A Novel of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady

By Sally O’Reilly

Picador. 436 pp. $26

Sally O’Reilly’s wildly romantic novel “Dark Aemilia” is a pleasure for anyone who enjoys well-crafted historical fiction and a special treat for Shakespeare lovers. Drawing on the biography of a real-life woman proposed by some scholars as the model for the Dark Lady of the Bard’s sonnets, O’Reilly creates a fiery, proto-feminist heroine and entangles her in a star-crossed affair considerably more adult and complex than the teen romance enshrined in “Romeo and Juliet.”

"Dark Aemilia: A Novel of Shakespeare's Dark Lady" by Sally O'Reilly (Picador/Picador)

The daughter of a court musician murdered under mysterious circumstances, Aemilia Bassano is left alone and unprotected at 16. Her formidable intelligence and erudition offer her no better options in Elizabethan England than becoming the mistress of the powerful Lord Hunsdon. He is a kind man who treats her well, but that does not quell her fury that women are “caged, and tethered, and made small” — as they are in the obnoxious new play she sees at Whitehall one spring evening in 1592.

The Taming of the Shrew” is “a woman-hater’s boorish jape,” Aemilia tells its author. Naturally, Will Shakespeare can’t resist her, and she is disturbed to find herself by no means immune to the honeyed words of this attractive (and married) playwright. An exchange of sparring letters quickly leads to lovemaking, earthily described with blunt words the Elizabethans did not use in print to capture in modern language the feelings of urgent physical desire that seethe in Shakespeare’s sonnets. But it is an affair of the mind as well. Will relishes Aemilia’s wit and learning; he understands her discontent. “We are two of a kind,” he says. “Would I have written plays if I had known my station?”

Their summer’s rapture ends when Aemilia gets pregnant and Lord Hunsdon, who believes the baby is his, arranges a financial settlement and marriage to a complaisant courtier. “I’m not living with my child, as a poet’s whore, in some filthy ale-house,” she tells Will. The lovers separate angrily, but their paths will cross again in the new century, when a series of encounters reveals how much they still love each other, even though their proud natures foil each possibility for reconciliation that O’Reilly tantalizingly dangles.

In 1602, living in Smithfield with her cherished son Henry, Aemilia admits she has been unable to destroy the poems Will sent her, “full of bile and hatred for me and everything that we’d done.” This explanation for the sexual disgust expressed in the later sonnets is the first of several skillful fictional solutions O’Reilly offers for various enigmas of Shakespearean biography, including the notorious bequest to his wife of the “second-best bed.”

O’Reilly creates a particularly gripping speculation on the origins of “Macbeth” and the curse that many theater folk continue to believe attends its every performance. Confronted in Smithfield by three malevolent women claiming that her father left them an unpaid debt, Aemilia is sure that these witches intend to take her son’s soul. To fend them off, she summons a demon with a spell from a stolen book of necromancy. (O’Reilly vividly renders the Elizabethan world view that readily accepted the supernatural as part of everyday reality.) Appropriately, the creature who appears is Adam’s rebellious first wife in the Bible, whose fury at women’s subjugation matches Aemilia’s. In return for saving her son, Lilith commands Aemilia to write a play based on the hallucinations of savage female power she experiences under the demon’s sway.

Aemilia hopes “The Tragedie of Ladie Macbeth” will fulfill her long-held desire for public acknowledgment as a writer, but we know what will happen after she sends it to actor-manager Richard Burbage. Recast as “The Tragedie of Macbeth” — “The King’s story, rather than the Queen’s,” Aemilia fumes — Will’s plundering of her work is a smash. But it is also an insult that sends Aemilia searching for revenge.

Remorse eventually leads to the reunion that no popular novelist could deny her readers after creating such a believably passionate and enduring connection between Will and Aemilia. Their final moment of happiness gives Will the chance to confess: “Black-eyed Rosaline, clever Portia, the Egyptian Queen who drove poor Anthony to madness — all you! All you. Each one.” It’s unlikely that a single woman inspired Shakespeare’s gallery of protean female characters, but in O’Reilly’s able hands, it makes a wonderful premise for absorbing, satisfying fiction.

Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America.”