“evill disposed men, doe like Vipers deface the wombes wherein they were bred”
Waiting to be served in Shakespeare’s The Globe giftshop, I noticed a postcard that caught my attention. The quote above was written in a bold red font, advertising the Globe’s newest play: Emilia. Written by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, based on the life of Emilia Bassano, the supposed ‘dark lady’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets, a poet, mother and feminist.
I quickly googled the quote, and got the whole passage from ‘To the vertuous reader’ in Salves Deus Rex Judaeorum up on my phone. I quickly scanned through the words, a grin spreading across my face – this woman was FANTASTIC. Strangely, I found myself getting emotional; reading the passionate words of a women I was completely detached from, written in a time period I was altogether removed from (1611). Now I know that makes me sound utterly pathetic and fragile, but here’s the thing: for the past 3 months I had been researching the way men of this period wrote, spoke and treated women and (unsurprisingly) it was horrendously misoginisitc, unrealistic and terrifying. To see these words written in black and white, by a women of that time, who really would have experienced all the awful things I had been researching, I felt proud.
My research, specifically, was looking into the way women suffering from different mental illnesses (melancholy, suicidal ideations and hysteria) were diagnosed, treated and understood in the 17th century. I had looked extensively into the blame men put on women’s bodies, on their very soul and how this made them weak, and susceptible to mental disorders. Edward Jorden, in his treatise A briefe discourse on the suffocation of the mother, directly related hysteria, fits and manic behaviour; to the movement of the womb, and prescribed sex as an antidote for the suffering female. Obviously I am paraphrasing this work, however time and time again I read about the weakness of women due to their subordinate bodies and it seems to me that men all generally agreed on one thing; the female body was susceptible to disease, sin and instability simply because it was different to the male body. Emilia Bassano’s work spoke to me so deeply, because in my eyes it looked like a complete rebellion against all the texts I had meticulously read over the last few weeks, and that gave me hope. I had felt deflated and obliquely angry, and reading to the vertuous reader restored some of my faith.
In a post #MeToo world, when the exploits and power-moves of many influential men are finally being addressed, and repercussions are finally being made; it is important to remember that this struggle is as old as time itself, but that equally the fight against this patriarchy has been battling just as long. Emilia Bassano, though her work may have been buried and forgotten, lives on. Her uproar and intolerance of the patriarchy lives on. I am so grateful to the Globe for introducing me to Emilia, I hope more people learn about her, read her work, fall in love with her.
Below is the full passage that made me fall in love with Emilia; I hope other people do too.
“evill disposed men, who forgetting they were borne of women, nourished of women, and that if it were not by the means of women, they would be quite extinguished out of the world, and a finall ende of them all, doe like Vipers deface the wombes wherein they were bred, onely to give way and utterance to their want of discretion and goodnesse.”