digital access copy of a paper presented at BSA 2019. please do not share or reproduce in any form. 


Just over fifty pages of the 2018 printed text of Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s critical hit play Emilia is not Malcolm’s work, but rather a reprinting of the titular Emilia Lanier’s poetry. The poems are presented without annotation, or any commentary save an introduction from Malcolm, in which she explains the decision to include the poetry in this format: she and her collaborators read the oft-quoted excerpts about Lanier from Simon Forman’s diaries, in which he says it ‘seems she is or will be a harlot’ and that ‘[s]he was a whore and dealt evil with him after’ (Malcolm 2018: 105). Malcolm explains that she and her collaborators ‘were pretty angry that his words have come to be so important in the retelling of her story for so many … the more recent publication of [Lanier’s poetry] by AL Rowse unfortunately includes a lot of what Simon Forman said about her in the introduction. I wanted to re-publish her poems with the play to hopefully give them exposure through a different lens’ (2018: 105). While Malcolm acknowledges that Forman’s diary is ‘a valuable document and if it didn’t exist perhaps we would not know anything at all about Emilia’, she also finds it ‘unfortunate’ that a scholarly edition of the poems includes reference to the only contemporary description of Lanier herself (2018:104-5). This tension encapsulates what I argue is the driving desire of Emilia: unmediated access to the past; specifically, to a lost feminist heritage that patriarchal history has disrupted. Malcolm reiterates repeatedly in the play text that her play is not history or even biography: in her preface to the poems, she is careful to delineate that she is not speaking as or for the historical Emilia Lanier, but rather, for example, that ‘[o]ur version of Emilia knew that if she was going to be remembered she needed to publish her poems’ (2018: 105, emphasis mine). However, this insistence that her Emilia is not and is not trying to be the historical Emilia Lanier sits in fascinating contrast with the production’s statements—partly given voice by Malcolm, but also by marketing apparatus presumably outside of her control—that the play’s aim is to revive Emilia Lanier’s legacy, to grant access to that feminist heritage I mentioned a moment ago. The text, for example, on the back of the play reads, ‘Her Story has been erased by History. … this world premier will reveal the life of Emilia: poet, mother and feminist. This time, the focus will be on this exceptional woman who managed to outlive all the men the history books tethered her to.’ The ‘unfortunate’ historical record can be swept aside and imagination becomes a tool to reveal, as the cover states, that which traditional history has effaced. Throughout the play, Malcolm’s use of creative anachronism collapses the distance between past and present oppression, insisting not only on the continuity of black and female experience through time, but the ability to access that history without mediation—an aim that set the play in fascinating tension with its own original producer, the Globe.  

Malcolm’s playful relationship with conventional historical narratives is made clear in the play’s opening moments, when Emilia begins by reading from what the stage directions indicate should be a copy of A. L. Rowse’s Sex and Society in Shakespeare’s Age: Simon Forman the Astrologer. The text Emilia reads is, and is identified as, an extract from Forman, and yet the stage directions take pains to indicate that it is also a quotation from Rowse (1). Malcolm’s deliberate inclusion of Rowse, not Forman, as source points to the play’s dual position as a retort to the sexist early modern society that obscured Lanier’s accomplishments and to what the play frames as the inescapably sexist historical work that is based on the documents of that society. It is also an early and explicit anachronistic gesture, one emphasized in the original Globe production by the subsequent appearance of Emilia’s Muses, an ensemble dressed all in white, 21st century clothing. The production likewise drew upon what the script describes as ‘Renaissance instruments and contemporary beats’ (vii) in a dance sequence in Scene 2 that opens with the Countess of Kent demanding, ‘Are you ready to SLAY?’. ‘Think Renaissance girl group,’ the stage directions instruct, ‘En Vogue. Beyonce’ (12). Subtler and more consistent, however, are deliberate anachronisms in structure and style, usually intended to draw a direct line between the gendered and racial discrimination that Emilia faces and the expression of such prejudices today. Emilia’s first encounter with the other young women of the court exemplifies this tendency:

LADY KATHERINE: Speaking of breeding— what’s yours?

