Naomi Miller on Mary Sidney and "Imperfect Alchemist"

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 160

Dr. Naomi Miller’s novel Imperfect Alchemist is about one of early modern England’s most significant literary figures: a poet, playwright, translator, scientist, and colleague of writers like Ben Jonson, Edmund Spenser, Mary Wroth, John Donne, and Emilia Lanier Bassano. Her name was Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke.

We talk to Miller about how she imagined the lives and voices of these literary lights, as well as Shakespeare, as she wrote her novel. Plus, she discusses female alchemists of Elizabethan England, Sidney’s friends and beneficiaries, and how class shapes her characters’ outlooks. Naomi Miller is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud, NPR One, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Dr. Naomi Miller is a professor of English, as well as the Study of Women and Gender, at Smith College. She has written and edited nine books about early modern women authors and their worlds. Her first novel, Imperfect Alchemist, was published by Allison & Busby in 2020.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published February 2, 2021. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “Your Partner in the Cause,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Paul Luke at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts.
 

Transcript

MICHAEL WITMORE: She was a writer. One of the first to be published in English. She influenced Shakespeare. And guess what: No one has ever suggested that she was the Dark Lady of the Sonnets.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I'm Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. When people speculate about Shakespeare’s life and career, one place a lot of them go these days is to a woman named Emilia Bassano. The thinking often is, Shakespeare wrote strong female characters, so there had to be a women who inspired them.

Dr. Naomi Miller has taught Shakespeare’s plays for decades at Smith College. But when she speculates on the woman who drove Shakespeare, she goes in a completely different direction.

Now she’s turned her speculation into a novel, Imperfect Alchemist, which tells a story based on the life of Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, who—in the 1590s—wrote the first published English play by a woman. A play that told the story of Antony and Cleopatra.

Dr. Miller jumped off from the handful of facts we know about the Countess and Shakespeare and spun them into a story of art, science, and cooperation.

We invited her in to talk with us about Mary Sidney Herbert and about her novel for this podcast that we call, “Your Partner in the Cause.” Dr. Naomi Miller is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

--------------------

BARBARA BOGAEV: Naomi, who was the real Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, and what stands out about her? What’s important to know about her?

NAOMI MILLER: What stands out about Mary Sidney Herbert for me is the fact that she was a very determined author. And when we think about who inspired, for example, Shakespeare’s female characters—this is what I always tell my students when we’re reading Shakespeare—he didn’t pull female characters out of thin air. He drew from them. He was inspired by the authors of his time, including the published women authors. And Mary Sidney Herbert was the first woman author to publish a play in England over her own name.

It was her translation of the story of Antony and Cleopatra. And that play, 10 years before Shakespeare started writing his own play, Antony and Cleopatra, was clearly an inspiration.

So, part of what interested me about Mary Sidney, as a teacher, when I first started teaching her in my class about early modern women, was that she was really an accomplished writer of her own. She wrote blank verse. She wrote poetry.

What I then realized when I wanted to write a novel about her was that I wanted more than just her voice as an author. That was a key element of my understanding of who she was as a character. But I realized that she was also an alchemist, as well as a writer. And so, she experimented in her still room, as many of the great ladies of the time did: creating recipes and remedies for illnesses. And so that gave me another angle that helped me to understand her.

BOGAEV: You know, women have been so invisible for most of history, I shouldn’t be surprised by any of this, but I kind of am. Even though we’ve done so many podcasts over the years about the lives of women in this period and how they were doing such significant things in art and in business.

MILLER: Right.

BOGAEV: You know, we did a whole show on women acrobats and it was mind-blowing because you think...

MILLER: That’s amazing.

BOGAEV: Right? You think that your life as a woman was so circumscribed back then.

MILLER: Right.

BOGAEV: You’ve done a little bit of this in what you were just saying but if you could, could you put Mary Sidney Herbert then in a context for us of women writers of her position at the time?

MILLER: Absolutely. She was actually one of the most celebrated literary patrons in late Elizabethan England. And women were allowed to be patrons. She gathered a circle of writers around her that included many of who we consider now the famous canonical writers at the time, from Ben Jonson to John Donne. And she very much supported the emerging women authors of the time and that included Emilia Lanier, Mary Wroth, her own niece—

BOGAEV: And I’m just going to break in here because…

         
MILLER: Yes.

BOGAEV: Emilia Lanier; that’s the person a lot of people refer to as Emilia Bassano.

