Das Geheimnis um Shakespeares ‘Dark Lady'. Dokumentation einer Enthüllung. Mit 12 Farb- und 6 Schwarzweißabbildungen und farbigem Umschlagbild (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft und Primus Verlag, 1999), 180 S.

[The secret around Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’: Documentation of disclosing a mystery. With 12 illustrations in colour and 6 in black and white]

b. Rezensionen und Stellungnahmen / Book reviews and comments

Clemens Rech, ”The secret around Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’ as seen by the media and by experts”, Anglistik. Mitteilungen des Deutschen Anglistenverbandes (September 2000) - Excerpt:

”The present report wants to summarize the reactions to Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel’s book The secret around Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’: Documentation of disclosing a mystery (1999) in the media. Because of the sheer mass of publications a specific selection is necessary. It is further intended to document the discussion among the experts that has only just begun.

In the afternoon of 9 September 1999 the author presented her new book in the filled council room (”Magistratssaal”) of the City Hall of Darmstadt. In his introductory speech the mayor of Darmstadt, Mr Peter Benz, called to mind that in 1995 the Mainz Shakespeare scholar had proved the authenticity of Shakespeare’s death mask, which now belongs to the most precious cultural assets of the City, and stated that Darmstadt had entered the small distinguished circle of Shakespeare cities.

Because of an indiscretion Hammerschmidt-Hummel’s results had already reached the British press weeks prior to the presentation of the book. Thus millions of Britons learned about the findings of the Mainz Shakespeare scholar on 22 August 1999 when they were confronted with the spectacular headline ”William finds a dark lady in his life” on the front page of the Sunday Times, which, however, focussed on a minor result [of the book]: ”Literary detectives have found evidence that Shakespeare was Prince William’s ancestor”. Then the details in quick succession:

An inquiry into the identity of the ‘Dark Lady’, with whom Shakespeare is said to have had an affair, has led researchers to the link. They will name the Dark Lady as Elizabeth Wriothesley, who had Shakespeare’s illegitimate daughter, Penelope, in 1598. The girl married the second Baron Spencer, from whom Princess Diana was directly descended. The claims, by the Shakespearean scholar Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel, of Mainz University in Germany, rest on her belief that two portraits of an unnamed woman ... depict the Dark Lady. One, known as The Persian Lady ..., bears a sonnet, claimed to be by Shakespeare. Another ... is said to carry a miniature image of the playwright’s face. Hammerschmidt-Hummel ... will publish her claims next month in The Secrets of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady.

The extensive article ”Is William descended from Will?” by CAROLINE GASCOIGNE and NICHOLAS HELLEN is based on minute and detailed knowledge and is enriched with quotations from the then unpublished book as well as attention-grabbing pictures of Prince William, Elizabeth Vernon and clips from the film ‘Shakespeare in Love’. The speculation over the identity of the ‘Dark Lady’, which has hitherto been in vain and frustrating (”some scholars have abandoned the search”), should now be over: ”In reality, the answer may be staring us in the face. According to Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel ... a portrait of the Dark Lady is on show in Hampton Court”. The spontaneous reactions of non-informed or only fragmentarily informed British experts were ”lunacy” (ANNE BARTON, Cambridge) and ”There will be great interest if, on examination, her evidence is strong” (SIR FRANK KERMODE, Cambridge).

