Light Illuminating Dark: A.L.Rowse and Shakespeare’s Dark Lady

Controversial "Dark Lady" scholar A.L.Rowse with his cat Peter

Controversial “Dark Lady” scholar A.L.Rowse with his cat Peter

Playwright William Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets. Twenty-four of them address his passionate love for an un-named person known as “the dark lady”, someone he described as ‘a woman color’d ill’ with black eyes and dark, coarse hair. Speculation about her identity has raged across the centuries, with several historical women often debated as candidates. One of them, Emilia Bassano Lanier, fits Shakespeare’s description and was the mistress of arts patron Lord Hunsdon. She also wrote and self-published a radical proto-feminist book of poetry, very unusual for a woman in 1611.  British scholar Dr. A. L. Rowse researched her life and connection to Shakespeare relentlessly and in 1973 announced (sensationally via The London Times) that he had discovered the identity of the Dark Lady at the Bodleian Library in the diaries of Elizabethan Astrologer Simon Forman. Rowse found himself reviled by more traditional scholars for his revelations, and his research conclusions can still inspire spirited debate. UNT Professor of Drama Andrew B. Harris found Rowse a fascinating subject and wrote a comedy, “The Lady Revealed”, to dramatize the controversy over the Dark Lady’s identity and Rowse’s part in it. His play makes its premiere April 11-14 at University of North Texas’ Radio, Television, Film and Performing Arts Building Studio Theater. Arts journalist and critic Alexandra Bonifield interviewed Harris about the genesis and creation of this unusual project.

How did you start this project? It began as a one-man play I  created for a UNT student to perform on Scholars’ Day. I was reading Rowse’s commentary and found him eccentric and opinionated, someone with a real perspective on the lunacy of academia and interesting to try to portray. After that reading, which went fine, it felt like I needed to expand it. I got permission from the Rowse estate to dramatize it fully and made plans to do in depth research.

Andrew B. Harris during research at Oxford

Andrew B. Harris during research at Oxford

Where did that take place? I took two trips to England, one in 2011 and the second in 2012.  I spent time in Cornwall, visited the archives containing the scholar Rowse’s papers in Exeter and Oxford and visited with people who knew him well. At this point the play grew to include the astrologer Simon Forman, Emilia Bassano Lanier, Shakespeare and Rowse, himself.

Why has Rowse been so disputed as an authority? His controversial personality, more than anything. He was the son of a Cornish clay worker who worked his way up from nothing and broke through the repressive class structure. He was openly gay and a Labor supporter, outspoken, tended to offend people and disturb the academic status quo. He did extensive research into the Dark Lady subject material and made his findings more accessible than academics preferred it would be. He saw history as an art form and a means of communication. He was driven to undertake research on the astrologer Forman’s casebooks and examined events in these casebooks other people had dismissed or ignored.  The casebooks were just sitting there in the archives, waiting to be discovered. Rowse horded these revelatory documents, didn’t want anybody else to delve into them. Jealousy had to enter into his rejection by the elite scholars, too.

A page from Simon Forman's casebooks

A page from Simon Forman’s casebooks

What are astrologer Simon Forman’s casebooks like? They are confusing and coded, like a doctor’s personal detailed patient records, but totally of that era. They are almost unintelligible. I took photos of pages at the Bodleian Library in Oxford…it’s in personalized shorthand and incredibly ornate. English wasn’t standardized at the time, so one needs to be quite a language and semantics expert to interpret this information. Forman’s casebooks demonstrate a freedom of sexual expression that Victorian researchers found very offensive, so they rejected the whole thing. The Elizabethans didn’t have hang-ups about casual sex like the Victorians, to say the least. He documents visits with Emilia Bassano Lanier, who Rowse grew to believe was the mysterious Dark Lady of the sonnets.

Did he write any casebooks on Shakespeare? We don’t know. Several of his books are missing.

