The identity of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady is still a mystery, but Sharratt’s picaresque novel portrays one of the worthiest candidates.
Aemilia, illegitimate daughter of Battista Bassano, a Venetian Jew in exile and a renowned musician in Queen Elizabeth’s court, enjoys a privileged upbringing. But her father’s death and her stepsister’s marriage to a ne’er-do-well impoverishes her family. Rescued and educated by a Puritan noblewoman who later abandons her, Aemilia becomes, at 16, the mistress of Lord Hunsdon, Elizabeth I’s chamberlain, himself an illegitimate son of Henry VIII. When Aemilia becomes pregnant at 23, Hunsdon marries her off to Alfonse Lanier, a dissolute Frenchman. After Lanier wastes all her wealth, Aemilia contacts Will Shakespeare, an unsuccessful playwright of dull history plays, with a proposition. With her vivid imagination and superior education, she will co-author plays with the yet-to-be Bard, and they will split the profits. News of an unexpected legacy takes her to Venice, where she keeps her Jewish identity, and often her gender, secret. (She dresses in men’s clothes when she needs to escape the many strictures on women.) Shakespeare, with not a thought for his wife, Anne Hathaway, and their three children, accompanies Aemilia (and Henry, her son by Lord Hunsdon) to Italy, where the two lead an idyllic existence at her inherited Veronese villa, co-writing Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet (as a comedy)—and falling in love. Here, Will pens his “Dark Lady” sonnets—but the bloom falls precipitously off the rose when he learns of the death of his son, Hamnet. Plunged into intractable remorse, Will parts ways with Aemilia, and both return to England by separate routes. However, Aemilia has possession of their joint work product—and Will’s unborn child. The many challenges of life in Elizabethan England, particularly for women, are expertly captured by Sharratt, who heretofore has brought similar life to another gifted woman, Hildegard of Bingen (Illuminations, 2012).
An ambitious fictional biography burdened by an overly intricate plot.