That the theses of the book do not leave room for any doubt, if thoroughly examined, was demonstrated by the well-investigated and most wittily written article ”Lady Di and the poet” by Claudia Gottschling in [the German news magazine] Focus, department ‘Research and Technology’, which appeared as an exclusive and authorized prepublication on 6 September 1999. The reader learns that - although ”scientists of all epochs” searched for the ”real person” whom ”Shakespeare in his famous love sonnets longed for” – the Mainz researcher now appears to have definitely revealed ”William’s secret mistress” and, in addition, found a connection ”a reporter of the tabloid press could hardly have made up”: ”Shakespeare, ... the great great great grandfather of Lady Di.” By the skillful layout of the paintings (cf. p. 176) the trio Shakespeare-Vernon-Southampton – as well as offspring Penelope – are put in direct pictorial context with Lady Diana and her sons William and Henry. ”Hammerschmidt-Hummel,” Gottschling points out positively, ”tried out new avenues and combined literary studies and art history” and ”meticulously” and ”with refined methods of analysis investigated new circumstantial evidence concerning the life, love and work of the poet”. ”Cultural historians, linguists, botanists, physicians and the German Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (Bundeskriminalamt - BKA) helped her with the search for traces.” The editor’s analysis of the book’s theses is thorough. She contacted all of the author’s experts directly, consulted further experts in order to critically evaluate [the results] and had interviews with the author. The pin-sharp colour reproductions (as, for instance, the painting ‘The Countess of Southampton at her toilet’ in which Hammerschmidt-Hummel – as Gottschling phrased it – found ”a mini portrait of ex-lover Shakespeare”) back the researcher’s arguments convincingly. The sonnet in the picture ‘The Persian Lady’ had to be regarded as a genuine work of Shakespeare as a linguistic comparison with the assistance of KLAUS FAIß, Professor of English (Linguistics), had shown. The Hamburg Shakespeare scholar and author DIETRICH SCHWANITZ, too, is certain that the new sonnet was ”very Shakespearian”.

Already at the beginning of the presentation of HELMUT HERKENROTH’S TV film for ”Hessenschau” (Hessischer Rundfunk – 9 September 1999) the viewers had their ears pricked: ”If it is true, the marriage of Lady Diana and Prince Charles has brought the Royal family at that time even more glory than had hitherto been known […].” At Darmstadt, the Mainz Shakespeare scholar Hammerschmidt-Hummel had revealed ”the great secret around the poet’s unkown daughter” and ”mayor Benz considered it an honour to be present at this historic date of disclosure”. The author of the sonnet in the portrait ‘The Persian Lady’ was Shakespeare. This sonnet ”complained about the loss of a mistress”. With reference to the expert opinion of the gynaecologist [Professor] Peter Berle the author [of the book] claimed that the most striking characteristic of the portrayed unknown lady was ”that she [stood] eight to twelve weeks before the birth of her child”. Penelope, the child of the poet and his mistress Vernon, had later married a Spencer. ”There we have the line that […] connects itself with the Windsors”, Herkenroth comments on the inserted television pictures of the marriage of Lady Diana Spencer and Prince Charles.

”Two lovers and one woman: The one makes her pregnant, the other she marries. The thing is that the disdained natural father is one of the greatest poets and playwrights of world literature.” Thus WERNER BREUNIG, who attended the press conference, depicts the delicate situation of the year 1598 in […] Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and confirms that the author has deciphered ”one of the most important mysteries around William Shakespeare”.

”After the extensive study of the sources”, the author - ”in a stirring speech” – had introduced her new work and the solution to the riddle ”who was the ‘Dark Lady’ in Shakespeare’s languishing sonnets,” JÖRG FEUCK, who was also present, said in Frankfurter Rundschau of 10 September 1999. With the help from linguistic, botanic, medical and criminological experts she had allegedly ”presented ‘a well-rounded and conclusive’ chain of circumstantial and hard evidence” and had played her trumps ”with a wealth of ‘amazing correspondences’ and ‘astonishingly consistent references’.” Feuck reported that a new Shakespearean sonnet in an Elizabethan painting was her ”most significant treasure” and belonged to the ‘Dark Lady sequence’. The disclosure that Lady Di was a descendant of William Shakespeare had ”splitted”, ”deeply impressed” or ”shocked” ”the scholarly world”.

