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.

Comments: jinnywebber@jinnywebber.com

To preorder Bedtrick or order volumes 1 and 2, see http://www.shakespeareantrilogy.com


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, volumes 1 and 2 of my trilogy, see  http://www.shakespeareantrilogy.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 as a Kindle and in print format from the publisher at http://www.shakespeareantrilogy.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.shakespeareantrilogy.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.shakespeareantrilogy.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.shakespeareantrilogy.com


Oct 31, 2013

Elizabethan Masquerade, Part 2


There are frequent references in the Office of Revels accounts to costumes made of “tynsell.” This was especially effective [onstage, in candlelight] as it was a silk material interwoven with gold or silver threads to give a glittering surface, and was cheaper than cloth of gold. The trimmings, gold tassels, gilt bells, silver and gold lace, and a wide variety of fringing, gave the costumes a sparkle and highly ornamented surface.

                        Dress in the Age of Elizabeth I, Jane Ashelford, 1988, 126

Johnny’s gown of ivory silk taffeta was encrusted with pearls and golden ribbands, and if Queen Elizabeth never wore it, she should have. Mine was an armload of peach watered silk and darker peach velvet.

Sander Cooke, describing the costumes she and her brother will wear in Love’s Labours Lost, Chapter XX, The Secret Player


Above is a portrait of the Elizabethan beauty (and later scandalous) Mary Fitton, dressed for a masque. Until I read Jane Ashelford’s book, I’d not recognized her gown as a costume: the key is her beaded headdress and the wired spangles down the arm and hanging sleeves. Another portrait of Mary Fitton, below, also shows the wired spangles on the sleeves and beaded headdress. Clearly Mary fully enjoyed her celebrated days at court before becoming pregnant by William Herbert, who did not marry her, and leaving in disgrace.

As with male portraits of the era, it’s not always easy for us to discern which is the wearer’s best clothing, which is a costume. As men were often painted in tilting wear, woman were often wore masque costumes. This includes Queen Elizabeth herself. This is the Rainbow portrait, depecting the queen as Astraea, the Queen of Beauty and springime. According to Ashelford, her headdress is copied from an image in the favorite book inspriations for masque costumes by Broissard.


Her loose hair, mantel over her shoulder, and skirt designed without a farhtingle or corset, also indicate masqe wear.

Masques, performed at court and in noble manor houses at night, were notable for their display of wealth. Often the elaborate sets and fantastic costumes were used just once. Women would wear these gorgeous clothes on stage (and for their portraits) but had no speaking roles, comprising a glittering complement to the actors and singers. Costumes for masques were meant to be fanciful and notably different from ordinary finery. This image of an unknow lady is indisputably a costume: note the headdress and lack of sturcture to the gown itself.

These theatrical extravaganzas began under King Henry VIII and reached their apogee under King James I, successor in 1603 to Queen Elizabeth. In King James’ time, his wife Queen Ann and her ladies took the stage; the words often written by the playwright Ben Jonson and stage sets designed by the famous designer, Inigo Jones.  I'll close this post with a portrait of Queen Elizabeth as Gloriana, the mythical being she presented herself as: in court, not in a masque. Splendor had definitley moved offstage.

To purcahse The Secret Player, see www.ShakespeareanTrilogy.com


Oct 25, 2013

Elizabethan Masquerade

The fashionable Englishman is “the ape of all nation’s superfluities, the continual Masquer of outlandish habiliments.”

Thomas Nashe, Summer’s Last Will and Testament, quoted in Dress in the Age of Elizabeth I, 1988

In the spirit of Halloween, the next two posts concern the Elizabethan love of costumes.

Often it's difficult to distinguish what is the portrait-sitter's best clothing and what is a costume. Richard Sackville, Earl of Dorset, above, illustrates Nashe's statment: there's no indication that this rosette-shod elegance is a costume. It's what the Earl wore to dinner--presumably at Court.

