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As Bedtrick will not be published by Nebbadoon, it is available to another press or literary agent.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. The publisher's widow plans to maintain e-book sales for writers who wish her to. I am asking that all rights revert to me ASAP.

At the news of George's death, knowing I'd have to make other publishing arrangements, I reread the much-edited manuscript: cut 3000 words! For now Bedtrick is in limbo and I'm pursuing other projects. At some point it will be published! For now, e-books of The Secret Player and Dark Venus are still available through the Nebbadoon Press website. Hard copies of those two books will soon be available through Old Hand Press: stay tuned for details.


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!


Dec 22, 2014

Maid Marion and The Christmas Revels

An original Christmas story, copyright Jinny Webber, 2014

All rights reserved: contact the author for permission to reproduce any part of this story. jinnywebber@jinnywebber.com


On a cold December day, a small delegation from Flanders arrives at Windsor to deliver a tapestry to Windsor castle. Queen Elizabeth is spending the holiday season at Greenwich Palace and her castle is closed up tight. Thus the Flemish party—all of whom speak English—are lodged locally.

A young assistant weaver finds herself staying with a seamstress in the living quarters above her shop. The seamstress is amused to have such a guest; her children are grown, her apprentice has gone to her village for Christmas, and this Flemish girl is remarkably pretty, with russet colored hair and wide innocent eyes of a similar tone.

As they sit together drinking cider in the fading afternoon light, the weaver asks, “How does it happen that you have a shop of your own? ‘Tis very rare for a woman in Flanders.”

“My husband, God rest his soul, was a tailor; we worked here together. When he died, the business became mine. I sew for the ladies at Court when they’re in Windsor, but mostly for the town folk. Windsor is prosperous, near enough to London but well out of London’s crowds—and its competition.”

The weaver is grateful for such a welcoming hostess and cozy place to stay, the fire glowing with the flagon of cider warming on the hob and a trundle bed for her. The dresser full of pewter and slipware is swagged with ivy, bay and holly, and a fat candle splutters its uneven light in the darkening room.

“What shall you wear for tonight’s Christmas celebration at the Town Hall?” the seamstress asks her.

“My Sunday skirt and bodice, of course.”

“That will never do, my friend. ‘Tis a time of disguise. Ordinarily I am a respected woman of business, but for the Christmas revels, I become Prince George. This cloth of gold,” she lifts a wide raggedy strip from a large wooden chest, “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—and all will acknowledge me the Prince.”

“You jest. That’s neither right nor proper.”

“Forget the ways of Flanders,” the seamstress smiles. “At Yuletide here all is turned on its head. The mayor no longer commands; the poor are not humble. For all the days of Christmas, we know no difference of degree or of sex. Our king is Lord of Misrule.”

“The Lord of Misrule?”

“Indeed,” the seamstress laughs. “We reverse all that’s right and proper for the sake of revelry. Here is our anthem: Listen closely, for you’ll soon be singing it.

With a rink tink tink and a sup more drink

We'll make the old bell sound

A merry Christmas to you all

May happiness abound!

“Now sing along.” The weaver joins in the next round.

“No, no,” the seamstress cries. “Loud and clear.”

“My voice must ever be soft.”

“Not at Christmas time. Gentlemen and ladies soften theirs; we bellow.”

“We shall be whipped!”

“Not at all. Little lord Jesus was born in a manger, his parents lowly. Here the poor who haven’t a snug roof over their heads shall sleep in the Town Hall tonight and every one until Twelfth Night. Crowded together they may be, but with bellies full of spiced wine, roast boar, and cakes, and a fire roaring.”

“What about you and me?”

“We shall join the feast in the Town Hall, with the mayor and council and all the townsfolk, the rich and the poor and unable to tell one from another. After the Yule Log is brought in and the wassail is drunk, we perform our mumming show. In my scene as Prince George, I fight with the Turk.” The seamstress digs a piece of green gossamer out of her large wooden chest. “Here’s your kerchief.”

The weaver takes it, puzzled. “I’ve never heard of any such thing.”

“Surely you have revels in Flanders.”

“Not like this. What does the Lord of Misrule do?”

“He presides, of course. We play our mummers’ show, tradespeople performing scenes from Prince George’s life—or St. George’s, in some cases—and then comes the dancing. The Lord of Misrule directs the musicians and keeps the festivities moving.”

“Who is he?”

“We don’t know. Only the mayor knows: that’s his last official duty before the revels begin, to draw the name of the Lord of Misrule from a hat. He wears a wizard’s mask, and most everyone else is masked as well. I have a gold vizard—” the seamstress lifts a tarnished domino from her chest, “and you may wear this green one.” She digs deeper into the chest. “I think this skirt and bodice will suit you. Maid Marion.”