JÜRGEN DIESNER, cultural editor of Darmstädter Echo, who likewise attended the press conference, gave [the topic] a big build-up and decorated his text with illustrations of Shakespeare’s death mask and of Princess Diana, kept his article ”Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’ (10 Sepember 1999) in a deliberate matter-of-fact style. Not only does he deal with the decisive parts of the author’s chain of evidence, but also with the expert opinions of the scientists [she consulted]. […]

”The ‘Dark Lady’, who, in the sonnets, drives the poet to distraction, is said to have lived as a real person.” With this sentence OLIVER GROß, who also attended the book presentation, opened his exciting as well as competent article in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of 22 September 1999, choosing the enigmatic headline ”Shakespeare’s forbidden fruits”. He states that the Mainz Shakespeare expert Hammerschmidt-Hummel had ”examined Renaissance paintings and historical sources” and was convinced ”to hold in her hands the key to Shakespeare’s biography.” She had relied on expert opinions by scientists of other disciplines and on investigations into securing the identity of the ‘Persian Lady’ carried out by experts of the German Federal Office of Criminal Investigation. The face she discovered in the portrait of the Countess of Southampton (according to the results of the author identical with the hitherto unknown ‘Persian Lady’) did hardly look like ”the Countess’s husband, the Earl of Southampton, but resembled William Shakespeare.” In addition, the ‘Dark Lady’s (respectively ‘Persian Lady’s) child, Penelope, who later married into the Spencer family, bore William Shakespeare’s facial features – as was shown by the BKA comparison.

Whereas the Shakespeare expert WILHELM HORTMANN Stated that he was of the opinion that the new sonnet in the painting ‘The Persian Lady’ was ”a true trouvaille” (by Shakespeare), DIETER MEHL, president of the German Shakespeare Society, in an interview he gave Groß, declared that he did not think the Mainz Shakespeare scholar’s ”biographical approach” fruitful but was delighted that ”Shakespeare now attracted more attention” by the public. He was impressed by the fact that the British Sunday Times had reported about Hammerschmidt-Hummel’s researches on a large scale: ”No German Shakespeare scholar has been interviewed” by this newspaper ”in the last 50 years”. Mehl, however, overlooked the extensive article on the Mainz Shakespeare expert’s proofs of authenticity concerning Shakespeare’s death mask and two of his portraits (”Germans put a face to Shakespeare”), which science correspondent Steve Connor published in the The Sunday Times on 15 March 1998 – together with excerpts from the interviews the German researcher gave him.

On 23 September 1999, NINA RUGE in ”Leute heute” [”Today’s People”] (ZDF) presented a film on Hammerschmidt-Hummel’s ‘Dark Lady’ book. Pulled out ”from the darkness of history” by the Mainz university teacher, it [the book] introduced ”the poet’s mysterious mistress”, the ‘Dark Lady’. In spite of their attention-grabbing presentation, the text and the pictorial material bear witness to thorough journalistic work. The author was given the opportunity to comment on her central pictorial document [‘The Persian Lady’] whose importance had hitherto been overlooked. The commentator summarizes: ”Old paintings, mysterious verses, hints from the work of the master himself and the cooperation of numerous experts, even of the German Bureau of Criminal Investigation, enabled the Professor to identify the poet’s mistress.” The mistress, however, made pregnant by Shakespeare had married someone else and ”the fruit of his love later married Lord Spencer and is thus Princess Diana’s ancestor.” […]

INKA BOHL, editor of the monthly journal Der Literat, who took part in the Darmstadt book presentation, published her report on Hammerschmidt-Hummel’s disclosures as cover story in October 1999. The author, Bohl said, was ”by now well-known for her border-crossing, interdisciplinary approach”. The astonishing correspondences between the poet’s facial features and those of Penelope, the Countess of Southampton’s firstborn daughter, had been confirmed ”by the German Federal Office of Criminal Investigation”. The statement of the BKA expert – ”The result of the analysis is clearly in favour of Shakespeare” – eliminated Southampton ”from the race” as Penelope’s father. Bohl concludes: ”When Hammerschmidt-Hummel […] explained her thesis at Darmstadt […], we all were not half surprised how she managed, ”by verifying these theses, to solve centuries-old problems of literary history and biography and to close gaps in our knowledge.” With this claim [she said] she would continue.

