Emilia Bassano Lanier and Hamlet

Portrait of an unidentified woman by Nicholas Hilliard, who many have suggested could be Emilia Bassano Lanier. Source: Wikipedia Commons (Public domain).
Note: The three primary works which provide background for this essay are Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, by John Hudson, The Reckoning, by Charles Nicholl, and Four and Twenty Fiddlers, by Peter Holman. All should be available at online vendors.

In his book, Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, John Hudson lays out the argument that Emilia Bassano Lanier, identified by several researchers as the “Dark Woman” from Shakespeare’s Sonnets was, in fact, author of many, if not all of the plays attributed to the man from Stratford Upon Avon. Emilia, or Aemilia, as she’s often identified, was the first woman to publicly identify as a poet and to publish an epic poem, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum under her own name, which was unheard of for her time. In it, she takes the position that women have been unfairly maligned throughout history and deserve to be seen as equal to men, a position echoed by many of Shakespeare’s heroines in the plays.

Hudson also cites evidence that while in the household of Henry Carey, Emilia interacted with and may have had an affair with the poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe, who appears to have guided her development as a dramatist. Marlowe was known to employ allegorical elements in his work, and such elements have also been identified in the works of Shakespeare. In light of this, I have undertaken this examination of Shakespeare’s most celebrated play, The Tragedy of Hamlet, to see if the narrative of the play conceals hidden allegorical content that might support the notion that Emilia was the author and that the story of the play was informed by the circumstances of Marlowe’s death.

The very structure of Hamlet implies an allegorical nature to the play. Most of the major events take place offstage, including the murder of the king, the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude, Hamlet’s alleged attentions toward Ophelia, Ophelia’s drowning, Hamlet’s exploits during his aborted trip to England, and the executions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The only evidence the audience has of them is what’s reported by the characters onstage. In other words, most of the intrigue of Hamlet happens behind the scenes, much as it would have at court and what the audience is left with are the rumors and innuendos of the characters onstage. Therefore, the play becomes a metaphor for the public face of Elizabeth’s court, and the offstage actions represent the courtly intrigue, which reaches the audience second hand through often dubious sources.

The plot against the crown, for instance, which drives Hamlet’s need for revenge, is revealed to him by the ghost of the dead king. Hamlet himself questions whether or not the accusation is a ruse on the part of the Devil to lead him astray. Prior to the death of his father, Hamlet was away at school in Wittenberg. Another well-known character from a contemporary tragedy who’s associated with Wittenberg is Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, who is led astray by a demon in much the way Hamlet fears he might be by the Ghost. This establishes a potential link to Marlowe’s work by Shakespeare’s play and audiences of Shakespeare’s time may have made the connection. The supernatural elements are far more pronounced in Doctor Faustus, and the goals of the characters are much different but the demon in Faustus can be said to have “power to assume a pleasing shape” and certainly leads Faust to his doom.

Hamlet, the play, also makes liberal use of the Greek myths surrounding the cursed house of Atreus, the grandson of Tantalus. The main story parallels the myths which came to symbolize the dying and resurrected saviors of the Pagan mystery religions that informed early Christianity, in particular, the myth of Osiris, Isis, and Horus, and the tragic Greek trilogy, The Orestia, in which the son, Orestes, seeks revenge for the murder of his father, Agamemnon, at the hands of Queen Clytemnestra and her lover, who is Agamemnon’s half brother. In one exchange with Polonius, Hamlet alludes to Jeptha, an Israelite king found in Judges, who sacrifices his daughter in much the same way Agamemnon sacrifices Iphigenia.

The other revenge tragedy in Shakespeare’s repertoire which makes extensive use of the myths surrounding Atreus is Titus Andronicus, believed to have been written while Marlowe was still alive. This suggests that the earliest drafts of Hamlet may also have been composed during this period, and revised extensively after Shakespeare matured as a playwright. There is strong evidence from contemporary sources of an earlier, less well-received production of Hamlet, which sounds like it was badly overwritten and overacted.