MILLER: Yes. And that’s a whole other conversation about who Emilia Bassano Lanier really was. But who I really celebrate her as being is as the earliest—even before Mary Sidney—she was the earliest woman to publish a poem over her name.

But she was not as elevated a class as Mary Sidney, and so Mary Sidney’s support and patronage was important to her. At the same time, she was a very significant writer in her own right. So, the combination of her patronage of other writers and her own authorship makes a combination that makes her very powerful in shaping, in many ways, the direction of English literature in the late Elizabethan period.

BOGAEV: Yes, and she’s a countess.

MILLER: And she’s a countess.

BOGAEV: And your book does focus on issues of class. And particularly it focuses on a relationship between women of two different classes: Mary Sidney, who we’ve been talking about, and Rose Commin who is a commoner in her household.

MILLER: Yes.

BOGAEV: Tell us about Rose.

MILLER: Rose came to me, because… actually, she appeared first as a character in the novel that I wrote first which is about Mary Wroth. And she was Mary Sidney Herbert’s lady’s maid. She appeared in that novel because she was helping Mary Wroth get ready for a performance before the queen. So, I knew that there was a servant of Mary Sidney’s named Rose. This was an invented character even in that first novel that I wrote, which I’m revising right now.

So, there was a character called Rose and I thought, “Well, who is she? Let me start to know her for this novel.” And I thought about her childhood, being raised by a mother who was an herbalist. Many of the women who were accused of witchcraft during the period were noted herbalists. They had knowledge of what was poisonous, what was healing in the herbs that they gathered. And so, I imagined Rose having a mother who might even have had interaction with Mary Sidney Herbert because of her expertise. And who might have been accused of witchcraft, and what that would have done in Rose’s childhood, to have a mother accused of witchcraft.

So, her mother, trying to protect her, sends her away to the Great House of Wilton, where Mary Sidney Herbert, whom she has assisted, will look after her daughter. Protect her, educate her. Because Mary’s goal was to support other women and to support the development of knowledge of all sorts.

BOGAEV: So, there’s a lot of interesting class stuff going on here. Because you have this upper-class woman who just breaks out of the stereotypes that we’re taught about upper class women in this age, writes her own book, and who is a patron to this whole salon of people and fosters them and is also an alchemist.

Then you have this servant whose voice is very... they usually just are silent in this period. And you’ve constructed this whole very strong and purposeful backstory for her. Was that drawn from your research? Besides the facts of this, do you have a sense of servants who were able to form this deep bond with their mistress and to grow and be educated?

MILLER: There is research that suggests that, but what I really enjoyed about this novel was that Rose emerged as a character in her own right, in the course of writing the novel. I had no idea she was an artist. I just started to know her character, and when she showed up at Wilton House—which actually I should have said is not with Mary Sidney Herbert first, but the previous mistress of Wilton House was Lady Catherine Herbert, the previous wife of the Earl of Pembroke.

So, when Rose first shows up, she’s nervous and she’s worried that Lady Catherine, her new mistress, might have heard about her mother’s witchcraft. She’s trembling and she drops the sack of her belongings and out of it spills a number of items. I remember the experience as I was writing of looking at what spilled out of her sack, and I saw her cat’s bell, her brother’s mitten, and some sheets of paper. I thought, “What’s on these?” And her mistress asks her, “Rose, may I see what are on those papers?” She turns them over and she realizes Rose has done sketches from her mother’s garden of different herbs on the back of her father’s account receipts. And that was the first inkling that I had that Rose was an artist. So, I learned by writing.

BOGAEV: I love that. It’s like a movie was playing in your mind.

MILLER: It was. Yes, I just thought... you know, I have a very good friend, the novelist Ruth Ozeki, who said to me, “Get to know your characters. Put them in situations and then watch what happens and record it.” And that is what happened for me. That Rose emerged as a character through the course—and Mary Sidney in many ways as well—through the course of their interaction.

There were some mornings when I would wake up and think, “I can’t wait to write the next chapter because I can’t wait to see what happens next.” So, I was really learning as I went. I mean, of course, I had the details of Mary Sidney Herbert’s biography, but that wasn’t what drove the novel.

BOGAEV: You know, one part of the story that I liked, especially, was that Rose’s mother gets accused of being a witch, and she has to undergo the drowning test.

MILLER: Yes.

BOGAEV: I always thought—this is maybe dumb of me—but I always thought if you got thrown in the water, and often these women were weighed down by stones, you were just done for.

MILLER: That’s right.

