Sally O’Reilly’s fantasy biography called “Dark Aemilia” puts forth one possible candidate to claim the title of Shakespeare’s mysterious muse: Aemilia Bassano. The scholar describes Bassano’s well-documented education, position in Queen Elizabeth’s court and renowned beauty, all of which might have attracted the Bard. However, the fact that she published the first English woman’s volume of poetry is most convincing.
Aemilia Lanier published “Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum” in 1611, a book of poetry considered by many to be A New Gospel For Women by Women. Such outspoken and public presentation from an Elizabethan woman would logically capture the attention if not the affection of a fellow poet. Fascinating to assume this relationship actually happened at all, much less as O’Reilly characterized the intimate relationship.
Whether or not such intimacies existed, O’Reilly puts forth a hypothesis difficult to forget and captivating to absorb. Might such a woman have impacted the infamous poet to the point of penning famous lines from Macbeth? Romantics like me find the proposition riveting– even seductive.
The Betsy Stage in Denver tweaks the Master’s work to reflect a feminine perspective, producing free shows for an appreciative public. Witness “Beth” based on Macbeth or “Hamlet: A Gypsy Tale.” Only four female writers with the imagination and education to back up such expansive interpretations could successfully foist these productions on a growing, intrigued audience.
Sally O’Reilly takes a similar risk, delving into the mind of her dark Aemilia. The well-constructed novel offends a reader’s senses with foul scents, visions, and tastes present in Shakespeare’s London while creating characters as human as those found on any contemporary city street.
The compelling argument contained within this novel may or may not convince a jury of men and conservative women that a witch like Aemilia Bassano- a mistress as well as critic of the Holy Book- influenced the accomplished William Shakespeare. But I couldn’t help myself. I purchased two copies of “Dark Aemilia” as Christmas presents and find myself considering a second order.