'Paint' Imagines What Shakespeare's Dark Lady Was Like

Apr 15, 2014

Literary scholar Grace Tiffany likes to puzzle over those minor characters in Shakespeare’s plays that we don’t hear much about.

For example, what’s up with Gertrude in Hamlet? 

“Her husband Claudius who has murdered his brother who is Gertrude’s first husband basically says ‘I couldn’t do anything without her.’ ‘I couldn’t do anything without her guidance.’ And you know it’s like oh that’s interesting, you couldn’t do anything without her guidance. It’s kind of like left undeveloped, but it leads you to think that maybe Gertrude had more to do with the murder of Hamlet’s father than one might otherwise think. Those little parts of Shakespeare just fascinate me and they provide so much texture and depth.”

Tiffany, a writer and a Shakespeare professor at Western Michigan University, will be reading from her latest novel called Paint tomorrow at Michigan News Agency. She’ll also give a talk called Shakespeare’s Jewish Women at Congregation of Moses next Thursday.

In Paint, Tiffany imagines the other lover of Shakespeare’s sonnets. While Shakespeare wrote many affectionate sonnets to a young man, he also mentions a “dark lady.”

“But we know that there was somebody who was unconventional in her beauty. And that Shakespeare perhaps wasn’t in love with her but was involved with her, and wrote some sonnets. Some in celebration of her and some in castigation of her—some of them are kind of angry sonnets. And that there was some kind of connection, even a sort of triangle among him, the young man, and the dark lady.”

While there have been many theories as to who the dark lady was, in Paint, Tiffany uses 17th century poet Emilia Bassano. In the book, Emilia feels shy among the witty fair haired, fair skinned people of court. So, she darkens her hair and skin to stand out of the crowd--kind of like a punk rocker.

“And she reads the sonnets of Sir Philip Sydney, for example—who’s sort of a contemporary of Shakespeare’s but mostly gone by the time Shakespeare got on the scene—that praises the darkness of a woman’s eyes. And this kind of poetry, it expressed itself as being counter cultural," says Tiffany.  

"Like ‘how is it that beauty can be dark?’ You know reacting to the conventional ideal of the fair beauty. But she sees this and decides well I can play into that. She builds her new identity on this other construction of beauty.”

But Emilia never expected to catch the eye of a young William Shakespeare. And Shakespeare is captivated by her Italian last name and her supposedly Jewish heritage.

“She was derived from, descended from a Jewish family. But, at least in my story, she knows nothing about what that means. And so she has to invent it all and she invents all these romantic stories about her Jewishness and claims that she lived in Venice," Tiffany explains.

"And in my book she sees that Shakespeare is fascinated with that and a lot of what she tells him then becomes the basis for the play that he goes on to write, which is The Merchant of Venice.”

Tiffany says her books like Paint are definitely fiction, but they can still give insight into Shakespeare’s work.

“At least I’ve had some people tell me that they are helped in understanding the plays by reading my thoughts on them embedded in fiction," she says. "That they’ve gone back and they have a new outlook on characters.”