Mon 22 April 2024
Previous Issues
NAWE aims to put creativity at the heart of education. NAWE is a charity funded largely by its members fees and donations.
Current Issue
Forthcoming Issue
Previous Issues
Article Search
You are here: Home > Writing in Education > Writing at University > Writing in Practice > Previous Issues > Vol. 5 > Inventing Shakespeare: re-imagining a national icon
Inventing Shakespeare: re-imagining a national icon
Sally O’Reilly reveals a historical novelist’s methods in writing about Aemilia Lanyer, one of the first women poets and a candidate for being Shakespeare’s “dark lady”.


In this article the writer presents an investigation of her creative process while writing Dark Aemilia, a historical novel about the relationship between William Shakespeare and the poet Aemilia Lanyer. The novel charts the progress of their relationship, its breakdown and aftermath, and the production of their works: Shakespeare’s Macbeth and sonnets 127-154, and Lanyer’s poetry collection Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. The author examines her approach to the creation/recreation of the character William Shakespeare, and the research into facts and fictions which went into this. Arising from this, she reflects on the issue of fictionalizing actual historical figures, and the challenges and dilemmas that this presents. In addition, the author interrogates the Shakespeare myth which has been developed in previous fictionalized versions of his life, focusing on five accounts which informed her own work. In exploring the development of her version of Shakespeare, she argues that writing from the perspective of a female poet offers an original interpretation of his cultural status and interrogates assumptions about male artists, whether or not this interpretation can be described as “feminist”.


Keywords: Dark Aemilia, William Shakespeare, Aemilia Lanyer, Macbeth, Historical Fiction, Characterization


My historical novel Dark Aemilia (2014) is based on the life of Aemilia Lanyer (1569-1645), one of the first women to be published as a poet in England. The novel was the creative component of a PhD at Brunel University. This article is based on the critical thesis that accompanied the novel, which looks at the way in which I developed the character of William Shakespeare. I had previously published two contemporary or near-contemporary novels with Michael Joseph/Penguin, both of which addressed issues of gender conflict and the breakdown of male/female relationships. The characters in these contemporary novels were inventions, but I included actual, researched events in my second novel, set at the Greenham Common women’s camp during the anti-nuclear protests of the early 1980s. Writing Dark Aemilia was a departure and a challenge, not only for the obvious reason that the book was set in Early Modern London, but because it concerned the lives of real people, both obscure and well-known.

The inception of the idea was the serendipitous discovery of biographical information about Aemilia Lanyer. In the early stages of researching a novel based on Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth, I came across a reference to Lanyer, born Aemilia Bassano. Her collection of poems Salve Deus Rex Judaorum includes an account of the Fall of Man, presenting Adam as the true culprit rather than Eve, and a description of the Crucifixion told from the point of view of the female followers of Christ. The fact that she was published at such an early date was striking in itself, and I was also interested in the proto-feminist content of the poems. Unlike other Early Modern women writers such as Lady Mary Wroth (1587-1651/3)) and Elizabeth Cary, Viscountess Falkland (1585-1639), Lanyer was not part of a cultural elite, but the illegitimate child of a Venetian musician, Baptiste Bassano, who played at the court of Henry VIII. The Bassanos lived in Westminster and were members of a community of musicians and artists who made their living at the Tudor court, and whose social status was opaque.

Until this discovery, I had intended to set the novel in 11th century Scotland. My intention had been to explore the idea that the Macbeths were a composite Fourth Witch, and to investigate the concept of evil and revenge as presented in the play. Little is known about the Scottish thane on whom Macbeth is based, and there was therefore plenty of scope to develop an imaginative narrative which was plausible in historical terms. But the story of Aemilia Lanyer resonated with me in a way that the original idea for the novel did not. Making Lanyer the subject of my novel meant changing both the location and setting of the narrative and engaging more closely with historical facts.

Initially, this seemed limiting and the constraints appeared to be considerable. But during the research process I found that relatively little was known about Lanyer’s life, the main source being the notebooks of the astronomer Simon Forman (Cook, 2002). Imagined events could be built around the extant information. I also developed the idea of creating a narrative which explains the writing of Shakespeare’s drama Macbeth, so that some of my original concept could be retained.


Research context

Both contemporary and historical fiction have a symbiotic relationship with reality, and there are differences of opinion about the acceptability of departing from or embellishing facts. Yet whether writing fiction or non-fiction, establishing objective truth is near-impossible. Even when describing personal experience, the process of focusing, selecting and describing is one of falsification, because the supposedly “authentic” reality that informs the work is so formless and chaotic that the writer does not have the means to channel this into the reader’s consciousness. Instead, they create a proxy for reality. As Shields writes in Reality Hunger: “The origin of the novel lies in its pretence of actuality.” (Shields 2010:13) The novel, he suggests, is a hybrid form characterized by: “…an ambiguous straddling of verifiable and imaginary facts…that tightrope walk along the margin between the newspaper report and the poetic vision.” (Shields 2010:14-15)

Historical fiction is of necessity based primarily on texts and artefacts rather than observation and experience, and the writer’s relationship with actuality is mediated by the source material which informs their work. Whether this is in the form of letters, journals, diaries, memoirs or autobiography, or even archival records, documentary evidence will be subjective and fragmentary, and may be inaccurate. Even court documents and public records fall into this category; courts are run by the ruling elite and it’s harder to hear the voices of those who were in the dock than those who sat on the bench; and even parish church records which have survived intact will not include all religious denominations. Although these texts and artefacts are evidence, they present a fragmentary picture. A fictional narrative adds to this, filling blanks, imagining conversations and constructing a sensory world.

