Published by the Faculty of Business, Government and Law, University of Canberra


Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

The ‘Dark Lady’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets?

Nov 15, 2022 | Popular Culture, Culture, Misogyny, Humour, Theatre, History, Diversity, Power, Gender, Feature

Written by Ginger Gorman

Four hundred years ago Emilia Bassano raised her voice. The world didn’t listen. Who was Emilia? Was she the ‘Dark Lady’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets? What of her own poems? And why was her story erased from history? Fierce and provocative, the play Emilia was written by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and tells the story of a woman and her sisters who call out to us across the centuries with passion, fury, laughter, and song.

The work is a mix of laughter and fury – a play that takes its audiences on an exuberant and moving journey though love, loss, identity, ambition, power, rebellion and what it is to be a woman in a man’s world. 

With a cast of 13 incredible women and non-binary performers, this play – which will shortly be showing at Canberra Theatre Centre –  celebrates all voices through the trailblazing story of a woman who refused to take no for an answer. BroadAgenda editor Ginger Gorman speaks to director Petra Kalive.

If you were explaining the show in a nutshell to someone who didn’t know anything about it, what would you say? 

Emilia is the story a woman who lived in Shakespeare’s time and who many think was Shakespeare’s muse –  his ‘Dark Lady’ of the sonnets. But she was much more than that. A writer, poet, leader, mother and teacher. We are finally sharing her story and it is funny, powerful and inspiring.

Like so many women, Emilia was erased from history. What can you tell us about her?

Emilia was born in 1569 into a family of musicians. It is difficult to ascertain her heritage exactly, but she was definitely Italian, Jewish and likely of North African Descent. Her father died young and so she was placed in the care of Countess Susan Bertie, a noblewoman favoured of Queen Elizabeth.

It was in Bertie’s care that Emilia was educated and introduced to court. Emilia became mistress to Lord Henry Carey, a very powerful nobleman and courtier and the patron of the Lord Chamberlin’s men (William Shakespeare’s company). Lord Carey provided Emilia with financial security, independence and literary connections including an introduction to Mary Sidney (a noble woman who developed and led the most important and influential literary circle in English history, now called Wilton Circle).

Time as Carey’s mistress meant time to write but soon Emilia became pregnant and was married off to her cousin Alphonso Lanier. While married she continued to write and it was at this stage she met Shakespeare.

It is suggested that they became lovers and there are many differing schools of thought about how much input Emilia had in Shakespeare’s works. In the first instance her knowledge of music seems to have been influential in Shakespeare’s works.

Her name appears in multiple iterations across many of Shakespeare’s works, as does her home, Italy. It is interesting to note that Shakespeare wrote such rich female characters, with voice and agency and yet did not teach his own daughter to read. It begs the question, who else was urging supporting Shakespeare to realise these perspectives in his plays?We think Emilia.

After the death of her daughter and multiple miscarriages, she goes to teach women ‘south of the river’ how to read and write. At the age of 42, Emilia published a collection of poetry called Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail, God, King of the Jews).

Emilia’s book was the first substantial, original book of poetry written by an Englishwoman. It was about the Crucifixion of Christ from a female perspective. It was revolutionary for its time and within the text were messages and radical ideas for women to stand up, have agency and a voice.

While she was a product of her time, the writings reflect progressive ideas for a classless world where men and women were seen as equals. I like to think of it as one of the first feminist works, subversively buried in religion so as not to alert the censors. Emilia died in 1645.

UK's Times newspaper said Emilia is a “fire-cracker production” with “a clever mix of history and revolution”. Picture: Supplied

UK’s Times newspaper said Emilia is a “fire-cracker production” with “a clever mix of history and revolution”. Picture: Supplied

This cast is extremely diverse. Why have you taken this approach? What does that bring to the stage? 

