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Unmasked - the identity of Shakespeare's Dark Lady

Simon Tait
Sunday 07 December 2003 01:00 GMT

A miniature painting that has been on full view to the public at the Victoria and Albert Museum, but whose significance has passed thousands of visitors by, may hold the key to one of the great mysteries of English literature - the identity of the Dark Lady of Shakespeare's sonnets.

Since the 154 sonnets were first published four centuries ago, there has been constant academic speculation about the brunette who repeatedly appears in the later poems.

But a picture by Nicholas Hilliard, the most celebrated of English miniaturists, on display in the V&A's British Galleries may hold the key. It is now thought to be a portrait of Emilia Bassano, a prime contender for the role of Dark Lady.

The discovery was stumbled upon by the actor and playwright Tony Haygarth while researching his latest play, Dark Meaning Mouse, which examines the relationship between Shakespeare and his Dark Lady and her influence on his work.

Haygarth - who has just finished appearing in the National Theatre production of David Mamet's Edmond with Kenneth Branagh and is well known to TV viewers from the long-running drama series Where the Heart Is - believes he has not only established who she was, but what she looked like.

Some thought she might be the Countess of Pembroke, Sir Philip Sidney's brilliant sister. George Bernard Shaw thought she was one of Elizabeth I's ladies-in-waiting, Mary Fitton, and even wrote his own play about her.

Another theory was that she was the landlady of an Oxford inn and the mother of Shakespeare's supposed illegitimate son, Henry Davenant. She might have been Shakespeare's London landlady, the delightfully named Marie Mountjoy, or the black prostitute Luce Morgan, the "Abbess of Clerkenwell". Equally, it is possible that "she" might in fact have been a man, perhaps Shakespeare's patron Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton.

But in the 1970s, having studied the papers of the court apothecary and astrologer Simon Forman, the historian A L Rowse came up with the name of Emilia Bassano, daughter of a court musician and wife of another, Alphonse Lanier. Haygarth has studied the same material and discovered more telling references.

Haygarth's discovery - his findings are revealed in the January issue of BBC History Magazine - was pure chance. Glancing through a book about Hilliard's Tudor miniatures he saw the portrait of a stunningly beautiful young woman.

"She was 'Unknown Lady, aged 26, formerly called Mistress Holland' and dated 1593, but there was something about her that made me want to see the actual miniature," Haygarth says. "I found it in the new British Galleries at the V&A."

More research by Haygarth identified "Mrs Holland" as Angela Bassano, Emilia's elder sister, but the attribution came from a 19th-century inscription on the reverse. "I found that it couldn't have been Angela because she had died in about 1584," says Haygarth. "But Emilia was exactly the right age in 1593."

The clincher for Haygarth is in the detail. The sitter's bodice is decorated with the silkworm moths and mulberry trees of the Bassano coat of arms and the stag of the Earl of Essex, the favourite of Queen Elizabeth in the 1590s, in whose service Lanier had once been.

Emilia Bassano was born in 1568, five years after Shakespeare, and was at one point the mistress of the Lord Chamberlain, Lord Hunsdon, by whom she had a son. She survived into the 1640s.

"I can't say for certain this is the Dark Lady," Haygarth says, "but the evidence that it was Emilia is strong, and I'm sure this is a miniature of Emilia. But whoever the lady in the portrait is, she is an outstanding beauty."

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