The weaver smiles. She’s proud of her legs; this skirt is made of layer upon layer of tattered green muslin, but short enough to show her ankles almost to her calves. The bodice is cut low with shirred green edging on the neckline. “If I’m Maid Marion, shouldn’t you be Robin Hood?”

“Oh, there’ll be a Robin Hood or two with us—likely a councilman’s son or merchant’s among them. You may not be the only girl in green, but certainly the fairest, even with this mask. Your Flemish blood serves you well. Enjoy yourself!”

“Within the bounds of virtue.”

“Oh yes,” the seamstress laughs. “The virtue of Yuletide.”

At the look of distress on the weaver’s face, she adds: “No maids end up as expectant mothers at the end of the revels: this isn’t May Day. All I mean is that you need not be modest. Dance to your heart’s content, flirt from behind your mask, please yourself. ’Tis a pleasure to be courted by earnest swains, be they of noble or humble birth. We never know who’s behind the visors and false beards. Some no doubt are women. Look at me!” The seamstress takes a piece of charcoal and marks her upper lip with a moustache.

“You look like a woman still.”

“Candles flickering in the dark room cast surprise and mystery over us all—none of us will look like ourselves. You won’t even recognize your fellow weavers, I promise you. Now we must prepare.”

When they step into the street, the weaver cannot believe her eyes: the crowd moving towards the Town Hall is more fantastical than a gypsy caravan. Most are masked or otherwise disguised, and they wear everything from shabby velvet to workers’ homespun—and one even sports a mouldery bearskin. She looks closely at those in homespun; if the seamstress is right, these may well be the most prosperous folk.

Pushing into the reception room, they burst into song:

With a rink tink tink and a sup more drink

We'll make the old bell sound

A merry Christmas to you all

May happiness abound!

The weaver joins in—loud and clear as instructed. The musicians carry on when the song ends, and spontaneous dancing begins.

“Anything goes,” the seamstress whispers when the weaver asks why they begin by dancing. “The feast will follow when the Lord of Misrule decides.”

A homespun Robin Hood sweeps the weaver into the dance. No more questions and confusion: she’s part of the celebration. She moves from partner to partner until suddenly there’s a dissonant horn fanfare and the Lord of Misrule brings dancing to an end. The revelers follow a motley procession carrying the Yule Log and singing the Boar’s Head carol into the large adjoining room where long tables have been set up.

The weaver gasps at the splendor: every sort of dish including a whole baked peacock, which she knows well is only permitted at a royal table.

Robin Hood, who escorted her to dinner, smiles at her wonder. “The chief cook for Windsor Palace bakes a pecock 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 in ill-fitting clothes and caps with horns hover near the table looking as if they’ll pounce on the diners. They must be overseeing the feast, for no one pays them any mind. The clown carves the roast peacock and the goblins help serve; revelers sit at the table or on the benches, their plates and mugs full to overflowing.

The Hall smells of fir and bay, roast meat and the sweat of dancers, but Robin Hood, sitting with the weaver, gives off the faint fragrance of perfume. He whispers a few words of Flemish in her ear—badly pronounced and rhymed, but meant as a verse to her beauty.

Her blush cannot be seen in the light of pine torch and candle sconces, but she feels her cheeks flame. After the meal Robin Hood doesn’t take part in the mumming, but stays beside the weaver through the performance. Her hostess has a theatrical gift, she sees: her scene, Prince George mock-fighting the Turk with wooden swords, is the comic highlight of the show.

Afterwards the Lord of Misrule takes the stage and begins handing out coins and sweets, ceremoniously calling every child up to be awarded, and most all the adults in ragged finery.  

The musicians play a real fanfare this time, and the Lord of Misrule makes his proclamation: “Now I shall honor the Prince and Princess for tonight’s revels.”

Sweeping towards the weaver and Robin Hood in his purple mask and cape spangled with suns and stars and moons like a very Merlin, the Lord takes each of them by the hand and leads them to the stage amidst applause and huzzahs.

“Kneel,” he commands. When they do, he produces two golden crowns gleaming with paste jewels from beneath his robe. “I pronounce you Prince and Princess. You shall begin the pavanne; all may join in after the first set.”

Robin Hood takes the weaver in his arms. In Flanders she’s considered a good dancer, but with this partner feels herself a true Princess, light-footed, stately, floating with him through the measures. Even when the floor fills with others, there’s no one 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.

Suddenly the music stops and the Lord of Misrule sings out in his powerful voice:

With a rink tink tink and a sup more drink

We'll make the old bell sound

A merry Christmas to you all

May happiness abound!

All join in. Those who are sleeping here move towards the dining room, the long tables now cleared and pushed against the wall, and the rest towards the door.

Outside a gentle snow is falling. As Prince George makes her way towards the weaver, Robin Hood bends down and kisses the snowflake on her upper lip.

“Farewell, my Princess,” he says in his rough Flemish, and vanishes into the snowy street.

