One of the most prestigious academic journals devoted to Shakespearean authorship studies has just added a new candidate to the centuries-old debate about who else plausibly might have written the works we associate with the little-educated merchant and actor from Stratford-Upon-Avon.
The nominee is a complete shocker: Amelia Bassano Lanier, a converso (clandestine Jew) and the illegitimate daughter of an Italian-born, Elizabethan court musician.
Dozens of luminaries (Sigmund Freud, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain among them) over the years have joined the so-called anti-Stratfordian camp, convinced, as Henry James put it, “that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practised on a patient world.”
Until now, most of the proposed alternatives have been aristocrats such as William Stanley, the sixth earl of Derby, and Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford – championed by the New York-based Oxford Society, publishers of the annual journal The Oxfordian.
“When you look at the plays without preconceptions of the author,” observes the journal’s newly appointed editor, Michael Egan, “we’d have to say this is a highly educated person, well travelled, with intricate knowledge of the courts and aristocratic life. Where did an obscure provincial boy gain all this information?”
The Oxfordian’s current issue profiles Stanley and de Vere along with another perennial choice, playwright Christopher Marlowe. But it’s the addition of the female, Jewish contender – a pioneering woman poet – that will turn heads.
The principal proponent of this theory is 55-year-old John Hudson, a British Shakespeare scholar and director of the New York theatre ensemble the Dark Lady Players. In The Oxfordian, Mr. Hudson argues that if Bassano (Lanier was her married name) did not write all of the plays, she was certainly a major collaborator.
Her name is not new to Shakespeare studies. In 1979, British historian A.L. Rowse suggested that Bassano, with her family’s Mediterranean skin colouring, was the famous “dark lady of the sonnets,” Shakespeare’s mistress. Ridiculed at the time, that view is now commonplace among scholars.
Mr. Hudson goes further: He maintains that Bassano wrote the sonnets about herself; as with the plays, Shakespeare was simply a front used to hide her identity.
Immigrants, intrigues and instruments
While Mr. Hudson’s scenario has met with skepticism, it would help to explain some enduring mysteries, including the prevalence of musical and northern Italian references in the plays, and even possible smatterings of Hebrew.
Amelia Bassano was born in 1569 of the union between Margaret Johnson, a Christian, and Baptista Bassano, one of a group of Jewish musicians brought from Venice by Henry VIII. On her father’s death, she was sent to live with English feminist Catherine Willoughby, duchess of Suffolk, where she was educated in Greek, Latin and the Bible.
In her teens, she became the mistress of a cousin of Queen Elizabeth I named Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, the son of Mary Boleyn. Hunsdon wore many hats: He was the patron of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the ensemble that mounted Shakespeare’s works; warden of the Scottish Marches, with a castle at Berwick; and the Queen’s royal falconer.
Mr. Hudson points out that the plays contain about 50 references to that sport – far more than in the works of any of the Bard’s contemporaries – a rich man’s preserve, generally unavailable to commoners such as Shakespeare.
Bassano became pregnant, probably by Hunsdon, in 1592, later giving birth to a son, Henry. To avoid scandal – Hunsdon and his wife already had 12 other children – Amelia was married off to her cousin Alfonso Lanier, a musician.
Mr. Hudson notes here that the Shakespeare plays contain 2,000 musical references – three times more than other typical plays of the period. Why? If the Stratfordian wrote them, there’s no obvious answer. But Amelia Bassano’s 15 closest relatives – father, husband, uncles, brothers-in-law – were all court musicians.
In The Taming of the Shrew – and an early version that would have been written just after her marriage to Lanier – there are characters named Emelia, Alfonso (her husband’s name) and Baptista (her late father’s name).
Shrew was part of a series of Italian marriage comedies that Shakespeare suddenly started writing around 1592. Those plays aren’t merely set in Italy; whoever wrote them seems to have read Dante and other Italian literature in the original. The Bassanos, surviving letters indicate, spoke and wrote fluent Italian, which may well have been Amelia’s mother tongue.
Belfast University professor Roger Prior noted in a recent article that one speech Iago makes in Othello even seems to match, image for image, a fresco in the Italian town of Bassano, north of Venice. Perhaps Shakespeare himself visited this small town off the typical Italian tourist trail. But Mr. Hudson argues that it makes more sense to believe that Amelia Bassano made a return visit to her family’s hometown.
Similarly, it makes no obvious sense that there should be spoken Hebrew in Shakespeare’s plays. No Jews lived openly in Elizabethan England – even clandestinely, the community did not number more than 200. Only a small fraction of those could read the language. The likelihood that Shakespeare himself knew it is nil. Yet Mr. Hudson says that scholars have identified dozens of transliterations of Hebrew words in the Shakespearean canon, as well as quotations from the Talmud and allusions to the Mishnah.
Finally, he asks, why would a man whose works portray well-educated, proto-feminist women raise his own daughters as illiterates, as Shakespeare did? Bassano, on the other hand, made feminist history when she became the first English woman to publish a book of original poetry – the 3,000-line Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail God, King of the Jews), a satire sometimes known as “Eve’s Apology,” published in 1611.