Many writers are acutely aware of the limitations of factual records, and the ambiguous relationship between historical actuality and imagination. Speaking at the “Novel Approaches to History” conference at the Institute of Historical Research in November 2011, Hilary Mantel commented: “Fact and fiction are not two neat categories. If I were to distinguish fact from fiction in Wolf Hall, I would have to footnote every line.”  Mantel emphasises her interest in the aspects of the past that historians cannot access, the area beyond supposition and extrapolation in which an author’s creativity can find its space. She argues: “I can operate in this ‘off the record’ area. So much of what we have now – pageantry, painting, gift-giving culture – is what is demonstrated or shown. I am more interested in what is going on on the back stairs, what is said behind the hand. I might be able to make my readers feel what it was like to live through those terrifying days. I will walk you forward with the characters who don’t know the end of the road.”

Mantel’s presentation of Thomas Cromwell’s troubled consciousness is audacious. Shaping a story around the real events of a life is artistically challenging, and some writers are tentative about recreating historical figures. For example, although in her debut novel, Zennor in Darkness (1993) Helen Dunmore re-imagined the experiences of D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda, she was aware of the limitations of this approach. Describing her reasons for recreating their experiences in Cornwall during World War I, she said: “Their story needed to be told. We know the bare bones of what happened – but what was it like for him and Frieda in this landscape? The details intrigued me: Lawrence creating a garden, growing things like salsify, getting in tons of manure. He knew how to do practical things – the ironing, the washing – and his combination of day-to-day good sense and the life of the mind fascinated me. I felt there were some interesting things about that particular period and about what turned him against England.” (Crown 2010) But when questioned about her later historical novels The Siege (2002) and The Betrayal (2010), Dunmore commented: “There are some fascinating characters and it was tempting to write about them, but I decided my secret policeman [in The Betrayal] would be fictional so I wasn't restrained by the need to keep within, or to break with, real-life events.” (Flood 2010)

Despite her misgivings, Dunmore articulated a compulsion to explore the hidden lives of real historical figures that I strongly relate to. In particular  I was struck by the phrase “Their story needed to be told.” There are characters in history who have been neglected, or whose lives seem to have aspects that have escaped attention, or which are open to reinterpretation. For me, this was the case with Aemilia Lanyer. Her little-known biography seemed to open the possibility of exploring what drives female artists and investigating the obstacles they face, thereby illuminating aspects of Early Modern history which are rarely addressed in novels.

The characters based on real people in Dark Aemilia include Aemilia Lanyer and William Shakespeare, as well as Simon Forman, Elizabeth I, Richard Burbage and Anne Shakespeare. A number of invented characters interact with them during the narrative, so that I created an imaginary story built around known historical facts, and presented conversations and interactions which are plausible but imagined. In addition to this, the events of the novel were constructed to reflect the themes, content and structure of the Shakespeare tragedy Macbeth and the later sonnets (127-154) which are addressed to the “Dark Lady”, a figure who may have been a living woman known to Shakespeare or a fictional persona. So there were a number of creative constraints that helped shape the novel. The process was one of trial and error rather than a planned and ordered strategy, and I approached each character in an incremental way, establishing what factual information was extant, experimenting with different scenes to see how their role in the novel could be dramatized, and investigating the ways in which the various characters might relate to one another and plausibly interact.


Aemilia Lanyer

Lanyer was the protégée of Anne Clifford, an associate of Katherine Parr, and Clifford is one of the dedicatees of Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, Lanyer received a classical education under the tutelage of Clifford. At seventeen, she became the mistress of Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, the Lord Chamberlain at Elizabeth I’s court. Six years later, she became pregnant and was married off to a cousin, Alfonso Lanyer, a court musician like her father. She was obliged to leave the court and lived in a modest house in Westminster, later telling Simon Forman that her husband spent her dowry within a year. (Woods 1993: xv-xvii) The marriage does not seem to have been more than a contrivance to maintain her respectability, and it is plausible that Aemilia Lanyer was unhappy. Another fact that had fictional potential was that she would have come into contact with Shakespeare because Hunsdon was the patron of the Queen’s players, known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

The novel is written from Aemilia Lanyer’s point of view, in the first-person voice, and in early drafts the narrative started ten years after she had left the Court and was living with Alfonso Lanyer and her son Henry. The affair with Shakespeare was also in the past. So the novel had an elegiac quality, and she was a middle-aged woman, oppressed by her responsibilities and lack of money. At this point, my intention was that Shakespeare would be a marginal figure. My interest was centred on Lanyer’s identity as an artist, and her struggle to produce and publish her work while living in impoverished circumstances, and with no remaining connection to people of influence. I was influenced by the theories of Green (2006), Hopkins Hughes (2000), Lasocki & Prior (1995) and Rowse (1978), who suggest that it is plausible that Lanyer was the Dark Lady who inspired the later sonnets.

