“Fear difference, you learn nothing”

Emilia Lanier vs. Boris Johnson
Written by Miels
August 13, 2018

The emotion with which you are speaking undermines your argument.

I’ve been told this – quite a few times.

I wonder how many times men say this to each other?


My post-graduate degree in Early Modern Literature was dominated by Shakespeare, Jonson, Marlowe and Donne. I knew of Emilia Lanier but, quite honestly, I’d swerved her published collection of poetry: Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, dreading a dense, religious text. How ignorant was I not to have ventured to learn more. Anyway, luckily for all of us, Michelle Terry, creative director of the Globe, commissioned Morgan Lloyd Malcolm to write her play Emilia, which tells her story.


Not much is recorded of Emilia – she was described by Simon Forman (Elizabethan astrologer and herbalist) in all manner of ways – as “high minded, brave but with false conceptions … a harlot … a whore who dealt evil”. She was the daughter of an Italian court musician – likely of North African Jewish descent. She knew Shakespeare (who knows on what level) and scholars like to imagine that she formed the inspiration for the Emilia’s across his plays. But, instead of going on the description of a woman through the male gaze, Lloyd Morgan’s play seeks to give voice to Emilia: the radical, subversive writer, woman, mother, courtier, mistress, wife, who played the dogged system to find a way to be heard. After all, us women are only as powerful as the stories we tell. We have not always been able to tell them.  


The trio at the helm: Michelle Terry, Lloyd Malcolm and the play’s director Nicole Charles, along with their company of incredible female players have created a historic thing. Before well into the 1600s, female roles were played by all-male companies of actors; female characters and storylines were written only by male playwrights for the public to see. Now, the Globe’s stage is filled with an all-female cast (with the traditional allocation of a number of roles for each actor) telling a story that has been written and directed by women, about a woman battling against the all-male establishment hundreds of years ago.


There are a mix of new and familiar faces. Leah Harvey, who plays the younger Emilia, captures the character’s intelligent, energetic, inquisitive spirit – “She is no delicate creature to be moulded. She is wild and boisterous … She won’t be tamed”. Emilia is sent to learn how to become a lady, to find herself that “coveted prize of a rich and powerful man who will keep [her] in comfort for all [her] days”, and it isn’t long before the awareness of her difference sets in.


My voice. My voice feels too loud in here. I must try to whisper more. Though sometimes I can’t help but scream! Shout! But I mustn’t, I can’t.


Harvey masterfully carries the audience through Emilia’s hard-learnt lessons – she quickly sees that as she grows, she must also shrink: “I must not take up too much space”. (Remember when Germain Greer didn’t just mindlessly use attention grabbing tactics and  had something urgent to say? This line reminded me of The Female Eunuch and how I should like to re-read it). Emilia’s innocent and hopeful naivety gives way to experience when she learns that the rules of her society dictate that she needs a man to get somewhere in life: “I was currency”. Only a man can open the doors she needs opened, and by god she won’t get something for nothing (urgh – this is all too dishearteningly familiar).    


And yet something about him is intriguing. Is it his power? His wealth? For I know many women would fall over themselves to be kept by him. Or is it that he does not dismiss my own passions? He is the first to speak about me. As in ‘me’. Not just the curiosity.


But the men who use Emilia will never open the doors to equality – and anyway, she doesn’t want their platform, she wants her own. She wants to be listened to, instead she is caged. She doesn’t want to be saved, or swept off her feet; she doesn’t want to be safeguarded or pitied or championed. Emilia doesn’t want a man deciding to become the hero of her fortune. Disillusionment fastens its grip as Emilia tries to navigate the limited choices she is given.


Vinette Robinson is the actor who drives Emilia’s character through the second phase of her life, through tragedy and grief. Emilia is consumed by indignation at being used continuously as a man’s plaything, at living her whole existence in men’s shadow, and she is debilitated by frustration: “I will never be at peace as long as I have no voice!” Robinson’s Emilia turns her tragedy into productivity – she is fighting now for more than just herself but for “those to whom fortune has not been so kind”.