In her article in Süddeutsche Zeitung (10 November 1999) ESTHER KNORR-ANDERS proves that she is very well informed, concedes, however, that she could only render ”the solution of the mystery” but not the Mainz scholar’s ”complicated search for traces”. [Hammerschmidt-Hummel] had now - after ”laborious investigations” – presented the results of her researches. ”The author (of the sonnet in the painting’s cartouche)”, Knorr-Anders states, ”was considered to be unknown – until Hammerschmidt-Hummel now has identified him as Shakespeare.” She had also established the identity of Elizabeth Southampton, painted by Marcus Gheeraerts. [In one of the portraits of the Countess of Southampton] ”the anonymous painter placed a miniature likeness of Shakespeare.” Shakespeare’s fatherhood with regard to the Countess’s yet unborn child was exemplified with reference to a further painting: ”In reality”, the critic remarks, ”the facial outline, the shape and expression of the eyes as well as the physical roundness show an amazing similarity.” The poet’s encoded confession concerning his paternity was to be found in the third quatrain of the new sonnet. If one wanted to get ”the full benefit of the study as far as its contents and its arguments were concerned,” knowledge of the English language on a large scale would be required.

In his ‘Culture Tip’ for WDR 3 (23 November 1999) HANS-JÖRG MODLMAYR, a specialist in English cultural history and Renaissance painting, introduced the book of the Mainz Anglicist as ”a publication that had stirred international sensation” and had offered ”a convincing solution” for the ”generation-old fascinating mystery” around Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’. Modlmayr deals with ”the incorporation of hitherto neglected contemporary pictorial documents”, interlarded with meaningful emblem codes ”in proven Renaissance style”. The codes ”had virtually been waiting to be scientifically woken up from their mysteriousness.” Through the ”fascinating logic of her interdisciplinary analysis”, the open-minded researcher had succeeded in shaking up the experts. The ‘Dark Lady’, identified by her as Elizabeth Vernon, ”whose firstborn child – according to BKA picture analyses […] - is Shakespeare’s”, would in future (with utmost probability) be accepted ”as the solution of the generation-old mystery”.

In the cultural radio programme ”MOSAIK” (WDR - 23 November 1999) editor DAVID EISERMANN and journalist HANS-JÖRG MODLMAYR discussed Hammerschmidt-Hummel’s ‘Dark Lady’ book. Eisermann pointed out that the painting ‘The Persian Lady’ contained a whole programme – and a sonnet which ”we hitherto had not known.” He recited this new sonnet in English. Modlmayr was full of praise for the author’s new interdisciplinary research approach, her study of contemporary history and, above all, her use of pictorial sources. He stressed that […] Renaissance painters, who had often fixed ”sessions of up to 22 hours” for their portraits, were reliable. Therefore the ”pictorial monuments” Hammerschmidt-Hummel had examined were indeed ”historical documents” and ”had been neglected by literary historians out of ignorance.” In addition, the new sonnet in Gheeraerts’s painting contained words which practically nobody but Shakespeare had used and which thus functioned as key words. Poem and painting had been coded and coordinated ”in typical Renaissance style.” At that time people had not ”viewed” but ”read” and ”decoded” the pictures. Yet only insiders had been able to ”decipher” them. Poet and portrait painter ”must have known one another exactly.” Just like Eisermann, Modlmayr is convinced that the author’s steps of giving evidence are correct: ”The argumentation is simply astonishingly conclusive.” Eisermann addresses the problem that in the present-day study of literature and literary criticism ”facts, falsification and the binding force of reality” in general ”do not count much” [”’gern ganz tief gehängt’ werden”]. Henceforth his question: ”How does the scholar Hammerschmidt-Hummel treat her critics?” Modlmayr, who – as he said in the programme - had interviewed the Shakespeare expert for several hours, declared that the author was ”very unperturbed” and held the view that she - with the help from experts - ”had researched everything precisely” and was now waiting for counterarguments.