The sonnets were first published in 1609, and I thought it was credible that she would have felt that the poems gave a biased and misleading account of their affair. It seemed logical that she would be affronted by the idea that she was the muse to her former lover, when she was a poet herself, although unacknowledged as such. Therefore, my initial interest in Shakespeare was as an antagonist to Lanyer, and one likely to see her value primarily in terms of her sexual allure, and to privilege his talent and needs as an artist over hers.

However, as I developed the draft it became apparent that the character of William Shakespeare could not be marginalized to such an extent: if he appeared in the story there was an expectation that his character would be more fully developed. I retained the first-person voice, and the subjectivity of Lanyer’s view of her experiences, but added a section about their affair at the start of the narrative. In addition to this, I developed Shakespeare’s character in later scenes in the novel, so that there was a deeper investigation of their relationship and the dynamic between them. 


William Shakespeare

In order to develop the character of Shakespeare it was essential to consider the known facts about his life, and his cultural eminence as an emblematic artist. Initially, therefore, my research rationale was to establish the biographical facts which have survived and to examine the ways in which he has been presented by other writers over time, across a number of genres. An early discovery was that there is a relatively small amount of surviving factual evidence about his life. As Bryson comments: “After four hundred years of dedicated hunting, researchers have found about a hundred documents relating to William Shakespeare and his immediate family – baptismal records, title deeds, tax certificates, marriage bonds, writs of attachment, court records (many court records – it was a litigious age) and so on. That’s quite a good number as these things go, but deeds and bonds and other records are inevitably bloodless. They tell us a great deal about the business of a person’s life, but almost nothing about the emotions of it.” (Bryson 2007: 7) 

This scarcity of facts has enabled writers to create their own versions of his character.  Some of the key texts have been summarized by O’Sullivan who argues:

The large body of conscious fictions involving Shakespeare offers a rich variety, ranging from anachronistic fantasy to scrupulous fidelity, from bardolatrous flights to Marxian dialectics and from Catholic apologetics to an attempt to establish Ulysses S. Grant as head of a state-governed Church of America. Most authors have larger ambitions than mere art. They offer solutions to the identities of W.H. and the Dark Lady, suggest Shakespeare’s role in shaping the King James Bible, and trace the relationship with Sir Thomas Lucy, Francis Bacon, Elizabeth I, Kit Marlowe and Ben Jonson. They celebrate, mourn and demean Anne. And they speculate endlessly about Shakespeare’s pets and poaching, his sources and inspirations, his melancholy and death. (O’Sullivan 1997:1)

For my PhD thesis I conducted a selective review of sixteen titles. These included plays, short stories and novels, spanning a period of around 180 years, the earliest being Walter Scott’s Kenilworth (1821) and the most recent Jorge Luis Borges’ Everything and Nothing (1999). Some are playful, referencing previous versions of Shakespeare’s life, and others polemical, making a case for or against William Shakespere as a heroic figure, definitive artist and author of his plays. For the purpose of this article I have focused on five key texts which I found particularly useful. These are Anthony Burgess’s Nothing Like the Sun (1964), Edward Bond’s, Bingo (1975) Robert Nye’s Mrs Shakespeare (1998), Jorge Luis Borges’ Shakespeare’s Memory (1999) and Marc Norman/Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love (1999).

Nothing like the Sun focuses on Shakespeare as a sexual being, and charts the development and ultimate decline of his sex drive and the suffering caused by his carnal infatuations. Throughout the book there is a dual focus: on Shakespeare’s obsessive interest in sex, and the way that his raw experience is mediated through language. Burgess’s evocation of everyday Early Modern speech is persuasive and impressionistic, vividly depicting Shakespeare’s developing artistic process and his intense relationship with the vernacular.  For example, he has “storing up spaniel’s eyes”, seeing everything, and transforming it with words. Seeing his parents having sex sets the scene for his future ambivalence about physical passion: “Spring and battering and belabouring his ears, the moans of another sort of dying, another sort of beast – all white, all clawing fingers, froglegs swimming on the bed, sepulchrally white.” (Burgess 1964: 3)

Edward Bond’s play Bingo gives an account of the last months of Shakespeare’s life.  His contention is that Shakespeare ends his life filled with bitter melancholy and doubt about the value and relevance of his work. He finally commits suicide, and continually repeats the phrase: “Was anything done?” (Bond 1973: 65) Shakespeare is suffering from pangs of conscience partly because he has signed a contract which protects his landholdings, putting self-interest above the rights of local peasant farmers.  Although the events in Bingo are fictional, this contract has a factual basis: in a footnote to his introduction, Bond points out that he has based the historical circumstances of his play on research cited in E.K. Chambers’ two volumes: William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems. (1930)

It is significant that the sub-title of this play is Scenes of money and death.  Money is the death of Shakespeare, in the terms of the play. His suicide is not a sudden event: it is the inevitable outcome of his despair and the fact that his service to Mammon has sucked the life-force out of him. “To get money, you must behave like money,” Bond suggests in the introduction. “I don’t mean by that money creates certain attitudes or traits in people, it forces certain behaviour out of them…I’m not interested in Shakespeare’s true biography in the way a historian might be. Part of the play is about the relationship between any writer and his society.” (Bond 1973: 7)

