence of consent and devotion” of the marriage rite builds “a vision of order and grace.” (97) Marriage is ordained for the procreation of children, the remedy against sin and fornication, and “mutual society, help, and comfort, both in prosperity and adversity.” It is a social structure and a personal one, of benefit to the individual, church, and community. 

However, the marriage ritual also imagines rupture. After his exhortation of the reasons for marriage, the priest addresses the audience: “Therefore, if any man can show any just cause why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak.” He goes into detail about possible impediments to marriage and concludes that if there are any, “Solemnization must be deferred until such time as the truth be tried.” (98-99)

At this point there’s a moment of hushed suspense in the church: will someone suddenly speak up and uncover a scandal, or will silence reign? If silence prevails, the priest continues the ritual: “Wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded wife” and so on.

One way of looking at these two plays is that they deal with impediments to marriage. They are classified as comedies in Shakespeare’s First Folio, so there’s an expectation that they will end in marriage as his comedies generally do. But they are his last comedies, and by the time of writing All’s Well, “Shakespeare’s dramatic interest in the flow of plot was succeeded by a heightened interest in obstruction.” (104) 

Since Frederick Boas first used the term in 1896, All’s Well, Measure for Measure, and Troilus and Cressida have been known as problem plays. (Boas included Hamlet among them). All are set in “highly artificial societies, whose civilization is ripe unto rottenness.” 

The marriages at the end of All’s Well and Measure for Measure are unsatisfactory: they lack clear consent. “Even as the three elements of the marriage rite, contract, solemnization, and consummation—are here specifically named, they are also emptied of their devotional and emotional value.” (111) Swift calls them “hollow ceremonies and grotesque parodies” of the ideal ceremony: “these are dramas of precisely the impediment that the marriage rite conjures.” (111)

In both cases, the impediment has been resolved by a bedtrick “in which the men are fooled into a consummation with their own wives.”

Swift points out that Measure for Measure and All’s Well “divorce sex from love and rite from promise: they dismantle, with close specificity, the separate elements that make up the structure of marriage.” He refers to them as “tormented sad plays,” where the bedtrick “exploits both the hopes and fears implicit to the orthodox structure of marriage.” When the priest asks for an impediment, the tense silence in the congregation comes from fear: the “nightmare just beneath the clarity of the rite’s bounded world.” (111-112)

Before concluding his chapter with a discussion of Othello, Swift talks about the various theories regarding Shakespeare’s own marriage to Anne Hathaway. Those who write about it give alternative stories of faithfulness, of adultery. His plays, so often disquieting about marriage, leave the answer open.


Jul 5, 2014

Marriage Rituals in Elizabethan England, I

The third volume of my Shakespeare Actor Trilogy, due in 2015, deals with marriage, both in Shakespeare’s plays and in the lives of my characters. An enlightening book on the subject is Daniel Swift’s Shakespeare’s Common Prayers, which devotes two chapters to the solemnization of matrimony in the Book of Common Prayer as related to Shakespeare’s plays and era.

Swift argues that because the Book of Common Prayer was “the devotional centerpiece of an age that was passionately religious,” its revisions or threatened revisions were of vital importance. Among key controversies were those over marriage rituals and the result, as his book illustrates, was a degree of chaos and inconsistency in practice. After Henry VIII broke with Rome, his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, oversaw the first Book of Common Prayer. Issued in 1549, it was intended by Cranmer to be “an ambiguous book,” and subsequent editions compounded this. (Swift 24) Church convocations “decided against clarifying the prayer book, precisely because a strategically vague theology allowed a wider range of confessional factions to worship together.” (24).

Hence the confusion about marriage ritual.

The Protestant Reformation had changed two elements from Roman Catholic practice. Catholics regarded matrimony as a sacrament, along with baptism and Holy Communion; Protestants did not. “A sacrament is in the simplest version a sign that confers grace upon men: it is a delivery mechanism and a meeting point between the human and the divine.” (68) Yet even as they “demoted marriage from sacrament to church rite, Protestant thinkers defended the holiness of the state and specifically praised married sex as an act of devotion.” Sexual consummation became an essential part of marriage, rather than simply a means of “carnal multiplication.” (81) This attitude is behind the Protestant argument that priests should be allowed to marry: sex, rather than being unclean, is holy. The language in Romeo and Juliet makes this explicit.

Strictures against whoredom were based on the concept that the body itself is holy. “Do ye not know that he, which cleaveth to an whore, is made one body with her?” (Swift, 82, quoting a 1547 homily, which goes on to point out that disease comes of whoredom.)

In Shakespeare’s England, there were three stages of marriage: spousal (the exchange of consent between the man and woman), church solemnization, and consummation, in that order. First the couple agrees to marry; second they solemnize the union before a priest; third they fulfill their contract with sexual union. In practice, consummation might come first. Because sexual congress was the sacred joining of two bodies in one, it represented a marriage contract in itself, so in practice could come before or after spousal and solemnization.