BOGAEV: Because it’s a catch-22; if you float, you’re a witch.

MILLER: That’s right.

BOGAEV: If you don’t float, you’re dead. But apparently some women were permitted to survive it?

MILLER: Yes, because often—I mean she was thrown in fully clothed. So, everything she was wearing would’ve weighing her down too. If they sank and didn’t immediately bob up to the surface, many times they were then pulled back up and then thus, in a sense, acquitted of the magical element of the charge of witchcraft.

BOGAEV: Oh, so that was the get around. If you could hold your breath long enough.

MILLER: Sometimes.

BOGAEV: The witch stuff is always good.

MILLER: Yes, it was really fascinating to me.

BOGAEV: But more germane to your story, in the book Lady Catherine feels guilty that Rose’s mother was persecuted for working as a healer. And so, she makes a deal with her servant: “I’ll teach you to read and write and you teach me about herbal remedies.” Of course later as this relationship goes on with your character based on Mary Sidney Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke, and Rose get very close.

MILLER: Yes.

BOGAEV: Why did you decide to explore this relationship between women of different classes?

MILLER: Because I realized that in order to understand what each woman brought it was important not to just look at what privilege gave. In other words, Mary Sidney Herbert’s privilege meant that she was educated. Rose had none of that. And yet they both had strong spirits, creative spirits, in different elements.

So, the fact that Rose was an artist and fairly quiet, and Mary was an author and verbally really brilliant. Whereas Rose saw everything as an artist, she looked, and she saw things that Mary Sidney Herbert missed. I thought that would be wonderful if they could complement one another in their learning and in their creative gifts.

BOGAEV: Ah, and how class shapes the window that you have.

MILLER: Class does shape that window very much. And there’s a wonderful moment for me when—it’s a conversation between the two of them. Which I—again, it came in the course of writing it—where Mary Sidney says to Rose, “Oh, I want you to record in color everything that’s happening in the still room, because I’m pregnant right now, and so, I can’t go up and watch it, but I want you to do it and record it in color.” Rose has to say to her, “My lady, I don’t know how to use color.” I mean, she’s never had access to color. How would she? She’s never had access to paint.

BOGAEV: Because she can’t afford the materials. The paint, yeah.

MILLER: Right. She’s never learned, right? And so that’s when Mary Sidney immediately realizes, “Oh, there’s a gulf here and I just made assumptions based on my privilege.” Right, and so she decides to get Rose training with the master court painter who is painting the family portrait at Wilton House. Just asks him to train her in art.

As soon as Mary Sidney recognized this gulf between them, she took steps to fix it. She didn’t just say, “Oh well, then never mind.” She just said, “Well, wait, I want you to be able to do what you want to do.” And so, she gave her an opportunity to get training that only someone of Mary Sidney’s standing, with access to a court painter in her household, could have even set up.

BOGAEV: And the still room, we should say, is the lab where an alchemist works.

MILLER: Right, it’s the scientific laboratory basically where all the alchemy takes place.

BOGAEV: So, I’m getting a real insight into your process. You allow yourself to imagine, and you unspool a movie in your mind and you write it down.

MILLER: Yes. Yes.

BOGAEV: So, for the novel in terms of research, how much digging did you do? Or how much were you just pulling in the course of imagining this story? Were you pulling from research that you’ve done over years and years of academic work?

MILLER: Well, it’s interesting because my years of academic research were all literary research and so I knew a lot about the literature of the time. But what I hadn’t done was—I needed to read all the historians and I needed to read primary texts, for example, by women alchemists of the period.

I knew nothing about alchemy. Mary Sidney Herbert’s recipes as an alchemist did not survive. But I had access through the work of brilliant historians to actual recipes for many different remedies created by women alchemists of the period. And also...

BOGAEV: What is that? What would they be working on at that time?

MILLER: They would be working on remedies for everything from a headache, and inability to sleep, to how to get pregnant, how to potentially stop a pregnancy. A range of remedies that they would develop both for the members of their household.

Remember, Lady Mary Sidney was the great lady in Wilton, a household with so many servants. A huge, enormous staff. And also, she would be helping villagers who might come to her with different illnesses that they needed help with. So, she realized she needed this training and that’s what she set out to do when she learned from Walter Raleigh, from her brother Philip Sidney, about alchemical remedies.

Many of the men of the time were fascinated by alchemy. But interestingly, the men were fascinated by alchemy for the reasons we see in, say Ben Jonson’s play The Alchemist, which is a satirical take down of alchemists who are greedy, who want gold.