Mrs Shakespeare, the complete works is written from the perspective of Anne Hathaway, and this  woman’s-eye account has obvious relevance to my own interpretation. The titular “complete works” are written in a notebook. Anne is “blessed or cursed with a very good memory”, and her recollections of Shakespeare are comical and bathetic: he is an unimpressive figure, with rotten teeth and “the stoop of a clerk”. His grandiose moments are undermined by his grubby humanity: “And just at that moment…a seagull went and shat on my husband’s head./ It trickled down his eyebrows./He smiled at me again.” (Nye 1998:47)

However, in spite of her lack of reverence for the great poet, this is a love story. The semi-estrangement between them ends when Anne visits London and she and Shakespeare have anal sex, dressing up and acting out various fantasies based on his plays – or which are the initial inspiration for his plays. Nye makes Anne herself the Dark Lady, a rival for the affections of the Earl of Southampton, his lover and patron. She has “…white parchment cheeks…hair like black wire…two pitchball eyes…” And in the end, William and Anne are reunited: “I was his Alpha and his Omega, his beginning and his ending, his mother, his bride, and his layer-out./He was born in my hands./He came alive in my backside./Reader, he died in my arms.” (Nye 1998: 208)

The screenplay Shakespeare in Love presents a young Will Shakespeare who is passionate and impulsive. The screenplay is full of post-modern jokes which subvert conventions relating to historical accuracy: the watermen speak like London cabbies; audiences cough and wheeze through a play, and one actor is described as “a drunkard’s drunkard”. (Norman et al 1999: 28) Speed and desperation characterise this screenplay. Money is tight, ideas are botched, the plague is an ever-present threat. Shakespeare chases around the hectic streets of London pursuing his latest love interest, caught up in the frenzy of the unstable theatre world. He sells an unwritten play to both Philip Henslow and Richard Burbage, and is suffering from writer’s block as well as impotence.  His secret love affair with the aristocrat Viola Lesseps changes that – she plays first Romeo and then Juliet in the finished play and ultimately is transformed by his art into the Viola of Twelfth Night. Shakespeare’s love affair and his renewed confidence in his work are entwined: he rushes from Viola’s bed to write the love scenes between Romeo and Juliet. The idea that love is snatched, uncertain, transient is fundamental to the plot of Romeo and Juliet, the source play for this screenplay. And it is true of Shakespeare in Love itself. The youthful characters hardly stop to draw breath.

Norman and Stoppard also emphasize the chaotic and collaborative process of creation.  The working title for Will’s play is Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter until Marlowe makes some key suggestions in a couple of throwaway comments in the tavern.  Marlowe’s ideas are not all brilliant: the name “Ethel” is his idea, for example. However, he also proposes that Romeo falls for “the daughter of his enemy”  and then goes on to say: “His best friend is killed in a duel by Ethel’s brother or something. His name is Mercutio.” (Norman et al 1999: 30)

“Shakespeare’s Memory” is the final story in the collection The Book of Sand and Shakespeare’s Memory. (Borges 1998: 122–133) Hermann Sorgel,  an academic, mysteriously acquires the memory of Shakespeare from Daniel Thorpe, another scholar who he meets at a conference.  When he receives the memory, at first Sorgel feels no real difference, just a slight sense of tiredness. But gradually, fragments of the dead poet’s memory seep into his waking mind, and his dreams. These fragments are not coherent or overtly meaningful, and their dreamlike fragility is strangely compelling and surreal. While the world inhabited by Sorgel and his associates lacks tactile solidity, these memories are flashes of sensory experience: a recited alphabet, a whistled tune, “unknown rooms and faces”, a memory of Jonson asking him to recite Latin and Greek verse and the “hilarity of his followers” when he gets it wrong. (Borges 1998: 128)

Finally, Sorgel concludes: “Shakespeare’s memory was able to reveal to me only the circumstances of the man Shakespeare. Clearly these circumstances do not constitute the uniqueness of a poet; what matters is the literature the poet produced with that frail material.” (Borges 1998: 129) This short tale stands as a riposte to those who want to learn about the “real Shakespeare” from his work, scanning the poetry for biographical evidence, and it reaffirms the importance of sheer invention: “Chance, or fate, dealt Shakespeare those terrible trivial things that all men know; it was his gift to be able to transmute them into fables, into characters that were much more alive than the gray man who dreamed them, into verses which will never be abandoned, into verbal music.” (Borges 1998: 129)


Inspirations from previous inventions

So how did these inventions inform my own version of Shakespeare? Nothing like the Sun was helpful in that it is an imaginative and irreverent take on Shakespeare’s experience, and has a powerful sense of verisimilitude as well as focusing on the dark, self-destructive elements of Shakespeare’s character. It also foregrounds a version of his affair with the Dark Lady. It was freeing to see the extent to which Burgess occupies the perceptions of Shakespeare and ultimately creates an ending without hope or reprieve as Shakespeare dies of syphilis. My artistic goals were not as subversive, and I found it easier to create a character which fitted my own ends having seen how far Burgess was prepared to go with his dark vision. Equally, the vitality and immediacy of his depictions of Shakespeare’s early life and his sexual preoccupations inspired me to create my own world based on his plays and drawing on his language

The Shakespeare in Dark Aemilia is in some ways a riposte to  the Bond version of Shakespeare in Bingo. Bond regards the fact that Shakespeare was concerned about money, possessions and status as evidence of his corruption.  I take a more pragmatic view, making the Shakespeare in my novel driven, insecure and determined, and therefore concerned with material status. If he was ambitious, money would be the evidence of his success. This was a society in which aristocrats and townsfolk alike would wear their wealth, or build houses which publically displayed their prosperity. Shakespeare’s desire to achieve social eminence makes him sympathetic to Lanyer’s situation. Elizabethan London was heaving with insecure, desperate people, trying to assert and maintain their importance, trying to get preferment, trying to find a patron, or keep one, and both Shakespeare and Lanyer were looking for tangible external symbols of their achievements.