Nashe's ‘Masquers’ are performers in masques, a favorite courtly entertainment from the time of Henry VIII through James I. The one occasion where ladies could appear onstage, masques were private entertainments of the nobility, characterized by exotic costumes, dancing and music.  

Men took part in masques, but they sported their full glory in the tiltyard. Noble jousters wore armor, so most likely if helmet, armor, and gloves appear in a portrait, ithe sitter is set for the tilt.

It can be a relief to know that in the more bizarre portraits, the sitter is wearing a costume. 

Here Captain Thomas Lee is wearing the fancy-dress version of an Irish soldier's kit: note the helmet under his arm. Lee had served in Ireland and seen first-hand the soldiers’ habit if tucking up their shirts and going bare-legged as they made their way through the bogs. The costly embroidery and lace collar would be unknown in the Irish infantry, of course. This portrait hangs in the Tate Britain in London. One who reads only the date (1594) on the posted card beside the painting, not realizing this is meant as a costume, regards Lee's appearance as just plain weird. Bare feet???

Below, George Clifford, the Earl of Cumberland, wears his tiltyard dress. The royal tilt of 1590 is described in a poem of the era, George Peele's Polynymnia, including Clifford's 'bonnet,' as the elegant headdress is called, which was replaced by the plumed helmet at his feet when he mounted his horse for the tilt. The full-sized painting reveals the gold stars on his blue armor, embroidered celestial spheres and  olive branches, and bands of jewels. The gauntlet he's thrown in challenge lies in front of his right toe.


Sir Anthony Mildmay wears his chest armor; the rest is arrayed around him—but no covering for those thighs.


George Clifford's opponent in 1590 was Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, who had been Queen Elizabeth's favorite until he earned her displeasure by marrying without her consent. He wears all black, in mourning for Her Majesty's displeasure. Crusted in pearls, his surcoat has symbolic resonance.

One would never guess, from the ostentation of these outfits, that tilting was a very dangerous sport. Here's to male finery!

Next week: Women dressed in masque costumes

Note: This is my first blog post without an epigraph quoting my novel The Secret Player. No men in tilting apparel appear in that book, alas. Next volume, perhaps.

To purchase The Secret Player, see www.ShakespeareanTrilogy.com


Sep 24, 2013

Shakespeare and Women


Did Shakespeare short-change women? A recent article in the Guardian quotes Erica Whyman, deputy artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company:

“The impact of Shakespeare is still inspiring, of course, but it can also be limiting. There are huge characters, such as Cleopatra or Beatrice, that we reference all the time in the rehearsal room. But the problem is that we have kept the same gender balance in today’s theatre because of the success and genius of his plays. It created a blueprint that means playwrights do not notice when they have written something for nine men and one woman.”

Vanessa Thorpe’s article announces: “To remedy this failing in British theatrical tradition, the RSC  . . . is reviving three major female roles from Jacobean drama. The plays, The Roaring Girl by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, the anonymous Arden of Faversham from 1592 and The White Devil by John Webster, will be produced partly as a “provocation”, according to . . . Whyman. She does not aim, she said, to solve the issue of gender inequality on the stage, but she is “intent on asking some questions”.


 “I have a command for you, Alexander. I charge you, with the aid of the gifted Master     Shakespeare, to create a new woman on stage. Absolutely new. If any actor can do that, you can.”

            Queen Elizabeth speaking to Sander Cooke, Chapter XVIII, The Secret Player


So which is true, Shakespeare sold women short or Shakespeare brought new women to the stage?

A concern of Whyman and the actress Janet Suzman who’s also is quoted in Thorpe's article, is that there are no great “Lear-like soliloquies” for women in Shakespeare’s plays, though Suzman says Cleopatra comes close. Worse is the “blueprint for British theatre” which Shakespeare’s lack of outstanding female roles established. An unfortunate legacy if true! Thorpe says, “A leading lady seeking the challenge of a truly great stage role – the equivalent of Lear or Hamlet – often has to reach back into the ancient world, perhaps for Medea or Antigone, or to go to Scandinavia for Ibsen’s Nora or Hedda Gabler.”  

