cover image The Dark Lady’s Mask

The Dark Lady’s Mask

Mary Sharratt. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26 (384p) ISBN 978-0-544-30076-7

Sharratt’s (Shakespeare’s Muse) latest is a well-constructed historical novel set in Elizabethan England about the Bard of Avon, adopting the premise that Shakespeare relied on a female collaborator. A Jewish orphan whose persecuted family fled Italy and became royal court musicians, Aemilia Bassano Lanier aspires to become a poet (as the historical Lanier actually did). The well-educated Aemilia later becomes a cross-dresser, gets pregnant as a lord’s concubine, and is forced to marry the spineless court musician Alfonse. She meets Will Shakespeare and invites him to accompany her on a family trip to Italy, where she falls in love and cowrites romantic comedies with the poet. The author pulls few punches in her less than flattering portrayal of Shakespeare. After receiving the tragic news of his son’s death, Shakespeare ends their relationship and returns home, where he hopes to stage their plays. Aemilia also returns to England to find Alfonse disease ridden, and her troubles with Shakespeare continue to mount, culminating with his published sonnets vilifying her as the dark lady. Although the plucky Aemilia composes and publishes her own well-received poetry volume, her meager sales fail to improve her finances as Sharratt brings her bold Shakespearean novel to its poignant conclusion. (Apr.)