Wishing you a festive and joyful holiday season, a Jolly Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Volumes One and Two of my Shakespeare Actor Trilogy, The Secret Player and Dark Venus, are available at www.shakespeareantrilogy.com and in Kindle on Amazon. com



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


Apr 16, 2014

A New "Shakespeare in Love"

Celebrate Shakespeare’s 450th Birthday on Wednesday, April 23! 


As if Amelia’s dark beauty weren’t enough to captivate [Shakespeare], her sudden sadness draws him like a siren song. He has a momentary sense of drowning. Amelia Bassano is a rare woman. The feeling that consumes him is not simply a yearning of the body. He needs her.                    Chapter VI, Dark Venus


Clever and memorable as is the movie "Shakespeare in Love," no one suggests that the central love affair is based on a true story. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet comes from an old Italian tale, translated in his day into a poem by Arthur Brooke. His play’s antecedents are literary, not personally romantic. However, besides his wife Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare apparently did have a beautiful and tormenting lover.

If one views Shakespeare's sonnets as at least somewhat autobiographical, he fell in love, or, judging by sonnet 129, in lust, with an enticing dark-browed woman. The likeliest candidate, first suggested by the scholar A. L. Rowse, is Amelia Bassano Lanyer (also spelled Emilia Lanier), a notable and scandalous beauty who eventually published her own book of poetry.

My novel, Dark Venus, depicts their affair from its beginning. Shakespeare knew Amelia when she was the mistress of Queen Elizabeth’s kinsman Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon. When she became pregnant with his child, Hunsdon married her off to her cousin by marriage, her fellow musician, Alfonso Lanyer.

He again meets her at a theatrical event at the home of his patron, the Earl of Southampton, and begins a flirtation with her which  weaves through Dark Venus, along with the story of Amelia’s friend Sander Cooke, boy actor who was born female. Sander’s story is told in The Secret Player, which I completed before the Joseph Fiennes-Gwyneth Paltrow movie came out. Sander never has a love affair with Shakespeare: their friendship is significant in other ways. The man Sander loves is the poet John Donne, who in the late 16th century was a dashing man about town.

Amelia, the dark Venus of my title, may seem to Shakespeare to be a temptress, but her own story reflects a complicated and gifted woman. Of course she uses her beauty to some degree, but she’s driven to make her own way as an artist as well. Although women occasionally played music in private homes or even country faires in Elizabethan times, they were prohibited from performing in public. Sander Cooke can act on the London stage because she maintains a boy’s disguise offstage.

Women did publish pamphlets and translations, and there was one poet, Isabelle Whitney, who published poems. None had written a complete book of original poetry until Amelia's Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, published in 1611 (at roughly the same time as the King James Bible!) There is not a love poem in the book, unless you count her dedicatations to noble women of the era.

Dark Venus displays Shakespeare during a much more perplexing love affair than the one in the movie. Neither he nor Amelia is always at their best. As Venus says in Shakespeare's poem Venus and Adonis after her beloved mortal lover has been killed by a wild boar, “Sith in his prime Death doth my love destroy,/ They that love best their loves shall not enjoy.”

Shakespeare and Amelia most certainly did enjoy their love at its peak, and for each it left a poetic legacy.

Dark Venus and The Secret Player are available in print or e-book format from http://www.oldhandpress.com






Mar 16, 2014

DARK VENUS and the Woman Writer

A Woman writing of divinest things:

     Reade it faire Queene, though it defective be,

     Your excellence can grace both It and Mee.

Amelia Bassano Lanyer, dedication to Queen Anne,

       Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum  

The prologue and epilogue of my novel Dark Venus deal with the publication of Amelia Bassano Lanyer’s book of poetry, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum.

Isabella Whitney is known as the first professional female poet in England. She wrote with the intention of being paid for her writing and published two short collections, one in the late 1560’s and one in 1578. Amelia Bassano Lanyer, however, wrote the first book-length work by a woman, a work with unique features. Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum begins with a series of dedicatory poems, all to women. The long poem which gives the book its title presents a vindication of women, beginning with Eve—a feminist poetic work published in 1611! Lanyer closes her book with a poem in praise of a country house, the first in a subgenre that Ben Jonson and others later made use of.

I begin and end Dark Venus by jumping forward to 1611 and Amelia’s publication for several reasons. Her book comes out the year of the King James Bible, an intriguing circumstance. More importantly, it is in a sense a book of revenge. To write is a daring act for a woman; publishing her work challenges the established order—and for that work to be so outspoken is stunning! Amelia has mastered the form of male-authored poetry and turned it to her own purposes. She does not write a love poem or idealize a beloved: she speaks up for women who have been themselves idealized—and vilified—in print.