Theatre lovers interested in this issue will make every effort to see those three plays at Stratford-upon-Avon this summer. Two of my earlier posts refer to The Roaring Girl, a play that I never expected to see, nor certainly Arden of Faversham, which I’ve not even read.

If Whyman and Suzman are right, how could I imagine that Queen Elizabeth, suspecting Sander Cooke’s gender, would make the statement quoted above? An underlying theme in my trilogy is that Cooke, and in the sequel, Amelia Bassano Lanyer, influenced Shakespeare’s creation of new women for the stage.

Indeed, that was my initial question in writing these books: why did Shakespeare write such varied and intriguing female characters? I compare him not to Dekker, Middleton, or Webster, who were writing in the Jacobean era, but to his Elizabethan contemporaries. For example, Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine plays contain only one brilliant dramatic moment for a woman. The beautiful Zenocrate is much praised but says little herself, although later she begs Tamburlaine, successfully, to spare her father. Zabina, wife of the emperor Bajazeth whom Tamburlaine conquered and humiliated, kills herself when she discovers the body of her husband who's bashed himself to death in his cage. She’s a woman of courage and purpose, and her line, ‘Husband, I come” predates Cleopatra. Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, however, gives us a Helen of Troy who seems hardly a person at all.

In an era when women were not supposed to speak up, Shakespeare created the fiery Kate in Taming of the Shrew, who gets the last word. True, Petruchio seems to have tamed her, though I imagine that the talk between them will continue after the play ends: he’s not silenced her. Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing is a later, more complex—and more civil—version of the woman who speaks her mind. As Whyman mentions, Beatrice is a terrific role, as is Rosalind who disguises herself as a boy and teaches Orlando a thing or two about love. And there's Juliet, who takes love into her own hands. Other vocal and clever women include Rosaline in Love’s Labours Lost, Emilia in Othello, and Lear’s daughters, though only Cordelia demonstrates love and a sense of justice.

In Hamlet, both Gertrude and Ophelia feel underwritten. The director and actor have to decide whether Gertrude had an affair with Claudius before Hamlet Sr. died and whether she knew about his murder. Her “Oh!” when Hamlet tells her that Claudio killed Hamlet Sr. is open to interpretation. We don’t know whether Ophelia slept with Hamlet before he went to Wittenburg.  In the Branaugh film there’s a wordless scene of the two of them in bed to answer the question and help explain her  subsequent madness. Isabella neither accepts nor rejects Duke Vicentio when he offers her marriage at the end of Measure for Measure. Lady Macbeth pretty much disappears after the banquet scene; next thing we know she’s mad.

With the exception of Alexander Cooke, who in my novels was born female, women’s parts were played by boys and young men on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage. That’s been offered as a reason that so many of Shakespeare’s characters lack mothers. How differently the stories would go if Desdemona or Cordelia or Ophelia had one! Perhaps that’s part of Shakespeare’s point: the plight of motherless girls in a man’s world is desperate and potentially tragic. If so, it’s not explicit.

We may return to this topic here later, one which is much written about elsewhere and grounds for discussion more than a blog. I’m well aware that many of these statements need elaboration. If  as Erica Whyman says, the lack of rich parts for women in British theatre since Shakespeare’s day is due to his influence, it’s a sorry and, in my fictional view, unintended consequence.

To purchase The Secret Player, see www.ShakespeareanTrilogy.com


Sep 8, 2013

Androgyny and Male Attire

Mag cut my tangle of chestnut curls and gave me a linen band to bind my breasts. I changed into breeches, shirt, doublet, and jerkin, leaving Kate Collins' skirt on the bed, shedding that self to find the truer one beneath--whomsoever he turned out to be.

