In 1569, Emilia Bassano is born in England. Her Jewish father emigrated from Venice, Italy to England in 1549 to become a Court Musician for King Henry VIII, further back in her family tree, her ancestors were Shepherds in Morocco in the 1300’s. Emilia is a lady of the court but her race and religion are different from many of those around her.
Raised in the Court of Queen Elizabeth I, she becomes the mistress of the Queen’s cousin but Emilia was different to other women. In Tudor England, there were few opportunities for women, they were expected to attract a suitable husband and then serve him as a dutiful wife. This was not the path of Emilia. With a childhood surrounded by music and raised with the ladies of the court, Emilia wanted to express herself, she wanted to be a poet.
There is one big problem with this dream; as a woman in Tudor England, Emilia was not expected to write; her contemporary Shakespeare could write poems and plays but she was expected to put aside her “writing hobby”. The only writing women were permitted to publish was religious text and, even then, there hangs the threat that a woman pushing the boundaries of society could be burned as a witch. Women should be quiet and should know their place.
But Emilia pushes the boundaries, she influences Shakespeare; many believe she is the “dark lady” love Shakespeare writes about in sonnets 127-154
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;Shakespeare Sonnet 130
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.
Many also believe that Emilia may have strongly influenced, or even written, many of Shakespeare’s plays pointing out the thematic focus on Italy, references to Jewish scriptures, characters named after people in Emilia’s life, and the strong female characters. Several of these references are things we would not necessarily expect Shakespeare to know unless he had been to the non-touristy parts of Italy and was close to one of the few Jews living in London at the time.
Emilia is also one of the first English women to have a collection of plays published “Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum” – an early feminist religious text which defends and celebrates women in Scripture -she dares to challenge the patriarchy by suggesting Adam holds equal responsibility with Eve for the fall and holds up Pilate’s wife for warning him not to kill Jesus.
An incredible woman to make the subject of a play, but through the writing of Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, this production by Shakespeare’s Globe, with a fantastic multi-racial, multi-abled, all female cast brings this story to life vividly, endearingly and powerfully.
The play is fantastic; I highly recommend going to see it if you can. The plot and performance are amazing. Now I want to tease out some of the Dramatherapy themes.
My voice, My story
“I will never be at peace as long as I have no voice. I will not stop. I will not rest until I find words for all my daughters I will never know”Emilia 2
Emilia wants to find her own voice. She doesn’t want others to speak for her or patronisingly tell her that her story doesn’t matter.
But this desire is shared by many people and groups. Our stories tell us who we are, where we have come from, how we got here now. Richard Rose talks about the importance of understanding their own stories for children in care and children who have been adopted:
“We are a collection of stories. It is in the telling of these stories that we understand who we truly are, how we perceive ourselves, how we see others and eventually how we are able to understand how other people see us.” (p. 70)Rose, Richard. (2017). 3. Communicating with children – therapeutic life story work techniques. In R. Rose (Ed.), Innovative Therapeutic Life Story Work: Developing Trauma-informed practice for working with children, adolescents and young adults (pp. 52-91). London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Telling our stories can also be particularly important for communities who have experienced trauma, abuse or hardship as it can allow distance from the event and a way to reflect using the drama
Dramatherapy allows us to communicate our personal stories and ancient tales are explored as a means of gaining understanding of our own story… Dramatherapy can help us express those experiences that are difficult to express.’ (201)Jennings, S. (2012). 11. Theatre of Resilience: Ritual and Attachment with Marginalised Groups – We Are All Born Dramatised and Ritualised. In C. Schrader (Ed.), Ritual Theatre: The Power of Dramatic Ritual in Personal Development Groups and Clinical Practice (pp. 200-216). London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publisher.
Emilia wanted her words to be published and shared. In Dramatherapy the stories may be performed to an audience or written into a play but more usually they are explored within the confidentiality of the session which offers a safe space for the participants to tell their stories in their own voice.
3 actors play Emilia, one for her childhood and youth, one for her as a young adult, one for her as an older woman. The play explores human development, the values that are consistent as Emilia grows and the way that society and events impacts on her needing to grow up and change from girl to woman to matriarch.
For most of the play all three actors are onstage, one playing Emilia currently and the other two watching on at the woman she was or has become. At times the watching parts will comment on the scene or they will interact, particularly at times of transition.
Emilia 1: Are you ready now?Emilia
Emilia 3: Just wait, one more moment.
How would it be to look back at your life? Imagine a moment when you had to grow up, to move from one life stage to the next. Picture your younger self getting ready to hand over the baton of you to an older part. I wonder what you picture.
Perhaps for some of you this is a moment that includes a rite of passage or new responsibilities – the day you graduated, the day you started a new relationship / got married / became a mum, the day you got your first job. For others it might be a less positive day, perhaps a day marked by bereavement or trauma or loss. Can you see that younger you just before the change. Can you feel her hopes, her fears, her dreams. Can you see that next stage of your life coming into the picture, needing to find her way. I wonder if the reality was like the expectations and dreams of the younger part of you?
Erikson writes about stages of human development and notes that:
‘Many adults feel that their worth as people consists entirely of what they are doing, or rather in what they are going to do next, and not and what they are, as individuals. The strain consequently developed in their bodies, which are always “on the go,” with the engine racing, even at moments of arrest, is a powerful contribution to the much discussed psychosomatic disease of our time.’ (85)Erikson, E. H. (1959). Identity and the Life Cycle. New York: International Universities Press, Inc.
How do you now imagine life will be in the next phase of your development? What are your hopes and dreams for how life will be in your next chapter? What are the values which you want to hold onto to inform the woman you will become?
Anger into action
I am 76 years old and I hold in me the muscle memory of every woman who came before me and I will send more for those that will come after. For Eve. For every Eve… Why have our stories been ignored? For so long? Ask yourself why? Listen to us. Listen to every woman who came before you. Listen to every woman with you now. And listen when I say to you to take the fire as your own. That anger you feel is yours and you can use it. We want you to. We need you to, Look how far we’ve come already. Don’t stop now.Emilia 3
From a society that restricted what she could write and who she could be. From a society that burnt alive women who they disapproved of. From a society where class, race and gender all restricted the space Emilia was allowed to take up. Still Emilia found a way. Without Emilia and others like her, I would not be allowed to publish this blog now. Our society has a long way to go; there is still racism, sexism and many forms of prejudice, there may not be witch trials but domestic violence, rape and other forms of gender based violence still exist and are used to keep women small, powerless and voiceless.
But you are not alone. When you face prejudice, when you face intolerance, when you face a glass ceiling, you face it with other women beside you. You are not powerless; together you are powerful. Your anger is not wrong. But rather than turning the anger against yourself or screaming into the night air, join your voice with others and push the barriers away.