BOGAEV: I was going to say, men were obsessed with gold and the women, of course, were healing people.

MILLER: Right, they were obsessed with gold and the women with remedies. Right, with healing. And that was a huge difference that was immediately apparent to me as I started doing research into what did women alchemists work on. And so, I thought that was a fascinating distinction between the male and female alchemists of the period.

BOGAEV: I want to talk about court because an important turning point comes early in your story when the queen summons 15-year-old Mary to court. It’s basically her coming out season and she’s being put on the marriage market. But her sister has just died and she’s grieving terribly. Also, she’s a writer. She thinks of herself as a writer and she really doesn’t want to go to court and waste her time with this marriage farce. So, how much of this is drawn from Mary Sidney’s life? Do we know anything about her attitude towards marriage and her craft?

MILLER: We don’t know her attitude. We know the facts, and Margaret Hannay’s wonderful biography of Mary Sidney called Philip’s Phoenix is what I drew on very closely. She went to court this young. I knew that she and her sister were very close; that her sister died and she grieved. We do not have letters that she wrote to anyone at this time saying what she felt. So that’s where I had to imagine myself into her circumstances and think, “Here she is. She’s just lost her sister, and she knows she has to go to court and she doesn’t want to have to parade herself and do all the performance that’s required of a new coming out at court.”

BOGAEV: Despite herself she manages to enjoy her time at court somewhat by meeting some of these really famous people from history, like Walter Raleigh.

MILLER: Walter Raleigh, yes.

BOGAEV: And John Dee there. You drop in some great Easter eggs into these scenes. Raleigh recites a line from Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd. And Philip Sidney tries out the first lines of, what is it, Astrophel and Stella?

MILLER: Stella, yes.

BOGAEV: So, when you decide to drop lines or Easter eggs like that in a novel what kind of criteria did you make up for yourself, if any? Are you thinking about what people will recognize? What they won’t?

MILLER: I wasn’t particularly concerned with what people would recognize as far as Walter Raleigh was concerned. Everything that he says that is a quote from a verse that he created is an actual line from a Walter Raleigh poem. But he is known more, I think by the wider public, as a figure. So, I read a lot to make sure that anything that I had him say was actually drawn from his own writings or his own words.

But with Philip Sidney, where his poems are very well known, what I drew from with both Philip and Walter was the fact that I know from the biographical… from the history of Mary Sidney that she was very close to her brother. That they collaborated on writing. That he attributed his own writing to learning from her, growing from her. So, they were collaborators. He respected her as a writer even though she was younger than he was. And Walter Raleigh became one of her really close friends. She intervened on his behalf later on with King James when he was sent to the Tower.

So, I started with what I knew to be the relationships and the importance of these men in her life, and the importance of their writings and her knowledge of their writings. When I drew on it, I didn’t just think, “Oh let me stick in a famous person. I’m going to have Walter Raleigh there.” He was an important part of her life so I have him there when she would have met him.

BOGAEV: And you also have a snippet of poetry by Queen Elizabeth.

MILLER: Yes.

BOGAEV: How much of a writer was she? What do we know about the poem that you quote, and about the queen as a poet?

MILLER: She was quite a poet. When I... the class I teach at Smith, she is the first author of the women authors in the Renaissance that we read. Because her speeches are very famous and we have those, but we also have her poetry, and she wrote quite an interesting range of poetry.

So, when Mary’s mother quotes the queen’s poem to Mary before Mary ever goes to court, Mary learns that this queen is a poet and that intrigues her about the queen. But we do have copies of her poetry. So, again, I had in Mary’s connection—interest in the queen as a poet, and in the queen’s response to Mary’s own psalm, which Mary sings aloud before the queen. I have a connection between two poets, two women poets of the time.

BOGAEV: You know, another thing, on a completely different tack, that I really enjoyed? The description of the still room, the alchemy lab.

MILLER: Yes.

BOGAEV: And you have a description of Walter Raleigh’s lab that’s very very specific.

MILLER: Yes.

BOGAEV: What were you drawing on? Are you looking at paintings?

MILLER: Yes. Yes, I was. I was looking at many paintings, I was fascinated. There’s a wonderful art library at Smith College and I just checked out so many books about alchemy that were also art books, looking at alchemical images. I saw that there were still rooms that looked like a disaster area. Just kind of, incredibly chaotic and messy.