                                                            Chapter II, The Secret Player

“This [the restrained dignified style of the 1560’s and 70’s] was in complete contrast to the style that emerged in the 1580’s, when male dress attained its most extreme and artificial shape. . . . It demanded a well-proportioned figure and long, shapely legs. The emphasis on an elongated, tapering waist, wide circular ruff and swollen hips and arms was common to both sexes and was indicative of the move towards a less aggressively masculine style.”

                           Chapter Two,” Dress in the Age of Elizabeth I, Jane Ashelford, 1988


During the later years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, fashions for young men had an androgynous look, at least among youthful courtiers whose portraits were painted. The Hilliard miniature above, identified by the Victoria and Albert Museum as ‘unknown young man,’ is elsewhere described as depicting Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex. A pretty youth prettily depicted.

Jane Ashelford attributes the less rigidly masculine look in aristocratic male dress (at one point she uses the word "feminized”) as consequent of the courtly valorization of the Queen, the writing of sonnets, and a new sense of male public presentation. The French and the Spanish, though politically enemies to varying degrees, had a huge influence on the new English fashion trends, as exemplified in this painting of King Charles IX of France.


Another factor was the rise of conspicuous consumption. Courtiers sold land to pay for their extensive and elegant wardrobes, and many were hugely in debt with their tailors and embroiderers.

Not surprisingly, fashion and colors changed often among those who attended Queen Elizabeth. Courtiers did not display their wealth simply by bedecking their wives in velvet and pearls; they wore them themselves.

When Kate Collins dressed in her brother’s clothes to run away to sea, she wore breeches and doublet, with a jerkin over and a shirt under. Breeches for the village class were usually of worsted, worn with stockings or hose. The doublet which Kate, now Alexander, wore would have been of wool since her father was prosperous, but a homespun cloth called kersey was ubiquitous among villagers, a lesser quality among the poor. Her jerkin was of leather, long unfashionable at court. Covering her newly shorn hair she wore a woolen cap. Even for those from a wealthy London family instead of from a village, sumptuary laws limited the fabrics, decoration, and styles which could be worn they lacked the status of nobility, regardless of their fortune.

Here’s Henry Wriothesley (pronounced ‘Risley), the Earl of Southampton, looked at a comparable age to Kate/Alexander.

And here he is when older:




In my posts on Moll Frith, I spoke about women’s cross-dressing. In the seventeenth century, two pamphlets were published on the subject, Hic Mulier, the Man-Woman) and one in reply, Haec Vir, the Womanish Man. The Secret Player is set almost 30 years before they came out, when androgynous styles were common for men and no one protested in print. Other than elder august counselors in sober black, men displayed themselves. We joke about men in tights, called hose at the time, and must not forget that their hose featured a padded codpiece. The pumpkin-style bloomers we know from movies set in the day were worn, but portraits seldom feature them, although the second portrait of Southampton, above, does show a padded hip design. Sir Martin Frobisher, below, was a famous explorer but not a dashing man in Court.

An underlying theme of this blog is that our assumptions today are not necessarily those of Shakespeare's day. The androgynous look, however, has come into fashion in recent decades, initially not met with general approval. Think about the reaction to long-haired males in the sixties: “Is that a boy or a girl?” This does not seem to be the case in Elizabethan England, judging from the portraits, but as pointed out earlier, gender and to some extent sex were more fluid concepts for men in that era.

As evident in last week’s New York Fashion Week shows, androgyny is not in fashion for men in 2013. Male styles resembled what hip California men wear: casual and beachy shorts outfits, loose-fitting jackets and slacks--so much so in some cases that anyone but a model would look disheveled--or a high-style cowboy look. Nothing feminine on the men’s runway this fall. The fad of jeggings for men—leggings resembling Elizabethan hose--died quickly.

To purchase The Secret Player, see www.ShakespeareanTrilogy.com