EMILIA1: Pardon?

LADY KATHERINE: Where are you from?

EMILIA1: London.

LADY KATHERINE: No. Where. Are. You. From?

EMILIA1: I. Am. From. London.

LADY KATHERINE: But you don’t look like us.

EMILIA1: Is this your first time in London? […] My family hark from over the sea…

LADY KATHERINE: I knew it! My father said that we were being inundated by families like yours. Fleeing wars, men migrating for work. Craftsmen are furious. Coming over here to take their work. That’s what they’re saying. That’s who you are. Too many. Too many of you coming over. It’s a real problem, that’s what my father said (11-2).


The invocation of both a stereotypical racial microaggression in Lady Katherine’s stubborn insistence on knowing Emilia’s ‘real’ origins and the language of contemporary anti-immigrant sentiment situate Emilia as the subject of timeless bigotries. The sixteenth century was certainly marked by anti-immigrant sentiment, as Shakespeare’s contributions to Sir Thomas More famously dramatize. However, the conflation of early modern xenophobia with the racist terms of contemporary debates about immigration and refugees creates an anachronistic equivalency between the two eras, rendering Emilia’s race, her father’s nationality, and English xenophobia transhistorical—and thus, topics that can be fully understood without contextualization by a historian.

Lanier’s published poetry, what Malcolm describes as the period’s only pathway to ‘make a mark and be remembered’ (2018: 105), naturally becomes an important site for this struggle for unmediated access to the past, and the desire to insist upon the timeless universality of female experience and ambition. As Malcolm notes in her preface to Lanier’s poetry, she was introduced to Lanier partly as ‘a woman forgotten by history who was one of the best cases for being the ‘Dark Lady of The Sonnets’ and therefore potentially Shakespeare’s lover’ as well as being ‘a woman who was a talented writer herself’ (2018: 104). Scholars would contest this assumption: Pamela Benson describes A. L. Rowse’s original positing of Lanier as the Dark Lady as a ‘delightful fiction’ and finds that Forman’s casebooks, which detail Lanier’s sexual history, do not ‘provide any evidence whatsoever of a connection between Emilia and Shakespeare; [Rowse’s] theory is almost universally rejected’ (2018). Malcolm does not reject it, however, and Emilia’s dual identity as muse and artist, and the tension between the two, becomes a driving subplot of the middle portion of the play. Once again, Malcolm tackles historical and contemporary precedents simultaneously in her treatment of Emilia’s literary ambitions, most conspicuously seeming to reference the 1998 Academy Award winning film Shakespeare in Love as a model to deconstruct the relationship between William Shakespeare and his female muse. Shakespeare in Love’s enduring influence can be seen in the similarities between it and the 2017 television series Will, which ends with a sequence that is startlingly similar to the ending of the award-winning film. Both film and television series deploy narrative patterns that will be familiar to anyone who has recently watched a fictionalised biopic about an artist of any kind. The Shakespeare of Shakespeare in Love, played by Joseph Fiennes, is in love with the wealthy Viola, who exits the film on a ship bound for America with her new husband. Will Shakespeare of Will, played by Laurie Davidson, sees his lover Alice Burbage likewise depart on a ship for America, having newly converted to Catholicism to support the mission of the priest Robert Southwell, who will apparently escape his actual 1595 death. Both Shakespeares turn to writing to mourn their losses: Fiennes’ Shakespeare sits down to begin Twelfth Night, immortalizing his lost love as ‘my heroine for all time’. In Will, Alice’s contributions throughout the series to scraps of the work-in-progress that the viewer recognizes will become Romeo and Juliet suggests that she will become the inspiration for that doomed heroine. For both women, to be subsumed into Shakespeare’s mythology is framed as a bittersweet triumph. Viola bids Shakespeare not farewell, but ‘Write me well’. In order to enter the story of Shakespeare as we know it, these women must first leave it, making room for their actual selves to be replaced by their fictionalized ones. We recognize them in their moment of departure: oh, she was that Viola all along. Both film and TV show end with Shakespeare on the cusp of creating a play we, the audience, know will be great: his beginning as Shakespeare is and must be the women’s end.