My interpretation of Shakespeare and Lanyer is that they are both restless outsiders, who assert their will and the primacy of their talent in order to earn the respect of their social superiors and establish themselves as artists. I also saw Shakespeare as a predecessor of prolific writers like Defoe and later Dickens who understood that writing was a mercantile business as well as an art form.  

There is a clear relationship between Dark Aemilia and Mrs Shakespeare because  both present a female view of Shakespeare, and Anne Shakespeare is presented as the Dark Lady in Nye’s novel. The earthy, down-to-earth view that Anne has of her husband is more grounded and domestic than the view that Lanyer has of Shakespeare, but the intimacy of their sexual encounters informed the sex scenes in Dark Aemilia, and I also liked the way in which Nye spun the facts to suit himself, suggesting that by agreeing to have anal sex with her husband, Anne is able to undermine the influence that the Earl of Southampton has on him.

Shakespeare in Love presents an imagined creation story for Romeo and Juliet, and in some ways I saw my novel as a dark reflection of this script, as my narrative is similarly inspired by Macbeth. The Norman/Stoppard version of Shakespeare is a younger, bolder creation than my version, but both are motivated primarily by the need to create, which ultimately outweighs any other aspect of their lives, including love and sexual passion. What strikes me most strongly about Shakespeare in Love is its dramatization of the creative process, and its relish for the Early Modern theatre world. I tried to introduce similar elements into my narrative, presenting Shakespeare as both artist and journeyman, absorbed and validated by his work.

And finally, “Shakespeare’s Memory” is vividly evocative, giving a powerful sense of Shakespeare’s forgotten existence. Paradoxically, while giving these glimpses of seeming authenticity, Borges also suggests that Shakespeare’s creativity is  unreachable even by those who receive his memory. The poet’s chaotic and unmediated recollections do not imbue those who borrow them with his genius; his memory means nothing without his imagination. So for me, this was another opening, giving writers the chance to use what we have, his works and his cursory biography, to create new versions of this unknowable artist, whose ordinary experiences informed his poetry.


Shakespeare as Lanyer’s antagonist

As outlined, my aim was to develop the character of Shakespeare in relation to the character of Lanyer. This was necessary in order to make their love affair plausible and dramatically compelling. It was also important that their qualities are both compatible (drawing them together) and conflicting (driving them apart). Lanyer’s talents and education are crucial: my intention was to make her “freakish” and  unique, with more in common with Queen Elizabeth in terms of her attitude than with other ladies at the court.  In one key scene she dreams of meeting the Queen, who comments: “‘We two – freakish black, and freakish red, wouldn’t you say?’” (O’Reilly 2014: 119)

It is a matter of historical record that Lanyer presented her work with professional elan, beginning with forty seven pages of fulsome dedications to a number of eminent Jacobean women. Thus she put a decidedly proto-feminist stamp on the opening pages of her book. Not only did she write a poem extolling the virtues of maligned Eve and find a (male) publisher to print her work, she also demanded a hearing in the public domain by addressing these influential women as her dedicatees. 

Shakespeare shares Lanyer’s frustrations and social unease. He is from a middle-class, provincial family, and while he considers himself to be a gentleman, he did not attend either Oxford or Cambridge, the alma mater of his rival Christopher Marlowe. I didn’t want to invent an unrecognisable or divergent Shakespeare, but to rework the myth so that he fitted into the narrative of my novel seamlessly. My intention was to make him plausible and appealing, with flaws which are venal and understandable. Chief among these are what modern readers might call “sexism”: his assumption that a woman was incapable of competing with him or his male peers. 

I found it most useful, after some initial experimentation, to think of him in terms of a dominant characteristic, and an opposing characteristic. His dominant characteristic is emotional intensity – related to his writing, his ambition and his relationship with Lanyer. His opposing characteristic – the negative counterpoint to his intensity – is an obsessive nature. Again, this relates to his work, his determination to succeed and his attitude to Lanyer. Once she has transgressed, as he sees it, he is vitriolic and publically humiliates her. (Although in the novel, as in historical fact, the sonnets are published without his permission.) Both characteristics link his emotion about his work to his love for her, and this is demonstrated most clearly in the sonnets. I also wanted to suggest – as Burgess and Norman and Stoppard have done – that his love affair has a formative effect on his writing, and that just as he teaches Lanyer about the need to craft her work, his relationship with her deepens his understanding. For example, when he sees her with the Earl of Southampton, his first reaction is to scrawl down words.


