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


Jul 20, 2013

Portia and Nerissa Play the Man


     “I've had enough of your tongue. Eat or not, but keep your mouth shut. Isn't that what the Bible says?” [Martin, Kate’s husband-to-be]  

     Martin had read no Bible, but apparently he had not missed that favorite lesson of Father Jaggard, from the first gospel of Timothy: “Let the woman suffer in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” Because Eve spoke up to Adam in the Garden and convinced him to eat of the apple of the knowledge of good and evil, her daughters must ever suffer in silence!

                                                                                       Chapter I, The Secret Player


When we think of girls who disguise themselves as boys in Shakespeare’s plays, the first who come to mind are Rosalind in As You Like It and Viola/Cesario in Twelfth Night. Rosalind has a precursor in Julia, who dresses as a page in Two Gentlemen of Verona. For all three, their male disguise is significant to the love plot.

            Important in a very different way in The Merchant of Venice are the disguises of Portia, the lady of Belmont, and her maid Nerissa. The production of Merchant now running at the Old Globe, San Diego, emphasizes Portia’s significant role as Balthazar, the young lawyer who appears at the trial of Antonio the merchant with her clerk. Portia is quite a talker; she has 553 lines, followed by Shylock and Bassanio.

            In early modern England, women were not supposed to speak out. Shakespeare must have been hugely entertained in writing the character of Portia, who knows as much law as a graduate of the Middle Temple but is of the gender who could not gain a university education in the 1590’s, nor did they have that opportunity for three more centuries.

            What adds to the charm of male disguise in Merchant is that the maid Nerissa, with whom Portia has earlier had a witty exchange about her suitors, appears as a law clerk, challenging class as well as gender limitations.

            Bassanio has already guessed the correct casket and won Portia’s hand, with his man Gratiano marrying Nerissa. After the wedding Portia discovers that Antonio’s ships are lost and Antonio must pay the forfeit of his loan to Shylock, money he borrowed for Bassanio’s benefit. She sends Bassanio to Venice with enough gold to repay the loan twenty times over if necessary—before their marriage is consummated, “For never shall you lie by Portia’s side/With an unquiet soul.” Then, claiming that she and Nerissa will retreat to a convent to pray for Bassanio’s success, she pursues her secret plan.

            Portia sends her servant Balthazar to the house of her cousin Doctor Bellario with a letter and instructions to obtain “what notes and garments he doth give thee.” The garments are male; the notes presumably legal but specifically, a letter of introduction. Bellario has been sent for to make a determination about the case. Portia comes in his place wearing the robes of a lawyer, having taken her servant’s name, Balthazar, as a young learnèd doctor.

            The trial scene is wonderfully theatrical, whipping our emotions back and forth. We sympathize with Shylock and yet are horrified; we hope that he’ll accept the money and are dismayed that he cannot respond to her plea for mercy. Portia/Balthazar acknowledges that the law is with Shylock: “You must prepare your bosom for his knife,” she tells Antonio. There’s a dramatic farewell; Bassanio tells Antonio he would sacrifice his wife, “as dear to me as life itself,” to save him. When Shylock's knife is ready, Portia uses the law to foil him. Not one drop of blood may be shed; no more nor less than one pound of flesh may be cut from Antonio’s breast. Antonio, who’s already bared his chest, is saved. The one who creates the tension is the young lawyer Balthazar.

            She does not tell Shylock he must become a Christian; that is Antonio. In the Old Globe production, a look of pain crosses her face, and she watches with sympathy as Shylock leaves, a broken man. His punishments which Antonio dictates Portia later modifies.

            If this were as far as Shakespeare took her male disguise, we’d be impressed, but there’s a coda which returns us to the love plot. When Bassanio asks her what payment he might offer, Balthazar/Portia asks for Bassanio’s ring—the one she gave him to seal their marriage. She’s pleased that he refuses, but, on Antonio’s urging, he sends Gratiano after her to give it. Nerissa then pursues Gratiano to beg the ring she gave him. As Shylock said earlier, “These be the Christian husbands!”

            At least for the love story, the play is a comedy ending in wedding celebrations. [In the Old Globe, Shylock hovers in the background, an unseen reminder.] As in the old tale of suitors selecting the right casket in order to win the lady, Bassanio has chosen lead, rather than the seemingly more precious gold or silver. But he’s a man of baser metal than Portia. Belmont is a magical realm removed from the Rialto with its money-grubbing; Antonio has no place there. Henceforth it's Bassanio's home.

            All is forgiven of Bassanio and Gratiano, but the rings they gave away, restored to their wives’ fingers, are a symbol not only of the marriage bond but of the female. By their own admission, they have been cuckolded by their own wives. You want to hug Shakespeare for his brilliance and ambiguities!

To purchase The Secret Player in text or e-book, see www.ShakespeareanTrilogy.com


Jun 23, 2013

Boy Actors in Elizabethan England


     My first plays of Shakespeare’s would teach me about women’s power and how, when it was  denied, woman counterbalance, whether by beauty or wiles or witchcraft or playing men themselves. Apparently audiences loved dramas involving women’s dangerous potency—and men’s fears.