In order to better understand the allegorical underpinning of the play, it is necessary to recognize that all the main characters can be matched with a double, perhaps to better conceal the fact that each can be connected to certain figures in Emilia Bassano’s life with Henry Carey. Recognizing these doubles and analyzing why they are doubled gives insight into the real world figures they’re meant to represent. The eight central characters who figure directly into the plot are: Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, the Ghost, Polonius, Laertes, Ophelia, and Horatio. Their real-life counterparts are outlined below:

Claudius/Polonius: Henry Carey
Gertrude/Ghost: Elizabeth I
Hamlet/Laertes: Christopher Marlowe
Ophelia/Horatio: Emilia Bassano Lanier

In his first appearance in the play, Claudius refers to Gertrude as “our sometime sister and now our queen” and Hamlet calls the coupling of his mother with his uncle “incestuous”. Henry Carey was believed to be the illegitimate son of Henry VIII and Mary Boleyn, making him both Elizabeth’s brother and her first cousin. One of the roles Carey had in Elizabeth’s court was as a spymaster, the role held by Polonius in the play. When Ophelia is sent to engage Hamlet in conversation to test him, both Claudius and Polonius listen in on the conversation and each takes away a different message from Hamlet’s response. When Hamlet stabs Polonius later in the play, he asks, “Is it the king?” When he realizes it’s Polonius, Hamlet states, “I took thee for thy better”. It’s through his marriage to Gertrude that Claudius solidifies his bid for the throne; as the son of Henry VIII, Carey would have been a potential heir to the throne himself, yet derived his authority from his “sometime sister”, Elizabeth I.

Gertrude appears to represent the woman, Elizabeth Tudor, who became a Queen with no heirs to carry on her family line, while the Ghost could represent the Tudor dynasty, which would become extinct upon the death of Elizabeth. As a woman in her society, Elizabeth Tudor would have had no authority aside from the men in her life, but as the monarch, Elizabeth I, she was the leading “man” of her day. The Wars of the Roses boiled down to an argument over who had the best claim to the throne and Henry Tudor’s claim was through his mother, Margaret Beaufort, which he strengthened by marrying Elizabeth of York, creating the House of Tudor. Regarding Gertrude’s involvement in his murder, the Ghost tells Hamlet to “leave her to heaven”. Elizabeth’s involvement in Marlowe’s death would be difficult to prosecute, whereas Carey may have been more immediately responsible and, if so, Emilia would have known this fact.

While not much is known about the person of Christopher Marlowe, he is remembered as a scholar, playwright, poet, and a spy. Elizabeth’s court was targeted by a number of Catholic officials, looking for opportunities to overthrow her and reinstate a monarch like her sister Mary, who swore allegiance to Rome. Men like Marlowe would have been employed as counterspies to allow the crown to stay ahead of the game. His exploits took him to some of the European centers where Catholic recruits were trained and given their marching orders against the English throne. In the first scene at court, Laertes is granted leave to travel abroad, and later Polonius dispatches a servant to spy on Laertes and report on his movements. One of the functions of expatriates at foreign courts was to keep the monarch advised of what was happening in another principality and to monitor for potential troubles. In the opening scene of the play, when the scholar, Horatio is unable to communicate with the Ghost, he suggests taking the matter to Hamlet, who’s a better scholar, in addition to being the son of the dead king. Both Hamlet and Laertes are sons driven to avenge the murder of their fathers. Just as Marlowe was recruited to spy on potential enemies of the Queen, Claudius enlists fellow students Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to keep tabs on Hamlet. Marlowe’s death has been shrouded in mystery, as he’s said to have died at the hands of a cohort in a dispute over a bar tab. If Hamlet is intended as an allegory for the situation surrounding Marlowe’s death, the playwright seems to be attributing it more to intrigue at the court than to petty bickering over who would pay for drinks.

