Shakespeare’s Sisters Speak Up



In Shakespeare’s Sisters: How Women Wrote the Renaissance, Ramie Targoff points out that when Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own, “she knew almost nothing about the powerful literary works a small group of women had written—and in many cases, published—around the time of Shakespeare.” Not her fault; those works “had been lost or forgotten for centuries.” But when Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville-West, published the early diaries of Lady Anne Clifford, Woolf dismissed them as trivial.

Targoff offers more respect to Clifford, Mary Sidney, Elizabeth Cary, and—my personal favorite—Aemilia Lanyer. Who took lovers, yet was fascinated by religion; loved the frippery of life at court and the dull shine of study and revision. The daughter of a Venetian, possibly Jewish musician, she was orphaned young, without blood or money to ease her way, yet became the first Englishwoman to publish a book of original poetry in the seventeenth century. (In the sixteenth, Isabella Whitney had her witty and often playful poems published in London, paving the way.)

In Shakespeare’s Sisters, we meet Aemilia at age seven, grieving the death of her father, Baptista Bassano. After growing up surrounded by music, he and his brothers had come to England from Venice at the invitation of Henry VIII. By the time Aemilia was born, the family was living alongside other immigrants in Bishopsgate, near Bedlam Hospital. The loud cries of those “distraught in their wits” filled the air, and dead bodies from London, where churchyards were overflowing, piled up next to the hospital.

Baptista’s will acknowledges his “reputed wife,” meaning theirs was only a common-law marriage. So Aemilia enters the English caste system with zero social advantages—save proximity. Because Baptista spent years playing the recorder for Henry VIII, the Bassanos were listed as members of the royal household, and Queen Elizabeth continued the patronage. After her father’s death, young Aemilia is sent to be brought up with the countess of Kent.

When Aemilia turns eighteen, her mother dies. Now she is an orphan—but a resilient one. She becomes the mistress of Anne Boleyn’s nephew, a nobleman forty-five years her senior.

She enjoys his company, and he keeps her quite comfortable—until she becomes pregnant. As is customary, he swiftly arranges for her to marry a member of his staff, Alfonso Lanyer, a recorder player like her father. The marriage leaves her frustrated, bored, and dissatisfied—and when her son is eleven or twelve, she escapes to another aristocratic household.

The woman who draws her close is Margaret Clifford, Anne’s mother, who is as unhappy in her marriage as Lanyer in hers. Lively conversations about their mutual interest in literature and religion shape the poetry Lanyer begins to write—and give her the courage to undertake a bold project. She will collect her poetry into a book, its title taken from its central poem. “Salve Deus Rex Judacorum” will be a pointed feminist retelling of the two most powerful stories in Christianity: the fall from Paradise and the crucifixion of Christ.

Lanyer has plenty of inspiration for her fury.

Targoff describes a Renaissance masque Lanyer may have attended in 1609, The Masque of Queens, in which many of the women were dressed as warriors—but with transparent gauze over their breastplates. “For Aemilia, who was busy at the time writing poems about patriarchy and the oppression of women, the vision of these women proudly displaying their bodies but not speaking a word may have been at once thrilling and maddening.”

The following year, she enters Salve Deus Rex Judacorum for publication. It appears in print in 1611—the same year as the King James Bible—but with palpably different emphasis.

Eve, “Giving to Adam what she held most deare,/ Was simply good,” Lanyer insists. The serpent was the wily one. And if any human should bear shame, “surely Adam cannot be excus’d./ Her fault, though great, yet he was most to blame.” If he was supposed to be stronger than Eve, as of course he was portrayed, then he should have avoided temptation, Lanyer reasons. Cleverly, she flips the game: “Being Lord of all the greater was his shame…. For he was Lord and King of al the earth,/ Before poore Eve had either life or breath.

Lanyer then retells the story of the crucifixion, describing the men who betrayed Jesus, fell asleep when he needed them, abandoned him, condemned him, tortured him. It was the women’s cries that moved him to speak, she notes; it was Mary’s tears that washed away his precious blood. When Pontius Pilate makes his fatal decision, Lanyer hands the narrative over to his wife: “Let not us Women glory in Mens fall,” she concludes, “Who had power given to over-rule us all.” Pilate’s wife then argues that the men killing Christ did far worse than Eve biting into an apple, thus women should be given liberty and equality.

That settled, Lanyer writes on. “The Scythian women by their powre alone,/ Put king Darius into shamefull flight.” She reminds Queen Elizabeth, to whom the poem is ostensibly addressed, of wise Deborah, valiant Judith, virtuous Hester, bold Cleopatra—and all those women managed, despite the patriarchy.

Lanyer’s project, which the British Library will eventually describe as “radical and self-assured,” is ignored—for centuries. No positive reviews, no compliments to her talent, and no reissue for the next 360 years. As her book waits unopened, she rents a farmhouse outside London and starts a school for girls. Two years later, her landlord spikes the rent and shoos her out. A typical, awful ending. We will borrow Targoff’s crisp close instead: “The future of the past is full of women.”


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.