     Alexander Cooke, after being cast as the Countess of Auvergne and Margaret of Anjou in Henry VI, Part 1. From Chapter VIII, The Secret Player.

This is one of the passages I’m reading in my lecture of the same title as this post, this afternoon in the Camarillo Public Library. Because this blog goes from newest to oldest, anyone tuning in late reads my temporary farewell and has to scroll down and click on ‘Older’ to read the posts in order. In my lecture I’m using three of those early posts to make the points succinctly and thus move on to discussion, questions, and readings from the novel.

Here I’ll touch on earlier points freshly for this lecture. Scroll down to find fuller discussions.

Shakespeare’s themes are referred to as universal—and not just to western culture as the Globe to Globe celebration last year in London illustrated. Shakespeare companies from all over the world performed his plays in their own languages.

Besides these universals of heart and thought, however, Elizabethan assumptions, conventions, and concerns do not all accord with ours. Not only the spectacles of bear-baiting and brutal public executions, but attitudes towards gender, education and literacy, people of other nations and creeds, and of course the theatre.

Actors on the London stage were not the trained Shakespeareans we expect today nor were they particularly respectable; playwrights didn’t always put their names on their works; preachers declaimed against the theatre—and boys played women’s parts. 

All-boy companies were allowed to perform within the city (subject of a recent study by Dr Bart van Es of Oxford, who reports abuses of the boys: see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-22938866 ). Our present concern, however are the apprentice player boys who personated women on the public stages located in the suburbs; the boys who played Juliet and Rosalind and Lady Macbeth.

Women were forbidden to act onstage both because of the questionable social state of actors, engaged in a profession which involved lying and  presumed loose morals. Women were supposed to be dependent and subservient. If they weren’t allowed to speak their minds, they certainly were in no position to speak words written by others and display themselves in a public forum.

Although we know some names of boy players, including Alexander Cooke, the protagonist of The Secret Player, we know more about what others thought of them than about their lives from the inside. We know they were regarded as sexually attractive in their gender ambiguity. We would imagine that they were so to women, but the sermons and writings of the time focus on their appeal to men. Wanton, alluring boys, they are called.

There’s no indication in anything that I’ve read that the master-apprentice system in Shakespeare’s theatre exploited boys sexually. The company looks after and protects their own. They depend on each other and the success of the company depends on acting skill; those women’s parts are demanding enough to earn respect for the boys who play them well.

 My character is at risk primarily because she is, in actuality, a girl. Offstage, cross-dressing was a punishable offense, even labeled treason. She is pretty, and of course does catch the eye of some men. When the poet John Donne feels a spark towards her, he wonders at it: he’s not ordinarily attracted to boys.

Gender ambiguity and cross-dressing are fascinating. The border that seems so firm, male or female, is shown to be anything but absolute. Of course we know that today thanks to psychology, but as theatrical spectacle, boy actors drew the audiences in.

To purchase The Secret Player as a book or e-book, see www.ShakespeareanTrilogy.com


May 17, 2013

The beat goes on . . . .

             “Farewell, my love,” I said. “I am for London.”

             And then I ran.

                        Chapter XXV, The Secret Player

I’ve pretty much run through all the topics I’ve been questioned about relating to The Secret Player—except who wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Since William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon is the resident playwright with the theatrical company Alexander Cooke eventually joins in London, he’s obviously my candidate. My fictional game with history doesn’t relate to the authorship controversy nor to Shakespeare’s love affair with the protagonist: “Shakespeare in Love” covers that theme. 

No, I’m more interested in gender. What if Sander Cooke, an historical boy player who eventually became a hired man with Shakespeare’s company, was born female? The intrigue involved is considerably more spicy than is authorship--and more directly related to the plays themselves.

Attitudes towards sex, conventions ruling male and female behavior and relations, and rules about clothing in Elizabethan England were very different from those of today. Some of my posts tell of the outcry against cross-dressing, but there were also detailed sumptuary laws regulating what fabrics (particularly velvet, silk, and types of furs), colors (e.g. purple, red, and indigo from true indigo dye), and decoration were limited to the upper orders.

A very different world, Early Modern England. Yet we recognize the universal impact of Shakespeare’s themes and characters. Last year’s festival, Globe to Globe, brought all of Shakespeare’s plays to London by acting companies from around the world in their many languages. Discussion of the cross-cultural power of these works is endlessly fascinating!           

A blog seems to me an overly one-sided platform. I chose topics that provoke debate, and of course comments are welcome. Debate, however, tends to be more enjoyable in person. In my course recently ended, we spent 16 lively hours discussing Twelfth Night, Macbeth, and All’s Well That Ends Well from the perspective of gender and sex. More fun than any blog!

So I’m taking a break from this blog, at least in the form it's taken to date, informal researched essays on topics connected to The Secret Player. There are many more such, beginning with the idea of self-fashioning in the Renaissance, and moving on to other controversial gender or sexual issues of Shakespeare’s day and to the specific plays in which Sander Cooke performs. For the next few weeks I’ll be running my earlier blogposts in order on my Facebook page: Jinny Webber – Author.

Thank you for your interest! Suggestions welcome.