Quite a few of William Shakespeare's sonnets are dedicated to the mysterious "Dark Lady," the alleged mistress he adored. Scholars have speculated for centuries about this woman's identity - it wasn't his wife, the awesomely named Anne Hathaway - and we have the top five candidates for Shakespeare's number one side chick (assuming she's a real person) right here.
1. Emilia Bassano Lanier: Emilia had music in her blood; she was the secret love child of one of Henry VIII's musicians. She became the mistress of Elizabeth I's cousin, Lord Hunsdon, and pals with Simon Forman, a doctor-astrologer who also knew Shakespeare. What makes her a candidate for the Dark Lady? Emilia was educated and ran in the same cultural circles as Shakespeare, both in and out of Elizabeth's court; Hunsdon was even the patron of the Bard's theater company. She and the Shakes would have had plenty to talk about, since she was one of the first published female poets in England.
2. Aline Florio: Another option is Aline Florio, the wife of translator John Florio. Her husband was employed at Titchfield, one of the homes of his patron, the Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley. The Bard even mentioned Wriothesley a bunch of times in his sonnets; as it turns out, the earl was his personal patron, too. When some Shakespearean scholars suggest that he didn't write his own works, they consider Aline's husband John as one of the talented scribes who could've penned sonnets and plays galore. Needless to say, even if the Dark Lady's hubby didn't write Shakespeare's tragedies and comedies, the two probably knew one another...perhaps quite intimately!
Heeeeeere's Henry Wriothesley, patroness of Aline Florio's husband. Image via Blogspot.
3. Mary Fitton: Other than the Dark Lady, the Fair Youth was Shakespeare's biggest crush in his sonnets. This Elizabeth hottie's real-life identity might've been William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. Herbert definitely got around, including with one of Elizabeth's maids of honor, a woman named Mary Fitton. After bearing a short-lived child to Pembroke, Mary endured quite a bit of scandal for her behavior.
As the lover of Shakespeare's aristocratic pal Pembroke and a member of Elizabeth's court, Mary is someone the Bard might have met, if not bedded. Unfortunately for mistresses everywhere, though, modern scholars have discounted Mary as a candidate for the Dark Lady.
4. Jacqueline Vautrollier: Like Emilia, Jacqueline Vautrollier was a literary figure in her own right. In fact, the widow was a printer and bookbinder, having continued her late husband's business. Jacqueline eventually married again to a guy named Richard Field, born in Shakespeare's hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon; William's former neighbor, he who published a few editions of the Bard's early, lesser-known poems. And guess where Jackie lived? The fashionable Blackfriars neighborhood, which the aforementioned Lord Hudson also called home.
Perhaps the most interesting evidence for Jacqueline's identity as the Dark Lady is Sonnet 128. In this work, Shakespeare dubs his mistress's fingers "jakes," perhaps a pun on Jacqueline's name.
5. Jane Davenant: This woman's identity as Shakespeare's Dark Lady is a bit more spurious than the others, but it's definitely intriguing. A tavern landlady in London, Jane and her husband lived near the capital's playhouses and had a son named William. This is where things get interesting.
Sir William Davenant...Shakespeare's secret love child? Image via the National Portrait Gallery.
Decades after Shakespeare's death, rumors spread, thanks to gossip-monger John Aubrey, that Sir William Davenant claimed to be the Bard's secret love child...or that "it seemed to him that he writt with the very spirit that Shakespeare, and seemd contented enough to be thought his son." The rumor persisted in later centuries.
While it's technically possible that Little Will was Shakespeare's son, was it likely? Probably not. More feasible is the idea that Shakespeare, as Sir William's namesake, was his godfather.
Feature image via The Bohemian Rock Star Presents.