The play was written to be performed by an all female cast of diverse women and non-binary performers. It would not be the same play if this was ignored. Morgan Lloyd Malcom also wrote Emilia to be played by three different actors, which challenges the idea that a play about a person needs to be a vehicle for one actor. It allows a depth of perspective as these three different performers bring their different lived experiences to the role and I feel provides the audience more entry points into the work.

In a way we are all Emilia. Personally, I want to see work on our stages that reflects the world in which we live. I would not say that this cast is ‘extremely diverse’, it simply reflects the reality of the world.

We have spent a lot of time in theatre excluding people for no good reason. The play is about a story erased from history – I was determined not to erase the intersection of multiple female and non-binary experiences from the rehearsal room conversation and I thought it exceedingly important for an audience to experience that intersection of feminisms/experiences as well.

What’s your favourite quote or scene in the play and why? 

There are so many moments in the play that are my favourites. I love the humour in the work – it’s so funny and subversive. But the monologue spoken by Emilia 3, always makes me tear up a bit. It may seem unremarkable to you, but I think it is a lived experience for so many women (and especially women of colour)

It is a wondrous thing when someone instills their confidence in you. Offers you their hand. Believes you can do it and you alone. Sees you not as a risk or a trifle, sees you not to be patronised or dismissed. And I see through my many years now how valuable that is to any kind of creation. And how lucky some have been to have had that from birth. An assumption that ‘you will’, instead of one that says ‘you shouldn’t’. 

The play is described as being both hilarious and furious. What can you tell us about the emotional landscape of the play? 

What Morgan Lloyd Malcom balances brilliantly is the deep fury and injustice felt from the generational legacy that our society holds at its core from silencing, disempowering and hurting women while celebrating our strength, and fallibility and humanity.

Morgan balances laughing at the absurdity of the patriarchy while acknowledging the very real impact that has on women’s lives and bodies. And this is one of the most brilliant things about the play, it simultaneously holds those two seemingly conflicting truths. It uses the form of theatre, in a very Shakespearean Globe way to allow these ideas to sit in opposition.

Morgan (like Shakespeare) is using humour to talk to the many to get her audience breathing and enjoying the storytelling, and using poetry and drama to elevate the story of a forgotten woman. It’s been an absolute gift to direct, to be joyful and playful (there has been so much laughter), but we are never far from the truth of the experience and impact that inequality has had on women and still continues to have.

It’s amazing that the issues women had 400 years ago are still relevant today. As a a feminist, how does that make you feel? How do you hold onto hope?

Yes, there is still a long way to go and while we consistently take steps forward, we seem to take steps back and sideways along the way too. I think power and privilege is a difficult thing to acknowledge and relinquish.

But more and more, I am seeing and experiencing a cultural shift. Some people are stepping aside – but more importantly, so many people are speaking out and stepping up. That gives me hope.

There is serious scholarly work exploring whether Emilia was actually Shakespeare and that he published her work and another woman’s work under his name. Does the production challenge us to consider if Shakespeare was really a woman (or two)?

No the production doesn’t ask us to consider whether Shakespeare was a woman. It gets us to think about the fact that maybe he wasn’t a solo genius. It challenges the idea of the wunderkind. That Emilia significantly contributed to his work and works and that had he been writing today, the credit line to his works may have read – by William Shakespeare & Emilia Lanier with the Lord Chamberlin’s men. I believe it was a collaborative act – like all good theatre making.

  • Picture at top: In Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s electrifying new play, Emilia and her sisters call out to us across the centuries with passion, fury, laughter, and song. Picture: Supplied 



Ginger Gorman is a fearless and multi award-winning social justice journalist and feminist. Ginger’s bestselling book, Troll Hunting,came out in 2019. Since then, she’s been in demand both nationally and globally as an expert on cyberhate and the real-life harm predator trolling can do. She's also the editor of BroadAgenda and gender editor at HerCanberra. Ginger hosts the popular "Seriously Social" podcast for the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. Follow her on Twitter.

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