After thorough and painstaking examinings URSULA SAUTTER, Anglicist and PhD, presented the German discovery in Time Magazine (6 December 1999) - occasionally full of sparkling wit but competent and reliable as far as the discussed problems are concerned. The ‘Dark Lady’ of the sonnets had – according to Renaissance standards – not exactly been what one would call ”much of a looker” but scholars and ”Shakespeare aficionados” had asked the question about her identity or even her existence for centuries. With the help she received from experts of various disciplines a German Professor now believed to have solved the riddle. She claimed that Shakespeare’s ‘Dark ‘Lady’ was Elizabeth Vernon and an ancestor of Princess Diana. ”The main evidence for Hammerschmidt’s bold claims is two contemporary portraits. One, ‘Portrait of a Woman’ [‘The Persian Lady’] ... shows a festively dressed, pregnant woman with dark hair and eyes”. In this painting was a sonnet ”which ... fits into a cycle of poems about the Dark Lady”. In a portrait of the Countess of Southampton Hammerschmidt-Hummel made out similarities with the ‘Persian Lady’, whom BKA expert Altmann confirmed: ”the similarities between the two women are too great to be coincidental”. In this painting the Countess pointed to the face of a man at her right sleeve, which showed ”an amazing likeness” with Shakespeare. Hammerschmidt-Hummel also noticed a ”striking resemblance” between Penelope, the Countess’s firstborn daughter, and Shakespeare. This had equally been examined by the BKA expert, who concluded: ”the result of the analysis is clearly in favour of Shakespeare”.

In view of such examples of circumstantial evidence which, in addition, confirm each other, the counterarguments of the scholars interviewed by Sautter are of no importance (”haben […] kein Gewicht”]. [Professor] Katherine Duncan-Jones (Oxford) argued: ”The sonnet is too consciously pretty, too conventional in style and too courtly and elegant to be Shakespearean.” And Dr. Russell Jackson of the Stratford Shakespeare Institute even tried to explain away the similarity between the face at the sleeve and Shakespeare’s face: ”the resemblance between the face peeping out from Vernon’s sleeve and the Bard is so vague as to be almost nonexistent”. Thus he ignored the positive result of the BKA expert who for decades had successfully applied the proven BKA test procedures for the establishment of the identity of pictorially depicted persons, especially in difficult cases. At the end of her article Sautter – elegantly and with a kind of Shakespearean humour - leads back the discussion to a scholarly appropriate level: ”Until conclusive counterevidence has been produced, readers might do as Prospero suggests: ”‘Do not infest your mind with beating on/ The strangeness of this business/ ... be cheerful/ And think of each thing well.’”


In his expert opinion of 31 January 2000 the Anglicist and Shakespeare scholar KURT OTTEN, Professor emeritus [Heidelberg], first of all honoured Hammerschmidt-Hummel’s previous works ”on Shakespeare’s biography”. They were ”the almost only area of the German ‘Anglistik’ (literature) which had found unusual and wide-spread interest abroad”. In her monograph on the ‘Dark Lady’ ”she had – after thorough researches and with regard to verifiable details in his literary work – built up well-documented chains of circumstantial evidence for the vita of Shakespeare.” She tried to evaluate her circumstantial evidence with the strictly scientific methods of criminology, at the same time ”making use of the modern, highly specialized instruments of the German Federal Office of Criminal Investigation but also of other sciences such as gynaecology, dermatology, botany, photogrammetry, history of textiles or art history.” ”Her chains of circumstantial evidence”, the emeritus said, ”were smart and exactly described, the quota of direct hits and the probability of the connections often astonishing, and in this combination of methods she reached a high degree of factual conviction.” Otten declares that he cannot follow the arguments of RAIMUND BORGMEIER (Neue Zürcher Zeitung – 22 January 2000). Borgmeier evaluated ”rather his own literary knowledge than the author’s exact chains of circumstantial evidence and her methodical approach.” His [Otten’s] summarizing judgement on the (for the time being) latest book by Hammerschmidt-Hummel reads: ”Here a significant area of our science [the humanities] is methodically put on a new factual basis. Without doubt, H.H.H has, as far as the verifiability and the enlargement of our knowledge is concerned, set new and high standards. She reduces the sovereignty of the individual judgement, and this is an important and necessary step.”