In As You Like It, Shakespeare begins “with an apparent opposition between two ways of handling [the marriage rituals in] the Book of Common Prayer: one can mock its rites or follow them. In this play however, both attitudes may simultaneously be true.” (93) He points out that in Shakespeare’s source for the play, Thomas Lodge’s  pastoral romance Rosalynde, the ‘wedding’ scene between Orlando and Ganymede, (Rosalind in her boy’s disguise), is initiated by her cousin Celia. In Shakespeare’s version it is Rosalind who says, “Come sister, you shall be the priest and marry us,” and Orlando seconds her: “Pray thee, marry us.” (As You Like It, IV, 1, 106-16) 

Swift points out that Rosalind insists that Celia use the precise words. When Orlando says, “I will”, he’s agreeing to what is known as a de futuro contract, which is not legally binding. Rosalind pushes him: “Then you must say, I take thee Rosalind for wife.” Swift notes, “As he utters the words, ‘I take thee,’ he enters into a de praesenti contract, which is legally binding as soon as it is reciprocated.” (94). In the next line Rosalind says “I do take thee, Orlando, for my husband.” (IV, 1, 117-118)

“They are now, according to the widely accepted laws of spousals, married. All that is further required is a church solemnization and sexual consummation.” (94) The ceremony between Orlando and Rosalind—note that in the vow Ganymede says ‘his’ pretend name of Rosalind—takes the exact words from the Book of Common Prayer: “the formal liturgy is disguised under a popular declaration of spousal contract. It is both binding and playful, both pretense and true. And it is what the characters wish.” (95)

Underlying many of the jokes in this play is what Swift calls “the inevitability of sexual consummation.” (95) Solemnization comes first, and then, as the final couplet has it, these “rites” will end in “true delights.”

After his commentary on As You Like It, preceded in his book by a fascinating discussion of the liturgical basis of Romeo and Juliet, Swift says: “Shakespeare found drama in the liturgy of the marriage rite, and as he patterned his plays on its forms he inherited also an arena of controversy, for the very words and objects he adopted were fiercely contested.” (95)

Continued in the next post.

Quotations from Daniel Swift, Shakespeare’s Common Prayers: The Book of Common Prayer and the Elizabethan Age, Oxford University Press, 2013.

To order The Secret Player or Dark Venus, see  http://www.oldhandpress.com


May 7, 2014

A Woman's Reputation


“I may not follow my heart, Sandro; perhaps I no longer have one. The evening where you played Venus at Henry Risley’s, I realized that I’ve never felt love—nor lust—for a man. Yet I can be called whore because men have claimed me, not because of anything I do. That’s what I mean by rules. We’re to be kept in our place.”

                                    Amelia, Dark Venus, Chapter XII


In Elizabethan times when women were meant to be obedient, chaste, and silent, those who appeared to stray from that norm risked being called whore or witch.

Due out soon, I see, is another novel about Amelia Bassano Lanyer, one of the two protagonists of Dark Venus. I don’t read fiction set in the Elizabethan era, but I did take a quick look inside this book on Amazon, as far as the cast of characters. Amelia, spelled Aemelia, is described as “ A Lady, a Poet, a Whore.” I read no more, though I’d welcome a comparative review of Dark Venus and that novel, entitled Dark Aemelia.

Dark Venus reveals Amelia Bassano’s point of view; she never sees herself as a whore. At the age of 18, she’s taken up by Lord Hunsdon, who’s in his 50’s and long married. Her protector, Susan Bertie, the Countess of Kent, cannot interfere: Hunsdon is Queen Elizabeth’s kinsman and her Lord Chamberlain. Five years later when Amelia becomes pregnant by him, Lord Hunsdon marries her off to a fellow musician, Alfonso Lanyer. Hunsdon gives Amelia the house he bought her and an allowance until his death, but this does not make her a whore.

Part of the evidence for labeling her as such comes from the sonnets Shakespeare writes about the “dark lady.” [Not everyone agrees that Amelia Bassano is indeed that lady, though she is in the popular imagination.] In sonnet 137, he wonders how his eyes deceive him into loving a woman loved by many, or, in his words, has he anchored his affections “in the bay where all men ride”

And this is only one of many such jealous phrases. Whether these sonnets are an exploration of the perplexities of love or have an autobiographical basis, the emotions are those of the speaker. Othello speaks similarly of the innocent Desdemona after Iago twists his mind. The speaker of the sonnets is tormented by the compelling and beautiful dark-browed lady, but we do not know if she’s guilty as charged.

The second piece of evidence is the diary of Dr. Simon Forman, an Elizabethan astrologist much sought-after by fashionable women. Forman was evidently obsessed by sex and open to sexual encounters with his clients, which he records with a novelist’s verve and imagination. Amelia consulted Forman in 1597, well after the time period of her affair with William Shakespeare and the probable dates of his sonnets about the "dark lady," 1593-94. Dr. Forman says she wanted to know if her husband would become the gentleman he aspired to be; he gives a slanderous reading of Amelia's character as licentious and greedy for wealth.

According to Forman, Amelia flirted with him, but when he attempted to seduce her, she refused him. Yet that didn’t stop him from referring to her as being the seductress. At worst, Amelia Bassano Lanyer was a tease, based on the effect of her appearance on him more than any overt behavior of her own. Women’s fashions today are often stylishly provocative, as were Elizabethan low-cut bodices and corseted waists, which doesn’t make the wearer an intentional tease except in the male observer’s mind.

There’s no historical evidence that Amelia was a whore. She remained married to Alfonso Lanyer until his death, giving birth to a second child fathered by him, Odelia, who died at the age of nine months. When she ran into financial troubles, she tried to solve them by running a school. In 1611 she published her book-length collection of original poetry, an unprecedented ambitious and feminist enterprise for a woman. She speaks in that book of the untrustworthiness of men, something she knew well at first hand.

Best to look beyond men’s accusations before labeling a woman “whore.”


Dark Venus is available at   http://www.oldhandpress.com