Function of Shakespeare in the plot

Shakespeare’s artistic life is demonstrated primarily through action. Four plays are performed in the course of the narrative and he is also seen discussing stagecraft with Burbage. This is consistent with Borges’ view that the work is dominant and everything else is supposition.

Shakespeare is introduced in the first scene of the first Act of the novel, at a performance of The Taming of the Shrew at Whitehall palace. Lanyer is there as the mistress of the Lord Chamberlain, who is the patron of the players. She is infuriated by the play, and disturbed by it, seeing a parallel with her own situation even though she is reluctant to make this connection.  After the play has ended, Shakespeare comes to speak to her: “I felt a presence, shadow-like, and turned my head.” (O’Reilly 2014: 10) At first, he is nameless, and is referred to as “the playwright”.  I wanted to convey the idea that Shakespeare is surprised by her intelligence, and shocked by her intransigence.  After she criticises his play he says: “I…what did you say?” (O’Reilly 2014: 12) Rather than his being loquacious and confident, I wanted to show that he is wrong-footed by her, unsure how to treat her or what to think. 

The rest of the first Act, “Passion” is an account of their affair, and was a departure for me in terms of its romantic and sexual content as well as its historical context. I tried to prevent this section of the story becoming too derivative or prurient by keeping their meetings short and focusing on character rather than salacious physical detail. The relationship cannot last and is dangerous to both of them: she is betraying Lord Hunsdon by seeing him, and Hunsdon is the patron of Shakespeare’s company as well as her protector. Both are outsiders with no financial resources of their own (Shakespeare becomes wealthy later on). Both are dependent on the good will of courtiers and aristocrats and stand to lose everything: the affair is a folie a deux. In addition to his obsession with Lanyer, I also wanted to show that Shakespeare is more rational, or open to rationality, than his peers. There is no historical evidence for this, other than the psychological sophistication of his plays.

Shakespeare is mentioned in the first scene of Act II, “Prophecy”, which takes place ten years later. Lanyer meets Lettice Cooper, a lady-in-waiting at the court, who patronises her and makes much of her aged and unattractive appearance. Then she says: “‘…that jumped-up fellow’” has been asking after Lanyer. “‘Face of a clerk, but wears an earring. Arrogant, for a provincial.’”  Lanyer is not impressed: “‘If you see him again, tell him I hope he burns in hell.’” (O’Reilly 2014:106) When she meets Shakespeare again, the scene is painful and I wanted to communicate his awkwardness, but also his sensitivity to her. Almost immediately, he tells her that his son Hamnett is dead, as if they are intimate even though they are estranged.  They argue, and his arrogance conflicts with his obsession with her: he calls her a “whore” but finally says: “It is not finished.” (O’Reilly 2014: 145) He is unsettled by her, and thrown off balance.

Shakespeares’s next appearance is in Act III, “Pestilence”. He has joined Thomas Dekker in the search for Lanyer’s son, Henry, who is in fact Shakespeare’s son, though she has never admitted this to him. Here, I wanted to show him losing some of his assumed dignity, pared down to a humbler, more honest version of himself in his anxiety about Henry and his feelings for Lanyer. He is unsure of himself and on the point of apologising to her: “‘Aemilia – those poems – the words I used against you…’” (O’Reilly 2014: 228) But the moment is lost as they search for Henry among the plague pits. This mood continues at their next meeting, when he attempts to persuade her to leave London with him, bringing Henry with her though he has been infected with the plague.

I had a particular difficulty with the scene in which Lanyer meets him in the Anchor tavern. She finds the boy player Tom in bed with a whore, and when Shakespeare walks in buttoning up his shirt, she assumes that he has been similarly engaged. We never know the truth about this – Shakespeare denies it later – but it seemed to me that as the story is told from Lanyer’s point of view, it is appropriate that the reader is as unsure as she is. I was reluctant to present him as a “cheat”. Perhaps my own 21st century perspective on gender relations was coming out here.

When he realises that she has been involved in occult activities, Shakespeare expresses his horror and disbelief. “‘What lunacy was this? What manner of falling off from what you were, and what you could be?’” (O’Reilly 2014: 382)

 And finally he says:  “‘If this is love, then we must leave it. Once and for all, and till we die.’” (O’Reilly 2014: 382)  But before they part he tells her that not only is she the Dark Lady, she is also the inspiration for all his greatest heroines: “‘Don’t you see how it was? That all my heroines are versions of my Dark Aemilia? Black-eyed Rosalind, clever Portia, the Egyptian queen who drove poor Anthony to madness – all you! All you. Each one.’” (O’Reilly 2014: 383)

During his final meeting with Lanyer, Shakespeare reveals that he ran into the burning Globe to save his latest play Dark Aemilia, written in her honour. He believes this might be the only play he is remembered for. But although he manages to retrieve the manuscipt, it smoulders and falls apart in his burnt hands. This is pure invention, though it is inspired by lost plays such as Cardenio and Love’s Labours Won.  (The theory that Shakespeare was badly burned in the Globe fire has also been put forward by Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman in The Shakespeare Conspiracy (1995). His foolish and hubristic attempt to save the play fits in with the theme of over-reaching and unrealistic ambition, and also illustrates a continuing theme in the story, that of the unreliability and incompleteness of the historical record and the documents on which that record is based. 


