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A complicated man

Profile image for By Lucinda Breeding / Staff Writer
By Lucinda Breeding / Staff Writer
A.J. Rowse, who died in 1997, is “probably the best-known Shakespeare historian” according to professor and playwright Andrew Harris.Courtesy photo
A.J. Rowse, who died in 1997, is “probably the best-known Shakespeare historian” according to professor and playwright Andrew Harris.
Courtesy photo

A.L. Rowse, the Bard’s best-known researcher, gets his hour to fret on the stage

It takes an academic to appreciate an academic.

That’s how things shake out if you talk to Andrew Harris about his latest play, The Lady Revealed.

“A.L. Rowse is probably the best-known Shakespeare historian,” said Harris, a member of the University of North Texas theater faculty. “He wrote more than a hundred books, and it was Rowse who claimed he discovered the identity of the ‘dark lady’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets.”

It’s Rowse, a difficult and obsessive sort of man, whom Harris champions in a play that both humanizes the Bard and gives a rare voice to the otherwise anonymous Elizabethan lady.

Harris spent a few years studying Rowse. The Cornish academic was born to a humble home in Cornwall. His father was a clay worker and his mother a former servant. Both brilliant and dogged, Rowse was a little on the prodigious side. He penned poetry that earned attention in school, and he nabbed the only county scholarship to the University of Oxford. Rowse studied at Oxford’s Christ Church College, where he was persuaded to study history. He was given a fellowship at All Souls College, where students pursue research rather than degrees.

Harris said he found a meaty subject in Rowse. The historian had political aspirations, hopes that he might have fulfilled if World War II hadn’t dealt a crushing blow to Britain.

Even as Rowse’s tenure at All Souls ended, the historian kept studying and kept publishing. And Rowse wasn’t a shrinking violet; his book Homosexuals in History was a scandal when it was released in 1977 — his own homosexuality wasn’t a secret.

In his older years, Rowse became a celebrity scholar — sort of England’s answer to Truman Capote. Rowse had a sharp wit and a sharper tongue, and was noted for his ability to wrap a lecture hall around his little finger with his authority as a historian and a famous, strong personality. Rowse didn’t spare his fellow historians his blistering critiques, going so far as to declare himself better than those he recalled in Historians I Have Known, which came out in 1995, just two years before his death.

Harris’ play is about Rowse’s controversial and historic claim during the 1970s — that he’d discovered the “dark lady” skewered in William Shakespeare’s sonnets to be Emilia Bassano Lanier, the daughter of a Jewish-Italian family protected by Henry VIII. Emilia’s father was a musician in Henry’s court — a job that exempted the family from the exile of Jews from England that started in the 1200s and remained through the mid-17th century.

“The play is largely about Rowse and how he thought his discovery would make him a celebrity,” Harris said. “Instead, he was embroiled in controversy. But even after all that, A.L. Rowse is still the most respected scholar of Shakespeare. If you are into Shakespeare, a serious student of him, chances are you’ve read some of Rowse’s work.”

Harris takes his audience on a trip through three time periods. We meet Rowse in 1993, on the historian’s 90th birthday. Harris then transports the audience to the 1970s, when Rowe announces his discovery of Emilia Lanier as the “dark lady.” Harris then indulges his playwright’s license, and takes the play to Elizabethan England.

“These are my inventions, scenes between Shakespeare and Emilia that are in Rowse’s imagination,” Harris said.

The dark lady finally has her say in Harris’ play. Shakespeare wrote a series of sonnets printed in 1609 that mention three unidentified characters: the patron, a rival poet and a dark musical lady. Rowse unveils them all. Harris said Emilia Lanier is a compelling historical figure, too.

“She was the first woman to publish an original of poetry in the English language,” Harris said. “That’s quite a distinction, considering that the majority of women in Elizabethan England were illiterate. Most of the men were, too.”

Harris said history has revealed Emilia to be the paramour of one Lord Richard Chamberlain.

“Chamberlain was the head of Shakespeare’s theater company,” Harris said.

Theater professionals were noted for their appetites for liquor and lust, and Harris said a tryst between Emilia and Shakespeare is plausible. And, Harris said, it was Emilia Lanier who penned the words “This world is but a stage where all do play their parts. ... Here’s no respect of persons, youth, nor age.”

Harris said he hopes his play will score another run after its world premiere at UNT, where the production is directed by faculty member Sarah Vahle.

“I don’t think I’m finished with it,” Harris said. “You don’t really write a play as much as you rewrite it. I’d like to see it produced in a professional theater, and of course I’d love to see it produced in London.”


What: World premiere performance of the play by UNT theater faculty member Andrew Harris

When: 7:30 p.m. today through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: Studio Theatre in the UNT Radio, TV, Film and Performing Arts Building, 1179 Union Circle

Details: Tickets cost $5. Seating is general admission. For reservations, call 940-565-2428. The box office opens about an hour before performances.

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All roads lead to ... Texas?

In his research for “The Lady Revealed,” UNT professor and playwright Andrew Harris found that celebrated Oxford historian and Shakespeare authority A.L. Rowse had one very important link to the Lone Star State.

That link is Emilia Bassano Lanier, the woman now believed to be the “dark lady” in a famous series of Shakespearean sonnets.

In researching a play about Shakespeare’s mistress, Harris traced the Laniers to Paris, Texas, and a man named Pat Bassano. Bassano didn’t know about his connection to a Shakespearean snub, but Harris said Pat and wife, Julie, have a copy of the new play and plan to attend the opening tonight.

Emilia came to Shakespeare’s bed by way of Venice. The Bassano brothers, musicians from Venice, were invited to join the court of Henry VIII. They were court musicians until 1641, Harris said.

“Don’t you think it’s interesting that Shakespeare put a character named Bassanio in ‘The Merchant of Venice’?” Harris said. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence. And doesn’t it seem funny that Emilia published her own book of poetry [“Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum”], which was about her conversion [from Judaism] to Christianity, but also condemns men for blaming women for their own sins, was published a year after the sonnets?”

The Bassano brothers were housed in a monastery by the king to protect them from pogrom — from being hustled out of England by a centuries-long decree that exiled Jews like the Bassanos from the country.

“At that time, there were fewer than 100 Jewish families in all of England,” Harris said.

He said music has been a recurring profession for the later Bassanos. The Bassano penchant for writing was passed on, too. Emilia married Alphonso Lanier, another court musician. Among the dark lady’s descendants: poet Sidney Lanier and playwright Thomas Lanier Williams, also known as Tennessee Williams.