Speak about the Dark Lady, a poet who published her own work of merit in the 17th century, with a proto-feminist voice. She had great appeal for rising literary feminists in the 1970’s. She tutored students and opened a school, was quite an intellectual, probably multi-lingual. She dedicated her poetry to seven strong women of the 17th century, including women in the patronage scene where men dominated. She completely distanced herself from patriarchy. She believed women should be equal and free, very progressive for her time. Her family, the Bassanos, were court musicians of Spanish Jewish origin, in England from the time of Henry the Eighth until Cromwell’s purge. The Bassanos as musicians of note still have royal musical connections. It makes much sense that an author of Shakespeare’s skill would have been fascinated by, enamored of, an intelligent, educated woman who also excelled in the arts.

Amelia Bassano Lanier

Amelia Bassano Lanier

There are Bassanos living in Texas? Some of the family moved to the US in the 1850’s and descendants live in the Dallas area, no longer musicians. Some plan to attend the premiere.

How did Sally Vahle get involved as director? She’s a tenured faculty member and a close colleague of mine at UNT. I’ve known her since her MFA days at SMU. This is the first time we have worked together on an artistic project. It’s been a fun, open-ended collaboration. She focuses on the acting and I focus on play development. I felt the play needed to transcend realism since it leaps back and forth between centuries. Sally has blocked her cast on different playing levels keeping it with a Shakespearean-style conceit in neutral space. I think Sally is as equally intrigued with the idea of Shakespeare’s actual mistress as Rowse and I have been. It humanizes a man we have come to view almost as a god.

Why did you set the play in three eras, the late 1600’, 1970’s and 1990’s? Obviously Shakespeare’s era was the starting reference point. The 1970’s era was when Rowse made and announced his discoveries and got largely shunned by academic communities in both England and the US, even though he lectured and made many talk show appearances, like on Dick Cavett. By the 1990’s scholars had begun to recognize the truth in his research. So I thought each of the three eras made sense to include. It gives the comedy a beginning, middle and an end with a thread of mystery tying it all together.

UNT production promotional photo - Jake McCready as Rowse & Annie Armenta as Emlia

UNT production promotional photo – Jake McCready as Rowse & Annie Armenta as Emlia

“The Lady Revealed”, a comedy academe by University of North Texas Professor of Drama Andrew B. Harris will premiere at 7:30 p.m. April 11-13 and 2 p.m. April 14 in the Radio, Television, Film and Performing Arts Building Studio Theater. Order tickets with a credit card at 940-565-2428 or Metro 817-267-3731 ext. 2428. Box office is in the RTFP building, University Theatre, Room 104. The box office accepts cash, checks and credit cards.

Link to promotional video for “The Lady Revealed” at UNT:

As posted on content partner

Biography of Dr. Andrew B. Harris, University of North Texas Professor in Theatre History, Play Analysis and Playwriting:

A.B., Humanities, University of Chicago, Ph.D., Columbia University, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

C.I.B., New York University, Graduate School of Business

Dr. Andrew B. Harris has chaired Theatre Departments at Columbia University, Southern Methodist University and Texas Christian University.  He is the recipient of the first Award for Excellence in Education for his book Broadway Theatre (Routledge). Production credits include shows in New York, Chicago, and in Texas including: The Life of Galileo (with Laurence Luckinbill (“Time magazine ten best of the New York season”), Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer (Dinah Merrill), the first Sam Shepard Festival (Shep in Rep), the first cultural exchange with the People’s Republic of China Cao Yu’s Peking Man, Eugene O’Neill’s Welded (directed by Jose Quintero with Philip Anglim), the revival of Richard Rodgers’ first musical Fly With Me, Joan Torres’ Better Half Dead (Victory Gardens, Chicago) and several world premieres by Texas writer Jim Tyler Anderson.  A noted Albee scholar, Dr. Harris compiled, produced, and directed the world premiere of Albee’s Women.  His own plays include Tausk, Erasmus, Rapin’ with Repin, and Tar-tuff, a Molière adaptation with a Texas twang. He is an alumnus of the New Dramatists in New York.  He recently received a grant from the Tobin Foundation to complete his second book, The Performing Set, the Broadway Designs of William & Jean Eckart.


One thought on “Light Illuminating Dark: A.L.Rowse and Shakespeare’s Dark Lady

  1. Pingback: Dr. Who and Downton Abbey Actors perform Texas playwright’s London reading of THE LADY REVEALED | Alexandra Bonifield

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