            But Malcolm’s play instead draws the logical historiographical conclusion from these Shakespeare origin stories: if writing is the way to enter history, to invisibly contribute to Shakespeare’s plays must be read not as empowering, but rather as the ultimate form of historical exclusion. The Hollywood version would surely end with Shakespeare writing Emilia into his work after they part ways, but Malcolm refuses to frame Emilia’s potential absorption into Shakespeare’s legacy as either a positive, or as the end of her story. When they first meet, Emilia and Shakespeare woo each other with sparring quotations from The Taming of the Shrew and Love’s Labours Lost, a play she then helps him name before advising its famous ending: ‘Make sure there is resistance from the women. I want there to be one who does not wish to marry’ (34-6, 39). Later, Emilia goes to the theatre having recently ended her relationship with Shakespeare after the death in infancy of their illegitimate child. She watches a performance of Othello, and is horrified to find her words in the fictional Emilia’s mouth. In defiance of the docile exits of the other Wills’ lovers, she leaps onto the stage and recites along with the fictional Emilia, chasing her from the stage until she is dragged away herself. What might be the ending of Will or Shakespeare in Love is only the end of Malcolm’s first act. However, prioritising the easily accessible work of Shakespeare over showcasing Lanier’s own poetry somewhat undermines the effort to restore Lanier’s literary legacy. Most of the play’s quotations from Lanier’s actual work come from her prefatory material rather than her densely religious poetry. Just as Rowse claimed importance for Lanier by proposing she was Shakespeare’s lover, Malcolm establishes Lanier’s literary greatness by suggesting that she was Shakespeare’s ghost-writer, reifying Shakespeare as the iconic literary man whose works are a benchmark for talent. His ‘universal’ greatness is a parallel to Emilia’s transhistorical oppression: it can be effortlessly understood. No one needs explanation or context for why Shakespeare’s work is great; as Malcolm’s tentative engagement reflects, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum does not stand alone quite so easily.