Other Company members include Sophie Russell and Sarah Saggari who are hilarious, riotous and wonderfully irreverent in their roles. Sophie Stone as Lady Margaret Clifford, Charity Wakefield as William Shakespeare and Nadia Albina as Lady Katherine Howard, (amongst the other characters they play) carry the whole thing with dynamic energy. Amanda Wilkin is droll as Emilia’s closeted husband, Alphonso Lanier, and it was great to see the supremely talented Shiloh Coke on stage again after Phyllida Lloyd’s Shakespeare trilogy, and Arinzé Kene’s indomitable Misty.


The play’s main storyteller is Emilia in her latter years, and she is played by Clare Perkins – now, in the winter of her life and with the gift of hindsight. Perkins’ portrayal of Emilia epitomises the strength and power gained in experience, and she delivers the closing speech of the play with such captivating, raging authority, speaking words so resonant that I found tears falling out of my eyes:


And listen when I say to you to take the fire as your own. That anger that you feel it is yours and you can use it. We want you to. We need you to. The house that has been built around you is not made of stone.

If they try to burn you, may your fire be stronger than theirs so you can burn the whole fucking house down. Look how far we’ve come already. Don’t stop now.


It is a call to arms and the play has stayed with me ever since. And as I sat in the beautiful Globe theatre, listening to the words of warning from Lady Mary Sidney “And beware the ones who appear as ally but play to the same tune as the enemy”, I reflected on the past week and thought of my anger towards Mr Johnson, happily away in whatever part of the Grand Tour he is holidaying this summer, in the wake of the vitriol he’s spread about women who wear the niqab and burka.


Boris Johnson, who comes from a class that hasn’t changed much since it ruled in Renaissance England, has decided to theorise his right to free speech at the expense of a group of women upon whom he stakes his own political currency. There are no official numbers of women who wear the burka in the UK, but it is believed to be under 300. That’s a minority group of women, all of whom have so much more to their identities than their religion and their clothing, who now feel less safe because of the reckless words of a man in a position of power. Mr Johnson’s words show his self-serving neglect of the responsibility he holds to all members of our society as an elected member of parliament. His deliberate choice of words, and his refusal to apologise gives fuel to the hate-filled rhetoric of the far right and gives rise to videos like these. So thanks, Rowan Atkinson, for the reminder of your belief in the right to offend – they were useful when they went viral in the light of the Charlie Hebdo murders – but Mr Johnson is neither a satirist nor a comedian. You cannot negate responsibility.


And I feel rage at the moment at all the headline space that is hogged by the farce of Brexit negotiations. Space that could be used to discuss things like the real effects of our government’s incompetence. Things like how their cuts disproportionately affect women over men; the fact that women in Britain earn 82p for every £1 that a man earns; how government policies essentially disincentivise women to work. And what about the gender pay gap with it comes to women with disabilities? And what about childcare support and support for single mothers? What about period poverty? What about the women who are bringing their children here in search for a better life?


Have you not noticed how they are no longer interested in what skills people bring but whether they ‘belong’ here or not? Have you not felt a change? These families, coming here, they are like mine.


When Emilia goes and looks at the stage, dreaming to see her own work there and instead sees an image that is so far from her truth that she cannot make sense of where she fits,  she asks herself:


Is there no room at all? We do not ask for them to step aside and go without we merely ask for them to let us join. Surely there is enough to go around.


There is enough to go around. So where people like Trump and Johnson seek to divide and conquer, let’s form bridges. Where politicians abuse each other over twitter – let’s actually get out there and use any outrage we feel to galvanise common sense and decency over populism and extremism. Let’s never “toe the rope”, and let’s “show our teeth” and let’s be as unladylike as we need to be. Let’s leave The Handmaid’s Tale to Hulu. In the words of Hannah Gadsby: “What I don’t have a right to do is to spread anger. I don’t. Because anger, much like laughter, can connect a room of strangers like nothing else”. Of course we can question and disagree with things within our society – but let’s never do it without educating ourselves first and let’s never do it at the expense of someone else’s safety, or by marginalising them or by spreading hatred.


Together. We’ll do all this together.


From: Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum by Emilia Lanier


Then let us have our Libertie againe, 

And challendge to your selves no Sov’raigntie;

You came not in the world without our paine,

Make that a barre against your creultie;

Your fault being greater, why should you disdaine

Our being your equals, free from tyranny?

If one weake woman simply did not offend,

This sinne of yours, hath no excuse, nor end.


NOTE: All quotes unless otherwise stated have been taken from Morgan Lloyd Malcom’s play Emilia. Buy the playtext here.

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