Mr. Hudson has found connections between that book and the plays, in their biblical allusions and, he argues, their common references to the late medieval writings of French lawyer Christine de Pisan. He also contends that both the poem and the plays contain vengeful parodies of Christian thought.
A black swan among theories?
Not surprisingly, many academics reject the Bassano theory. “John’s evidence is entirely circumstantial, or depends on quasi-allegorical readings of the texts,” says Kate McLuskie, director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham. “It is elegant and ingenious, but has no documentary foundation – a beautiful story that is not less beautiful for being entirely false.”
Mr. Egan of The Oxfordian allows that Bassano “was a remarkable woman with strong literary and court connections. But it’s a big step from that to Shakespeare. Unfortunately, Hudson’s evidence, such as [the]detailed knowledge of northern Italy, also supports other candidates. My view is that the Shakespeare mystery remains unsolved.”
Indeed, recently some researchers have questioned whether the immigrant court-musician Bassano family was Jewish after all.
It is … a beautiful story that is not less beautiful for being entirely false. Kate McLuskie, director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham
But Mr. Hudson is undaunted. He fondly believes that Amelia Bassano went to great lengths to encode her authorial claim for posterity, by amending several of the plays when they were published in the First Folio in 1623 (seven years after Shakespeare’s death). He says the lines she inserted include a classic Renaissance trope, derived from Ovid – the poet as a swan that dies to music.
In Othello , the figure is evoked by Desdemona’s maid Emilia, who then sings, “Willough, willough, willough.” The same analogy is used in King John , associated with John’s son, and in Merchant of Venice , in which Portia says of her suitor, Bassanio: “Then, if he lose, he makes a swan-like end, fading in music.”
Emilia, “willough” (Willoughby), John’s son (Johnson) and Bassanio – these could be allusions to Bassano’s baptismal name, adopted name, mother’s name and family name. Here, Mr. Hudson finds the poet leaving her signature.
The majority view remains deeply entrenched – that Stratford’s Shakespeare really did write Shakespeare. But with the 400th anniversary of Amelia Bassano’s Salve Deus in prospect, Mr. Hudson – 800-page manuscript, making her full case, in hand – aims to lay siege to the redoubt.
Michael Posner is a Globe and Mail reporter.
In about 1785, a retired Warwickshire cleric named James Wilmot started visiting libraries around Stratford-upon-Avon, looking for evidence that a local lad had written the single greatest canon of Western literature. He found nothing – no books, no correspondence, no records.
He became the first in a long line of skeptics persuaded that, whatever else William Shakespeare might have been – glove-maker’s son, grain merchant, moneylender, actor – he was incapable of having produced those transcendent plays and sonnets.
Two years ago, the distinguished British actors Sir Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance issued their “Declaration of Reasonable Doubt,” asking how a boy with a Grade 6 education acquired the knowledge displayed in the plays – including foreign languages, law, heraldry, medicine, horticulture and astronomy. It has been signed online by more than 1,700 people, including 200 academics, actors Jeremy Irons and Michael York and two U.S. Supreme Court justices.
Mainstream critics say both historical documents and computerized style analysis provide no justification but snobbery for doubting the Stratford case. But if the doubters are right, who wrote the plays? Here are some of the leading alternatives.
Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford
A well-connected nobleman, de Vere received a Cambridge education and travelled widely on the continent. He was both a patron of writers and actors and an accomplished poet and playwright in his own right. His backers in the Shakespeare debate say his wide classical learning and easy knowledge of Italian culture and the many high-quality works under his name support their case. They say he kept his authorship of the plays secret because they were critical of court life, and that all the greatest Shakespearean dramas were completed by 1604 – the year de Vere died.
Not only one of the great Elizabethan playwrights but also a reputed spy, the Cambridge-educated Marlowe was a friend and some-time collaborator of Shakespeare. The Marlowe-as-Shakespeare camp say Marlowe’s use of imagery, words and phrasing can be indistinguishable from that of the Bard. They suggest that his supposed murder in 1593 was in fact a ruse to avoid arrest and torture, and that he afterward lived incognito in Italy, writing plays under cover of Shakespeare’s identity.
The Cambridge-educated lawyer, philosopher and essayist capped his career as statesman with the key position of Lord Chancellor. The “Baconians” who champion him as the real Shakespeare point to his learning, life experiences, wit, prodigious vocabulary and especially his contemporary reputation as a “concealed poet” to make their case. They note various facts of his life with parallels in the Shakespeare canon, and suggest that he hid self-identifying ciphers within the plays.
William Stanley, the sixth Earl of Derby
Another cosmopolitan aristocrat, Stanley was a son-in-law of that other would-be Shakespeare, the Earl of Oxford, with whom he is said to have collaborated on writing projects. Though no literary works survive under Stanley’s name, a 1599 intelligence report noted that he was “penning comedies for the common players.” In the late 1590s and until about 1620, he had his own acting troupe, known as Derby’s Men
Sources: The Shakespearean Authorship Trust; www.bardweb.net.