Under the heading ”Exciting, well-founded, pointing the way ahead, informative” the Anglicist and linguist KLAUS FAIß published his scholarly review on the ‘Dark Lady’ monograph of the Mainz Shakespeare expert in the Internet (25 February 2000). This book would ”with great probability bring Shakespearean scholarship a clear improvement of knowledge”. Faiß confirms that Hammerschmidt-Hummel’s ”transdisciplinary” approach fascinated ”by close argumentation” and convinced ”by methods of analysis the details of which were finely polished.” The author’s research results, the linguist explicates, were substantiated by medical, botanical and criminological expert opinions. Now an unprejudiced discussion with the ”sound study” in the ”Shakespeare community” would be necessary, ”including scholarly interpretated pictorial documents.” This, however, was missing in RAIMUND BORGMEIER’S book review (Neue Zürcher Zeitung – 22 January 2000). Further reactions (not only of Shakespearean scholarship but also of other disciplines) would probably have to be followed with excitement.

The book review by the Shakespeare scholar WILHELM HORTMANN in Shakespeare-Jahrbuch (2000) represents the beginning of the scientific debate among experts. Hortmann is of the opinion that Hammerschmidt-Hummel’s results are conclusive and convincing. Intelligently and elegant in style, he makes his readers familiar with the task which the author had dared to approach: ”first, to integrate into the Shakespearean corpus a known but anonymous sonnet; furthermore to locate and identify a definite historical personage as the object of a famous painting and this person as, in fact, the mysterious Dark Lady herself ...; and finally, to integrate her findings into the corpus of Shakespearean biographical scholarship on the subject, by bringing forward and explicating a set of hitherto misinterpreted, disregarded, overlooked or not connected items - literary, factual, documentary and pictorial - as pieces of evidence in a gradually unfolding argument that gains in conclusiveness from one step to the next” (p. 298).

If Shakespeare was accepted as the most probable author of the new sonnet, to which the numerous linguistic similarities between this text and the ‘Dark Lady’ sonnets pointed, one would have to ask oneself how the sonnet could have got into the painting ‘The Persian Lady’, who this lady was and what kind of relationship there was between her and him (Shakespeare) (cf. p. 299).

It was in this field, Hortmann said, that Hammerschmidt-Hummel could fully unfold her thorough (art-)historical knowledge and her longstanding experiences. His opinion on the book reads: ”the case is as clear as - under the circumstances, i.e. of a chain of argument depending on the interlocking circumstantial evidence - it can be ...” (p. 299). The unknown ‘Persian Lady’ [= ‘Dark Lady’] was identical with Elizabeth Vernon, who – highly pregnant – had married the Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s patron (cf. p. 299). But the ‘Dark Lady’, as Hortmann phrased it, ”played her highborn fiancé false” and ”the man in question,” William Shakespeare (the child Penelope resembled so much), probably still had a relationship with her when Vernon was married (cf. p. 300). ”How else should one interpret that face on the sleeve in the painting of ‘Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton’, ... a minute detail overlooked by Sir Roy [Strong] but perfectly visible to the naked eye once it has been pointed out ...: the right half of Shakespeare’s face, in strong likeness to the Chandos and Flower portraits” (p. 300).

Hortmann pays a compliment to the author’s style and method …. The book, he says, especially the chapter on van Dyck’s portrait of Lady Penelope Spencer, ”makes fascinating reading. The reader is by now hot on the trail. He has long thrown caution to the wind and presses for a summary solution. Not so the author. She takes her time and all it takes to build up proof beyond reasonable doubt ... Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel is nothing if not thorough. Her painstaking progress pays dividends. Her circumspect marshalling of the great mass of circumstantial evidence forms the solid basis for the far-reaching conclusions” (pp. 96-123), (p. 300). Naturally, the critic, too, sees the danger of darkening the researcher’s essential results through the media circus about a minor result of the book: ”Penelope’s husband, Lord William Spencer, ... fathered a line which ... runs vigorously through the ages and shows up in the most prominent places” (p. 300). With the weight of his voice as one of the ”senior German Shakespeare scholars” Hortmann, therefore, clarifies in advance: ”It is with the foregoing proofs rather than the [stunning genealogical] conclusions that future criticism will have to concern itself” (p. 298).