Amelia Bassano Lanyer (sometimes spelled Aemilia or Emilia, and sometimes Lanier) is the presumed “dark lady” depicted in the sonnets of William Shakespeare. No one knows for sure and the controversy swirls around whether the sonnets should be read as autobiographical. Some even question the identity of William Shakespeare himself. For a novelist, the connections between Ameila and Will Shakespeare are irresistible; the idea that the woman about whom Shakespeare wrote poems of love and torment became a poet herself.

After the prologue set in 1611, the first chapter of Dark Venus returns to the time frame of Amelia’s affair with Shakespeare some 18 years earlier, woven together with the story of Alexander (Sander) Cooke, the London actor who, in my version, was born female.

Through my Shakespeare Actor Trilogy, besides the two protagonists, we see women of achievement and/or notoriety: Queen Elizabeth; Mary Sidney Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke; the cross-dresser Moll Frith. Part of the answer to the question of how Shakespeare wrote such full and varied female characters is that he knew some very unusual women! One is a boy actor, Alexander Cooke, whom he realizes is actually a young  woman. And one is the captivating Amelia Bassano, whom he first met when she was mistress of the Queen’s kinsman, Lord Hunsdon. Amelia was beautiful and accomplished, member of a family of royal musicians and a musician herself. Her dark beauty was striking in a day when Queen Elizabeth’s golden red hair and fair skin were the ideal.

When Amelia became pregnant by Lord Hunsdon, he married her to the musician and cousin by marriage, Alfonso Lanyer. Historically, little more is known of Amelia until she appears in the diary of Dr. Simon Forman, recounting her visits to him in 1597 for his astrological advice. According to Forman, she flirted with him and later agreed to an assignation but denied him her favors. In his book about Forman, subtitled Sex and Society in Shakespeare’s Age, A.L. Rowse uses this and close readings of the sonnets and other works to suggest that Amelia was the “dark lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I’m skeptical about Forman’s account of Amelia’s sexual advances—there seems to be a degree of fantasizing with him and his female clients. That he answered in the negative her question about whether her husband would rise in station, is quite believable. Alfonso Lanyer remained a court musician all his days, despite joining various sea expeditions in search of treasure and nobility.

What we do know about Amelia is that she published Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum in 1611. Rowse’s edition of the poems was published in 1988; Susanne Wood’s in 1993.

A woman of a scandalous reputation publishes a long poem about religion: those are the sort of complexities that delight the novelist. I’m not the first to tell her story; Ann Cuneo wrote a book in French, which I have not been able to obtain. No doubt her take on the story differs from mine.

Amelia Bassano Lanyer broke new ground for women, who up until that time had published only short religious works, pamphlets, and translations. Woman as Author was a new concept. Ten years after Lanyer’s collection, Lady Mary Wroth published her sensational book, The Countess of Montgomeries Urania, which included a sonnet sequence, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, the first by an English woman. Considered a roman à clef, it provoked readers so much that Lord Denny, thinking that Wroth satirized his family, caused it to be withdrawn from market. Lady Mary Sidney Wroth was the niece of the poet Sir Philip Sidney and of Mary Sidney Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke, a patron of the arts and translator herself. Thus Wroth’s education and her family’s intellectual and social connections greatly outshone Amelia Bassano’s, which gives us insight into how very remarkable was Bassano Lanyer’s feat.

Dark Venus will be published on March 20, 2014. Book readings and signings by the author in Santa Barbara California: March 25, 7 p.m. Granada Books, 1224 State Street and March 27, 7 p.m., Chaucer’s Books, 3321 State Street in Loreto Plaza. Copies are available at Chaucer’s, Granada Books, Tecolote Books in Montecito, and ordered, in text or e-book from the publisher, where volume one of the trilogy, The Secret Player, is also available.  http://www.oldhandpress.com


Dec 14, 2013

Coming: Dark Venus, Volume 2 of Shakespeare Actor Trilogy


Dark Venus weaves the story of Sander Cooke, heroine of The Secret Player, with that of her friend Amelia Bassano. This novel of love and poetry will be published in late March, 2014. Book signing: March 27, 7 p.m. Chaucer's Book Store, 3321 State Street, Santa Barbara, California

Amelia Bassano Lanyer's affair with William Shakespeare develops during this novel, which accepts the theory that Amelia is the “dark lady” of Shakespeare's sonnets. Years after the love affair that inspired these sonnets of passion, adoration—and torment, Amelia published her own book of poetry. Amelia's view of their love, as witnessed by and confided to Sander, serves an inspiration for her own eventual poems—which are not love poems 

Thus we have two gifted women who create new sorts of lives in an era where, although Queen Elizabeth sits upon the throne, women in general are to be obedient, docile and chaste. Sander and Amelia's personal challenges are set against a background of political intrigue and danger, which takes the life of a person close to Sander and Shakespeare and their acting company.

To Order: http://www.oldhandpress.com