Then I thought, supposing Walter Raleigh’s assistant Adrian Gilbert—who was actually his half-brother, who did end up working as an assistant to Mary Sidney Herbert—suppose he was pretty much… he was not very organized, in the way the still room appeared. So that Mary Sidney’s first view of it would be this kind of chaotic environment. And she would know that wasn’t the way she wanted her own still room to be.

I have this already being in contrast to Lady Catherine’s still room. At the very beginning the book opens with a prelude from Lady Catherine’s still room, her point of view. You know that the women alchemists might have taken a different approach to their alchemy than some of the male alchemists. And so, I just thought, “Let me just think of different images of still rooms. What can I see? What can I draw on?”

BOGAEV: And Walter Raleigh’s still room, he had one in the Tower. He was doing alchemy in the Tower when he was in prison.

MILLER: Right. He did. Amazing. He was doing alchemy in the Tower. It’s incredible. I mean, he was able to bribe the tower guard. So, he had his library in the Tower, he had hundreds of volumes brought to him. I mean, really it seemed like the Tower was not such a great hardship. Except that it might end in death. Apart from that...

BOGAEV: Yeah, apart from that minor point.

MILLER: He was able to create quite a space for himself. He was very ingenious. And he was respected as an alchemist, even to the extent that the court asked him to provide one of his remedies when the prince was ill. He was really regarded as a scientist too, which is partly why he was able to set up his own still room in the Tower.

BOGAEV: Okay, let me ask you some things about Shakespeare, this being a Shakespeare podcast.

MILLER: Yes. Yes.

BOGAEV: Shakespeare does show up in your book about three quarters of the way through. And your set up is that Shakespeare is excited to get this invitation to perform at Wilton because he really wants to meet this famous writer, Mary Sidney. So, walk us through your thinking about how and why to introduce Shakespeare into your story at this point.

MILLER: So, I knew that Shakespeare knew William Herbert, her son. There’s different speculation that William Herbert is the, “W.H,” to whom the sonnets were addressed. I won’t pursue that right now, because that’s not an element in the novel. But, so, I thought, “Well, Shakespeare is believed by Shakespeare scholars to have been influenced by Mary Sidney’s play Antonius. How would he interact with her if he came to meet her?”

Well, we know that he was brought to Wilton House to perform As You Like It when the court had to leave London due to the plague. And so, I imagined Mary Sidney Herbert watching the performance of As You Like It at Wilton and having a conversation after the performance with Shakespeare, whose female characters in As You Like It she very much admired.

BOGAEV: Okay great, I feel like I’m sitting there with you watching the movie in your head.

MILLER: Yes.

BOGAEV: So, as you’re imagining this scene are you hearing dialogue? Because there is always this dilemma about putting words into Shakespeare’s mouth. We always ask novelists about this on the podcast and each one seems to have a different feeling about it or a different

approach. So, what was yours? And maybe you should just read for us so we can get a sense of what Shakespeare sounds like in your book.

MILLER: Okay.

BOGAEV: And the bit I’m thinking about starts on page 332.

MILLER: I’d be happy to. So, this is after… the countess has called him and said…

“’I like what you’ve done with the female characters here. Have you read my play?’

“He of course has read her play and he had considered on his own”—this is my imagined getting into Shakespeare’s mind—"he considered, ‘This would be a great play to bring to the public stage. I should write a version of the story of Antony and Cleopatra. What a challenge, rendering a Cleopatra inspired by Antonius would be. To show the public a female monarch who rules both an empire and a Roman general’s heart with a touch as deft as it is ruthless. And to make the audience fall in love with her. For the invincible willfulness that is her greatest strength and vulnerability in one.’

“The countess was awaiting a reply. ‘I recall your Cleopatra declaring of Antony, “he is myself,”’ Will ventured, ‘Surely that union arises from their conflicting natures.’

“Receiving his words, the lady took a quick breath, then slowly exhaled. Mercurial emotions crossed her face: pleasure, recognition, hope, doubt. ‘Alchemists,’ the countess observed, ‘strive to unite what is opposed. They aspire to bring spirit and matter, male and female, Sol and Luna, into what I call a hermaphroditic ideal. I see that ideal in this story. What do you think Master Shakespeare?’

“Not just a question, but a challenge. Now, Will took a breath of his own. ‘Indeed. Were I to endeavor to place this tale upon the public stage, I would want to show compelling power on both sides. Sol and Luna, in your words. What interests me is the reciprocal attraction and inevitable conflict that drives tragedy.’ He had no plan yet, only possibilities.

“‘A tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra then?’