Emilia Bassano is believed to have been the mistress of Henry Carey, being sent to his household in her teens. In this function, she was admitted as a lady at court and given access to resources far beyond her upbringing as the child of a foreign court musician. Ophelia, as depicted in the play, could represent the feminine side of Emilia, with no authority, no autonomy, and used as a lure to draw out Hamlet — to trick him into revealing the cause of his melancholy. This may be how Emilia came to know Marlowe; she was sent to spy on him. Once she engaged him, however, they may have had a meeting of the minds and she may have come to regard him as a friend or colleague, just as Horatio serves as Hamlet’s closest confidante in the play. If Ophelia represents the woman Emilia was, then Horatio represents the man whose guise Emilia assumes to become a poet and a playwright.

Marlowe was accused of being an atheist and is believed by historians to have been a homosexual, either of which could have gotten him killed in Elizabethan England, but he was also a spy, which made him useful to the crown and may have shielded him from retribution for a time. Still, his activities would have been frowned upon by those in positions of authority in the court, particularly the Queen and it would have been one of Carey’s duties to protect Elizabeth. Emilia, an attractive woman, may have been encouraged to get close to Marlowe to spy on him, just as Claudius and Polonius encourage Ophelia to do with Hamlet, but once Emilia engaged Marlowe, she found a kinship with him on an intellectual level. Both were poets, and Marlowe was a playwright with a fondness for allegory. Coming from a background of religious oppression and bigotry, Emilia probably found Marlowe’s atheism a welcome change. Ophelia’s speech in the aftermath of her rebuke by Hamlet may be Emilia’s way of coming to terms with her role in Marlowe’s downfall.

O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!
The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword;
The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
The observed of all observers, quite, quite down!
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That suck'd the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh;
That unmatch'd form and feature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy: O, woe is me,
To have seen what I have seen, see what I see!

In the so-called Bad Quarto edition of Hamlet, at Ophelia’s grave, Gertrude laments that the flowers she’s leaving will not adorn Ophelia’s marriage bed, but in the First Folio, Gertrude states that she hoped Ophelia would be Hamlet’s bride. This directly contradicts the words of both Polonius and Laertes, who each caution Ophelia that Hamlet is off-limits, and Polonius’s report to Claudius and Gertrude that he informed Ophelia that Hamlet is “out of thy star”. The audience of Shakespeare’s time would have understood this without being told. Why, then, would the playwright change this dialogue to create such a glaring error? Emilia appears to have had a very complicated background. She was the daughter of an Italian court musician who was most likely a Jew, but her mother was English and she was born and raised in London, making her an Englishwoman. Because of her Italian lineage, however, Emilia would have been considered a foreigner, so not only was Henry Carey off-limits to her, in all likelihood, Marlowe a “true” Englishman, would have been as well.

When Hamlet chastises Ophelia, he insists “if thou wilt needs marry, be you as chaste as ice, as pure as snow”. He’s advising her to avoid being betrothed in a marriage of convenience. Whenever a woman in the lower gentry became pregnant by a nobleman, she was hastily married off to someone of her proper station to cover it up. This is precisely what happened with Emilia, who became pregnant in 1592, and was quickly married off to Alfonso Lanier, a court musician and the brother of Nicholas. Marlowe died the following year, and Henry Carey, as Lord Chamberlain, became the patron of the theatrical company with which Shakespeare is associated. As they say, timing is everything. His patronage could have been a way for Carey to continue his association with Emilia, by secretly supporting her creative endeavors, and may have been a covert reward for her role in resolving the situation with Marlowe. She was later rewarded with a pension, much of which was squandered by her husband in his various get-rich schemes.

