Shakespeare's Dark Lady - a novel by Ian Wilson

Shakespeare's Dark Lady uncovered...

Ian Wilson's novel reveals all the evidence that has led him to solve an enduring mystery by identifying Shakespeare's Dark Lady as the powerful Elizabethan courtesan Lady Penelope Rich.

'A first novel of considerable scientific and historical erudition, entertaining and thought-provoking.'
Anthony Burgess

A woman in search of the identity of Shakespeare's Dark Lady.............
A man in search of a living descendant of Shakespeare in a bastard line......................

This novel, first published by HarperCollins under the title Black Jenny and now published for the first time on the Internet, explores Shakespeare, sex and the darkest of secrets when past and present meet in an explosive love story.

Author Dr Ian Wilson has come up with a startling theory in Shakespeare's Dark Lady, a novel about the love-life of a fictional Shakespeare scholar, Amelia Hungerford. Through Amelia's story, Ian Wilson demonstrates that the Dark Lady was none other than Penelope Rich - the most powerful courtesan of her day and the first cousin of Queen Elizabeth I.

She was born Penelope Devereux around 1563, the daughter of the first Earl of Essex. By her marriage to Lord Robert Rich in 1581 she became Penelope Rich and acquired a surname which would become a favourite pun for many poets. As Stella in Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophel and Stella sonnets, her name has already survived as more than just a literary footnote.

It is true that Penelope Rich has been put forward before as a possible Dark Lady. There were tentative suggestions from the 1860s up to the 1920s based on the way in which Shakespeare, like some of his contemporaries, repeatedly plays on the name Rich in the plays and 14 times in the Sonnets. There was no conclusive evidence, however, and Penelope seemed an unlikely mistress for a humble Stratford player.

On 3 September 1594, a curious narrative poem in 72 cantos was registered at Stationer's Hall in London. It bore the title Willoughby his Avisa or The True Picture of a Modest Maid and of a Chaste and Constant Wife.

Canto 44 introduces two of the lecherous suitors of Avisa, the ostensibly virtuous maid and subsequently wife of the title. The first is said to be 'H.W.' and:

'...his familiar friend W.S.,who not long before had tried the courtesy of the like passion and was now newly recovered of the like infection.'

The writer goes on to ask 'whether it would sort to a happier end for this new actor than it did for the old player.'

For over a century, Shakespeare scholars have speculated excitedly about the identity of H.W. and W.S. The cuckold's horns decorating the Avisa's frontispiece and the lampooning tone of the poem leave little doubt that it is a caricature sending up the adultery of a well-known woman. If Penelope Rich was the object of the attack, this was less than clear to many readers in 1594, which is probably why another short poem entitled The Victory of English Chastity under the Feigned Name of Avisa, was appended to the 1596 edition. Penelope Rich was the most famous adulteress of her day and her relationship with Sir Charles Blunt, now Lord Mountjoy, was all but public knowledge by 1595. This latest poem would have left fewer doubts in contemporary readers' minds as to which woman it was alluding to.

It seemed obvious to commentators on the poem, in which first W.S. and then H.W. attempts unsuccessfully to seduce the temptingly chaste Avisa, that they need only identify the real-life model and they would have solved the riddle of the Sonnets, in which first Shakespeare and then his 'Friend' share the carnal charms of the Dark Lady.

In Dr Wilson's own words: 'In the course of my research in the British Library two lines from the Avisa suddenly jumped off the page at me. I re-read them to be sure.':

Yet if you know a bird so base
In this devise she hath no place
'The words come from the Avisa's introductory poem, The Victory of English Chastity. I knew that devise in French could mean a motto, so it might well have meant the same in 16th century English. If I was right, and Penelope Rich was Avisa, her motto would incorporate the word 'base' or 'basis'. The Elizabethans loved such word puzzles.

'It took less than five minutes to find what I wanted in the heraldry section. There, in an 18th century leather-bound folio of ancient heraldic emblems and mottos, I found the motto of Penelope's family - the Devereux family:

Basis Virtutum Constantia (The Basis of Virtue is Constancy)

'I thought of the 'Constant Wife' of the Avisa's title. But here before my eyes was Basis - the very word I had expected if my hunch was correct. From that point on, other clues almost fell out of the Avisa to identify her as Penelope Rich. Allusions to Lord Mountjoy's name abound in The Victory of English Chastity, not least in 'the mounting phoenix' (a mount was Elizabethan slang for a prostitute, so Charles Blunt's name lent itself admirably to bawdy innuendo).

'Penelope Rich conceived a child while Blunt was overseas. Ostensibly it was still-born at Leighs Priory, Lord Rich's Essex home, in May 1594. Blunt had meanwhile returned to England early in 1594 to take up a new post as chief military officer at Portsmouth. Logically the father was neither Lord Rich, from whom Penelope was estranged, nor Charles Blunt. The question arises: who was the father, and was the child genuinely stillborn? Might it not have been born healthy and the rumour of a stillbirth spread about to avoid a scandal? This is the question I ask in Shakespeare's Dark Lady, in which a Harvard Shakespeare scholar, Amelia Hungerford, seeks the answer using genetic fingerprinting to try and trace a living descendant of the Bard.

'Penelope saw herself as a patroness of the arts. A dalliance, but nothing more, with the social-climbing Bard and then Henry Willoughby does not seem beyond the bounds of possibility for this woman with the reputation of a hot-blooded vamp. Nor is it implausible that she dropped Shakespeare like the proverbial hot potato when his Rape of Lucrece was published. The virtuous Lucrece of the title could well be Penelope in disguise, and the rapist Tarquin Penelope's lover Lord Mountjoy. The scandalous Avisa only made matters worse.'

This is the story of Shakespeare, Willoughby and Penelope Rich as Dr Wilson tells it in Shakespeare's Dark Lady, where he also proposes a new key to unlock the mysteries of the Sonnets.

Readers will find the clues in the lines of verse (epigraphs) introducing each chapter. Clue words are highlighted in red.

Shakespeare studies, it is guaranteed, will never be the same again.

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   Chapter 1...