Marketing for the original Globe run of Emilia drew frequently on images of Charity Wakefield as Shakespeare, emphasizing Shakespeare’s importance as a symbolic as well as literal antagonist for Emilia’s artistic aspirations. A scene between Shakespeare and Emilia concludes the play, in which he enters to complain that ‘[t]his is my gaff’ (98), a line that once more traversed past and present when spoken on the stage of the reconstructed Globe. ‘Not today it isn’t,’ Emilia replies, and in defiance of the ending of the first act, she then takes the stage to deliver a rousing final speech, urging the women of the audience to ‘burn the whole fucking house down’ (100). Her reclamation and destruction of Shakespeare’s work, reputation, and famous stage itself form the play’s climax of triumphant fury. This conflation of Globe past and present, of Shakespeare as symbol and character, was mirrored in social media responses to the play: playwright James Graham praised the production for ‘reclaiming that Wooden O for voices ignored’. The play’s reclamation of the current Globe as performance venue was repeatedly framed as equally important to Emilia’s fictional reclamation: ‘Reclaimed the fuck out of history and The Globe. Thank you so much’; ‘What a way to claim that stage. Thank you so much’. And, of course, the tweet from which I take the title of this paper: ‘The glory of … Emilia is the utter clarity of its endeavour: leading us on every level to question, ignite, burn, revel in the possibility of theatre, the power of reclaiming the story for us here, now. It changes everything.’ Other responses took the conflation farther, extending the antagonism of the fictional Globe to the present one: ‘I’m annoyed yet another woman’s work, SUCCESS, is underestimated with a short run’. Another added, ‘Short run. No merchandise. No post show talks (was there one?), YO @The_Globe you did well getting it on that stage but you really underestimated women…’. Emilia ran for what was then the standard number of performances of any new work at the Globe. However, the recurring language of underestimation reflects a determination to see Emilia’s treatment in the terms the play itself proposes, of antagonism and lack of recognition by both the symbolic and literal Globe, one that obscures—or only grudgingly acknowledges—that the Globe commissioned the play and produced it in the first place. The interplay between reality and reputation in relation to the Globe that gives rise to this attitude is perhaps best encapsulated by the Twitter user who gleefully described a supposed encounter with a ‘normal’ Globe patron: ‘Me: BURN THE FUCKING HOUSE DOWN!!! Old white guy behind me: what is this nonsense?! This isn’t Shakespeare?!?!? Why are all the women cheering?!?! DISRESPECTFUL!!!’ As she clarified in response to another tweet, ‘He didn’t actually say it’. However, this points to the simultaneous power and problem of the Globe’s reputation in housing a play like Emilia. Assumptions about the ‘ordinary’ audience for such a venue, their tastes and opinions, coloured the reception of this new work—on the one hand, making its presence seem like a powerful reclamation of a white, male space, and on the other, forcing the venue, like Shakespeare in the play, into the role of patriarchal antagonist. I suspect the Globe’s marketing team noticed this tendency, because announcements of the production’s West End transfer were much more careful to highlight Globe artistic director Michelle Terry as the third member of the trio of women—writer, director, and commissioning artistic director—responsible for the play and its success. There are obvious parallels here between the Globe and A. L. Rowse as symbols of a white, patriarchal literary and artistic hegemony—a reputation the theatre and Shakespeare industries as well as academia unquestionably deserve. The Globe has Shakespeare in its name, which may mean that to ever stand alone as an artistic venue, separate from Shakespeare and all his legacy entails, is impossible. It may be a space that can only ever be reclaimed by, not collaborator with, diverse voices. But even though new play production apparatus is complex and often problematic, these responses—like Malcolm’s rejection of a historical record she understands as irrevocably biased against women in general and Lanier in particular—simply misunderstand how the production came to be in favour of a narrative that reinforces a legitimate sense of grievance against patriarchal institutions in general.

I pull out this thread of opposition to the idea of formal historical and literary study not to play the role of snobby academic—or worse, defensive Globe employee—though the fact that even here I fear being seen that way highlights the challenge the play poses for us as scholars and artists. Can historians and literary critics and Shakespearean institutions ever be allies rather than symbols of patriarchy and white supremacy, or be seen as anything other than the prejudiced gatekeepers that try to mediate and thus distort access to the past? The irony of this suspicious perspective, as the Globe’s marketing effort to restore Michelle Terry’s place in the trifecta of Emilia’s originators demonstrates, is that it often erases the work of precisely the groups whose exclusion has led to this sense of suspicion. Neglecting writing since Rowse on Emilia Lanier is to neglect a body of scholarly work mostly undertaken by women; ignoring work on the actual lives and treatment of people of colour in early modern England is to ignore pioneering scholars of colour. Malcolm’s printing of Lanier’s poetry stands as useful symbol of the tension at work here: the desire to publish the poems without the sexist commentary of Forman attached, without the interventions of scholars like Rowse who cannot be trusted to be sceptical of prejudiced early modern sources, renders the poems themselves inaccessible. Aside from basic practicalities like a tiny font and lack of vocabulary glosses, there is no guide for understanding precisely how radical Lanier’s engagement with religious history was in the context of her culture, how even the title of her collection was shocking. Her actual work is erased in favour of her more easily accessible symbolism.

In the end, I think of this paper as more a question than a comment. As Emma Smith discussed in her keynote at the ‘Changing Histories’ conference a few weeks ago, ‘historical accuracy’ has often been a bludgeon wielded to insist upon a white, male, conservative view of the past. How can we combat academia’s well-earned reputation as patriarchal and oppressive—or can we? How can we insist upon the value of historical expertise in an era when this insistence is increasingly seen as fundamentally elitist—or, again, can we? Can the visceral power of a play like Emilia be harnessed in service of nuance and historical inquiry? Finally, if a play like Emilia can ‘change everything’, can we find a way to show politically engaged creative writers that scholarship, too, has already begun to change?