“‘None other.’

“With that, Will Shakespeare acquired a new patron for a fresh project. But he hasn’t forgotten the cautionary example of Samuel Daniel, whose Tragedy of Cleopatra had drawn not approbation, but her ire. An author who undermines the eloquence of the Countess of Pembroke is liable to end up short on funds as well as reputation.”


BOGAEV: Oh, thank you for that. I hear in this dialogue just such a longing to see Shakespeare as someone who gives women entirely their due.

MILLER: That would probably be stating it a little bit more strongly than I feel it. Because I feel like what I see is that it’s possible Shakespeare might have been inspired by Mary Sidney’s example to consider not just Antony as the hero, but Antony and Cleopatra. The tragedy would have to be mutual. That he is open to voices that question assumptions.

And he also—part of what interests me about his rendition in that play is that his characters are complicated. More and more so as he matured as a playwright. They’re not one ideal or one negative, one villain. So, what I see their interaction supporting in his own evolution as a playwright is the complicated nature of love, of tragedy, of history, and that he took from many different sources. Some of which included the women authors whose voices were published at the time. And that’s what, for me, helps define the dynamic between them.

BOGAEV: Getting back to that question about putting words into Shakespeare’s mouth, what was your approach?

MILLER: Having taught the plays for 35 years now and knowing his language, I feel that you get a good sense of a voice. I knew that in my novel I wasn’t going to try to use only Elizabethan language; that it would be modern for a modern audience. But not such that I would use any words that were anachronistically only developed in say, the 18th century, the 19th century. Fortunately for this novel many of the words we use were first used by Shakespeare, you know, because the English language has been so shaped by Shakespeare. So, I didn’t find it difficult to imagine myself into his head as a playwright and then just let him speak.

BOGAEV: Well, that does make me wonder whether after conceiving of this version of Shakespeare, a man who is very interested in this woman writer and possibly collaborating her and a woman who’s an alchemist, does it give you any more or new insight into his writing? This man that we knew so little about historically.

MILLER: It gave me another way into his plays. The man, as you know, we don’t know much about historically. So, I wouldn’t say that I know more about him historically because I have created him as a character. He’s a fictional character in my novel. And, as such, I’m inventing him as a character.

But I didn’t feel daunted by the prospect of putting him into the novel as a character because I felt that I had a good sense of his range of perspectives, his nuanced approach to characterization, the complexity of his own plays. So, if anything, to return to what I was first saying, I feel that understanding him as a character in my novel has given me another in—as I am teaching Shakespeare next semester, for instance—to considering what complicates some of these renditions, say in his sonnets or in his plays? We shouldn’t assume that because we know the biographical Shakespeare, which we cannot know, that—I think what’s most important is the works, really. What gets created. So, I have another way to look at his works now. Having, kind of, thought myself into his head, in order for him to appear as a character in the novel.

BOGAEV: And, off the record—not technically, but metaphorically—off the record…

MILLER: Okay. Yes, yes.

BOGAEV: The open question of collaboration. Do you allow yourself to go there historically that Shakespeare might have collaborated with a woman?

MILLER: Yes, well we know that it’s quite likely that historically he collaborated with a number of different playwrights. He could’ve collaborated with other male playwrights.

BOGAEV: Right, but we don’t know about women.

MILLER: No, we don’t know about women. There’s no evidence one way or the other. But there’s so little evidence of anything as far as his interaction with women. It must have been someone that he interacted with, which is why the interesting speculations about Emilia Bassano Lanier, could she have inspired him or not, crossed paths with him? That’s a different story. That will be my third novel in the series.

BOGAEV: Spoiler alert.

MILLER: Yeah, go ahead. So, as far as his own interaction with Mary Sidney Herbert, I feel like that’s open to speculative, imaginative invention in a novel. It’s certainly not prohibited by any knowledge that we would know to the contrary, any facts to the contrary.

BOGAEV: Very good. Really fun talking with you. I really appreciate you taking the time. Thank you.


MILLER: Great. No, I really enjoyed our conversation.
--------------------

WITMORE: Dr. Naomi Miller is a professor of English as well as the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She has written and edited nine books about Early Modern women authors and their worlds. And now she’s the author of her first novel, Imperfect Alchemist, which was published by Allison & Busby in 2020. She was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Our podcast, “Your Partner in the Cause,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez.

We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Paul Luke at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.

If you’re a fan of Shakespeare Unlimited, please leave us a positive review on Apple Podcasts.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.