Shakespeare and language

Finding the right tone and register for the novel was a challenge. Initially I was intending to write the novel in the third person, written from Lanyer’s perspective in the free indirect style. I resolved this problem only after deciding to use the first person voice. The source and inspiration for Lanyer’s voice was contemporary 16th and 17th century writing. This included diaries, notebooks and published poetry and plays. The most important documents relating specifically to the character of Shakespeare and his depiction were his own words: the words of his plays and poetry. Again, Macbeth was an essential source for this, as were sonnets 127 – 152.

As G.K. Hunter argues in the introduction to the New Penguin edition of Macbeth: “Darkness, blood, fire, the reverberation of noise like thunder, the world of the actor, of the man wearing clothes that are too grand for him – these are continually invoked to give us…the sense of an inferno barely controlled beneath the surface crust.”(Hunter 1967: 28) I wanted to communicate something of the bleak, inhuman world that Shakespeare created, in which each character is isolated and apart. The lack of connection, familial or otherwise, is striking. I was also inspired by the sense of evil personified by the witches, but palpable throughout the play, in which “Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,Whilst night’s black agents to their preys do rouse.” (Shakespeare 1977: 86) The enduring superstition that the “Scottish play” is cursed springs from this, and adds to its mystique and notoriety. 

My intention was to try to recreate this sense of fear and unease in my story, but rather than make Shakespeare an agent of darkness, as Macbeth is, I made him as close to being a rationalist as was plausible, given the historical context. His character is more similar to that of Banquo, who is mindful of the power of evil and careful to keep his distance. Light and dark are juxtaposed throughout the novel. For example, at the end of their final meeting in a dark room, Shakespeare asks Lanyer to open the shutters so that sunlight floods into the room and she can see what has happened to him.

I kept Shakespeare’s own language plain and simple, and for the most part avoided including the words of his plays in his dialogue. I felt that using Shakepeare’s own lines would be discordant and distracting, and that it is implausible that the direct speech of a writer would be as precise as their written work. Furthermore, I wanted to avoid being reverential or over-cautious: putting Shakespearean words into the mouth of the fictional Shakespeare might weigh the character down, reminding the reader (and the writer) of his iconic status. This would separate him from the invented world of the novel. My intention was to achieve the opposite effect: to integrate his character into the plot.


Shakespeare and gender equality

Essentially, Dark Aemilia is a feminist interpretation of the Shakespeare myth. But gender equality was not an issue in the Early Modern period: women were assumed to be inferior to men. Therefore, attempting to create any sense of equality between Shakespeare and Lanyer would be anachronistic. However, one of the central ideas in the novel is that being a poet’s “muse” is a passive and subservient role, even if the poetry is flattering and romantic. (And sonnets 127-152 are neither of those things.) The fact that Lanyer is a poet herself is an essential part of her identity, and is connected to her interest in witchcraft, demonology and occult power.

In this respect, Antony and Cleopatra is a source of inspiration, though I gave the play greater prominence in earlier drafts of the novel. (In the original draft, Shakespeare explicitly compares Lanyer to Cleopatra. I decided this seemed too contrived.) As Janet Dillon points out in the Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare’s Tragedies (2007), the love-match between Antony and Cleopatra is a competitive one; they are continually sparring with each other. Dillon observes that the combative relationship between Antony and Cleopatra contrasts with that of Romeo and Juliet. However, it is not the only competitive romantic relationship in Shakespeare’s work. Berowne and Rosalind, Benedick and Beatrice, Portia and Bassanio and Katherine and Petruchio all clash, with varying degrees of wit and pain. It seems that Shakespeare returned to the idea of the sparring, argumentative couple many times.

My view of Shakespeare as a playwright is also influenced by the way that he constructed Antony and Cleopatra. Although it would have been customary to give Antony the last word, and what Dillon describes as “the climactic death”, this is given to Cleopatra. Ultimately, the play becomes her tragedy, and her perception of their relationship and Antony’s greatness is the lasting impression that the play leaves behind. Like Cleopatra, in  Dark Aemilia Lanyer is exotic, mysterious, foreign. Like Cleopatra, she also expects to be treated with respect, in a man’s world. The Shakespeare I have created shares some of Antony’s qualities – he is proud and dignified until the affair distracts him, and like Antony he is unable to reconcile his conflicting needs and desires.



In this article I have reflected on the issue of fictionalizing William Shakespeare, and the challenges and dilemmas that this presents, looking at the wider issue of including characters based on real people in fictional narratives. I have interrogated the Shakespeare myth which has been developed in previous fictionalized versions of his character, focusing on five accounts which informed my own work. Finally, I have suggested that writing from the perspective of an Early Modern female poet has enabled me to re-invent Shakespeare in an original way, and integrate this particular fictionalized version into a narrative in which he is the antagonist rather than the focal character.



Borges, J.L. (1998) Shakespeare’s Memory. London: Penguin.

Bryson, B. (2007) Shakespeare, The World as a Stage. London: Harper Perennial.

Burgess, A. (1964) Nothing Like the Sun: A Story of Shakespeare’s Love Life. London: Heinemann.

Cook, J. (2002) Dr Simon Forman: A Most Notorious Physician. London: Vintage.

Crown, H. 2010 ‘A life in writing, Helen Dunmore’ The Guardian, [Accessed 12 June 2018].