This makes the timing of the First Folio very interesting. The man from Stratford had been dead for seven years by the time of the Folio and had shown no inclination to publish a collection of the plays. Emilia, however, was still alive and in desperate financial circumstances, and was well documented as a published poet. John Hudson points out in his work that a speech by the character of Emilia in Othello that bears a similar tone to the pre-feminist material in Salve Deus appears to have been added to the Folio just prior to publication, suggesting that the playwright updated it, even though the man from Stratford could not have made the change.

There are other references throughout Hamlet that support the notion that Emilia had something to do with its creation. In the scene where Hamlet confronts Rosencrantz and Guildenstern just before he visits his mother, he begins by asking Guildenstern to play a tune on a recorder that’s brought in by a musician, and ends by stating, “though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me”. These appear to be references to two of the Italian musical families at court, the Bassanos, who were recorder players, and the Lupos, who played the viols, which are fretted instruments played with a bow. It’s not the only reference to the Italian musicians that appears in Shakespeare’s work.

In The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare name-checks a number of the Italian court musicians, including Peter and Joseph Lupo, Peter’s son, Phillip, and Emilia’s brother-in-law, Nicholas Lanier. In court documents from 1585, Peter Lupo is identified as “Petruchio Lupo” and at the time, his wife’s name is “Katherine” or “Katerina”. The violin or viol players would often form consorts with the recorders and Joseph Lupo married Emilia’s cousin, Laura.

The narrative that can be drawn from the allegorical elements of Hamlet is that as Marlowe became more of a nuisance to the Queen, her protector, Henry Carey, encouraged his concubine, Emilia Bassano, to get close to Marlowe to determine how much of a threat he represented. Emilia instead found in Marlowe a mentor and friend, who collaborated with her and encouraged her work as a poet and playwright. When it became apparent that Emilia was growing closer to Marlowe, Carey found it necessary to remind her she had no future with him, just as Polonius advises Ophelia. It’s probable that Marlowe reacted harshly toward Emilia when he learned she was spying on him, just as Hamlet reacts toward Ophelia in the play. Despite feeling empathy for Marlowe, Emilia did her duty and betrayed him, just as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern betray Hamlet. Emilia found she was pregnant and a marriage to another of the Queen’s musicians was arranged to cover up her part in the conspiracy against Marlowe. The following year, Marlowe finally outlived his usefulness to the sovereign and was eliminated, and Carey rewarded Emilia by becoming the patron of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, where she could continue to engage in writing plays, safe from outside scrutiny. Perhaps, this was the bargain she made with Carey to provide intelligence on Marlowe.

Under this interpretation, Hamlet can be viewed as dramatizing The Crucifixion of Christopher Marlowe. Hamlet is portrayed as a redeeming figure, who’s come at a moment when “time is out of joint” and laments that he has been sent to “set it right”. Marlowe was twenty-nine when he died, but he was in his thirtieth year, as is Hamlet, who is an intellectual and a scholar, as was Marlowe. Hamlet assumes the guise of a playwright when composing lines for and directing the actors in The Mousetrap. This scene, in all likelihood, represents Emilia’s memories of Marlowe directing his players in Doctor Faustus, which was first performed in 1592. Hamlet becomes a very real threat to Claudius with the murder of Polonius, and treats his mother with disrespect over her role in his father’s murder. Marlowe’s atheism would have been viewed as a threat to a monarchy which, via the “divine right of sovereigns” derived its authority directly from God. If there was no God, the crown had no authority and such a view could not be allowed to go unpunished.

Emphasizing the motif of the dying and resurrected savior within the play, however, Hamlet is allowed to complete his mission naming Fortinbras as his successor, while Marlowe’s life was cut short without fulfilling his early promise. His death, however, gave birth to the playwright Shakespeare, who arose from the quill of the poet Emilia, now free from the restrictions placed by her society upon her by virtue of being a woman.

At the end of the play, Hamlet implores Horatio, his close friend and sole confidante to “tell my story”. Marlowe’s friend and confidante, Emilia Bassano Lanier, memorializes him by crafting Hamlet. Generations since have continued to tell his story.

Leave a Reply