Dillon, J. (2007) The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare’s Tragedies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dunmore, H. (1994) Zennor in Darkness. London: Penguin.

Dunmore, H. (2002) The Siege. London: Penguin.

Dumore, H. (2010) The Betrayal. London: Penguin.

Flood, A. 2010 ‘Helen Dunmore warns the Hay festival of the dangers in fictionalising history’, [Accessed 12 June 2018]. 

Green, M. (2006) ‘Aemilia Lanier IS the Dark Lady’ English Studies, 87 (5).

Greer, G. (2007) Shakespeare’s Wife. London: Bloomsbury.

Hilary Mantel and David Loades in Conversation [online]. 21 November 2011. Available from: [Accessed 12 June 2018].  

Hopkins Hughes, S.  (2000) ‘New Light on the Dark Lady’ Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter. 22 September.

Hunter, G.K. (1967) Introduction, Macbeth. London: Penguin.

Keatman, M. & Phillips, G. (1995) The Shakespeare Conspiracy. London: Arrow.

Lanyer, A. (1611) Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. London: Valentine Simms.

Lasocki, D. and Prior, R. (1995) The Bassanos: Venetian Musicians and Instrument makers in England 1531–1665. Hampshire, England: Scolar Press.

Mantel, H. (2009) Wolf Hall. London, Fourth Estate.

Norman, M. & Stoppard, T. (1999) Shakespeare in Love. London: Faber.

Nye, R. (1998) Mrs Shakespeare. London: Chatto & Windus. 

O’Sullivan, M.J. (1997) Shakespeare’s Other Lives: Fictional Depictions of the Bard. Jefferson: McFarland & Company.

Rowse, A. L. (1974) Simon Forman, Sex and Society in Shakespeare’s Age. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Rowse, A.L. (ed.) (1978) The Poems of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady: Salve Deus Res Judaeorum, by Aemilia Lanier. London: Jonathan Cape.

Scott, Walter (1821) Kenilworth. London: Collins Clear-type Press.

Shakespeare, W. (1623) Macbeth. First Folio Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies. London: William Blount & William and Isaac Jagger. 

Shakespeare, W. (1977) Macbeth. London: Methuen.

Shakespeare, W. (2015) Macbeth. London. Penguin.

Shakespeare, W. (1609) Sonnets. London: Thomas Thorpe.

Shakespeare, W. (1623) The Taming of the Shrew, First Folio Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies. London: William Blount & William and Isaac Jagger.

Shakespeare, W. (1611) Antony and Cleopatra First Folio Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies. London: William Blount & William and Isaac Jagger. 

Shields, D. (2010) Reality Hunger. London: Penguin.

Tillyard, E.M.W. (1943) The Elizabethan World Picture. London: Chatto & Windus.

Woods, S. (ed.) (1993) The Poems of Aemilia  Lanyer: Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. Women Writers In English 1350–1850. New York: Oxford University Press.



Aubrey, J. (1681) Brief Lives, London, Publisher unknown, Modern edition, Aubrey, J.(1999) Brief Lives, Project Gutenberg (Accessed 24 June 2018].

Borges, J.L. (1999) ‘Everything and Nothing’, Labyrinths. London: Penguin.

Harris, F. (1910) Shakespeare and His Love: A Play in four Acts and an Epilogue. London: Frank Palmer.

Kipling, R. (1932) Proofs of Holy Writ. London: Strand Magazine.

Landor, W. S. (1834) The Citation and Examiniation of William Shakespeare Touching Deer Stealing. London: Chatto & Windus.

Mortimer, J. (1977) Will Shakespeare. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Quiller-Couch, A. (1905) Shakespeare’s Christmas (published as part of Shakespeare’s Christmas and Other Stories. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co.

Rowe, N. (1709) Some account of the Life etc. of Mr William Shakespear. London: Jacob Tonson.

Rubinstein, H.F.and Bax, C. (1921) Shakespeare, A Play in Five Episodes. London: Benn Brothers.

Saward, W.T. (1907) William Shakespeare, A Play in Four Acts. London: Elkin Mathews.

Scott, W. (1821) Kenilworth. London: Collins Clear-type Press.

Shaw, G.B. (1914) The Dark Lady of the Sonnets, published as part of: Misalliance, The Dark Lady of the Sonnets, and Fanny's First Play. London: Constable & Company.


Sally O’Reilly is the author of three novels: The Best Possible Taste and You Spin Me Round, (Penguin, 2004 and 2007) and Dark Aemilia (Myriad Editions/Picador US, 2014). She is a former Cosmopolitan Magazine New Journalist of the Year, and has worked as a journalist and editor for Christian Aid, the National Union of Teachers and Barnardo’s, and freelanced for the Guardian, Sunday Times and New Scientist. She has a PhD in English and Creative Writing from Brunel University and now teaches creative writing with the Open University and New Writing South. Her short stories have been published in South Africa, Australia and the UK and she has been shortlisted for the Ian St James and Cosmopolitan short story prize, longlisted for the Historical Novel Society new novel award and nominated for the Kirkus Prize for Fiction. She has also written a guide for writers: How to Be a Writer: the definitive guide to getting published and making a living from writing (Piatkus, 2011).