Was “William Shakespeare” an Italian Jewish Woman?

William Shakespeare was the greatest English playwright, and one of the greatest English poets. Yet since the 19th century, many people have doubted that William Shakespeare, an actor from Stratford-upon-Avon, could actually have written the plays and poetry attributed to him. How could a man of limited education suddenly drop his Warwickshire accent and start writing highly sophisticated poems and plays, peppered with puns in Hebrew and Italian and references to hundreds of literary works? On the other hand, an educated woman of Italian and Jewish ancestry could have written like that. As it turns out, the man who was in charge of the entertainments in Queen Elizabeth’s court had a mistress who met that description. Her name was Emilia Bassano (later, Emilia Lanier).

Emilia Bassano’s father was a court musician from Venice, and his family is believed to be of Moroccan Jewish origins. Bassano’s relatives on her father’s side of the family may have continued to practice Judaism secretly. (Judaism could not be practiced openly in England until many years later.) Bassano later became known as the first woman to publish poetry in English under her own name. Thus, it is conceivable that she took part in writing at least some of the Shakespeare plays. It was not unusual in the bad old days for women to assume masculine pen names (such as George Eliot and George Sand), and the author of the plays would have needed to use the name of a real person, who could serve as a front man. William Shakespeare was a real person, and his name would have appealed to the author of the Shakespeare plays because it was a pun that expressed defiance: “will shake spear.”

There are many reasons to suspect that Emilia Bassano had a hand in writing the Shakespeare plays. First of all, she was in the right place at the right time. The first Shakespeare plays appeared shortly after Bassano began an affair with Henry Carey, who was the first Baron Hunsdon and was widely believed to be Henry VIII’s illegitimate son. Carey was the son of Mary Boleyn. Henry VIII had an affair with Mary Boleyn before taking Mary’s sister Anne as his ill-fated second wife. Thus, Carey was definitely Queen Elizabeth’s first cousin and was possibly her half-brother as well. In 1585, Queen Elizabeth appointed Carey as Lord Chamberlain Lieutenant, Chamberlain of the Household. As such, Carey was in charge of all of the entertainment at court. Carey’s affair with Bassano began in 1587, and mentions of the Shakespeare plays began appearing in publications from the 1590s.

Bassano also had the right kind of education to have written the Shakespeare plays. The Shakespeare plays are remarkable for their strong female characters and feminist sentiments. Unlike William Shakespeare, Bassano had been reared among educated, politically active noblewomen. Thanks to her upbringing in the household of Susan Bertie, Countess of Kent, Bassano was one of the few educated Englishwomen of her era. Susan Bertie was the daughter of Catherine, Duchess of Suffolk, who had become infamous for advocating that everyone, even women, be allowed to read the Bible. (Catherine was one of the Marian exiles, who fled England while Mary I was queen.) Bertie was also a neighbor and friend of Anne Locke, the inventor of the sonnet sequence.

Bassano also had the right kind of musical background to have written the plays. The Shakespeare plays are intensely musical, especially in comparison with other Elizabethan plays. Bassano’s family were musicians. The inclusion of music in the plays provided employment for Bassano’s relatives. In contrast, Shakespeare the actor was not known to have musical training or to have come from a musical family.

The settings of the Shakespeare plays also make sense in terms of Bassano’s family and social connections. Her father was from Venice, which accounts for the plays set in Italy, and Susan Berties’ brother had been England’s ambassador to Denmark, which accounts for the setting of Hamlet.

Bassano’s likely Jewish origins also make sense in terms of the attitudes toward religion expressed in the Shakespeare plays. Although William Shakespeare the actor was a conforming Anglican, some scholars have speculated that Shakespeare the playwright may have been an atheist. A simpler explanation, but one that would seem anachronistic to many, is that the author of the Shakespeare plays was Jewish. A New York-based theatre troupe called the Dark Lady Players has mounted productions that are intended to show that the Shakespeare plays were actually intended as tongue-in-cheek parodies of Christian religious ideas.  John Hudson, who is the troupe’s artistic director, has written a well-researched and provocative book, Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, which lays out the case for Bassano’s participation in the authorship of the Shakespeare plays.

Many scholars feel that it is foolish to doubt that the actor William Shakespeare was the author of the Shakespeare plays. In fact, many regard the “Authorship Question” as a fringe concern, akin to belief in Bigfoot and UFOs. Yet as an experienced editor, I think that it is perfectly reasonable to doubt that William Shakespeare from Stratford could have developed the worldliness and foreign language abilities to write the plays attributed to him. I also think it is perfectly reasonable to suspect that Emilia Bassano, who was not only a poet but the former mistress of the patron of Shakespeare’s theatre company, might have had at least some input into the writing of the plays. It also seems perfectly reasonable that more than one person might have taken part in writing the works. Modern screenwriting is often a group effort.

If Bassano had written some of the plays, then it is also perfectly reasonable that she would have done so under a masculine pen name, and that she would have used one of the actors in the company as a front man. The possibility that her family was of Jewish origin would have given Bassano even more reason to avoid drawing attention to herself as a playwright.

It was still illegal to be Jewish in England. King Edward I had expelled the Jews from England in the year 1290. There is practically no historical record of any Jews in England until the 1490s, when the Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal. Many of these Sephardic Jews found refuge in England. These refugees were typically Marranos (ostensibly converts to Catholicism). However, many continued to practice Judaism secretly (crypto-Judaism). As Jews, they could be expelled from the country; but as Christians, they could be subject to persecution for heresy.

A possible connection to Christopher Marlowe, the second greatest playwright of the Tudor period, also provides a motive for writing under a false name. Some scholars have suggested that the sonnets attributed to Shakespeare were actually the work of Marlowe, who presumably knew Bassano and may have had an affair with her. For this reason, she is widely presumed to have been the musical “Dark Lady” mentioned in the sonnets. There is some mystery surrounding Marlowe’s death. One theory is that he was stabbed to death, after being charged with blasphemy. Another theory is that he was spirited out of the country, to settle in Northern Italy, where the Bassano family had connections. As the mistress of a son of Henry VIII, Bassano was already a public figure. By taking credit for her work as a playwright, she would expose herself to the risk of possibly deadly persecution. Given that Bassano faced oppression both as a dark-skinned person (a Moor) and presumably as a Jew and as a woman, it makes sense that she would have chosen a pen name that expressed defiance, but in a plausibly deniable way. It also makes sense that her works would have included veiled references to their true authorship.

The possibility that Bassano was the primary author of the Shakespeare plays should be taken seriously for two reasons. One is that the evidence, though indirect, is substantial. The other is that Bassano’s authorship would have important implications, both for the appreciation of the plays themselves and for an understanding of the relationship between artists and society in general. The Shakespeare plays resonate to this day because they deal sensitively with issues such as feminism, racism, and anti-Semitism. Shakespearean works have been useful in campaigns for social advancement. For example, Shylock’s speech from Act 3 Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice is a powerful argument against anti-Semitism:

I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands,
organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

Shakespeare’s Othello deals frankly with European attitudes toward blackness and Africans. The great American singer and actor and civil rights activist Paul Robeson used that play to break an important color barrier. When Robeson appeared as Othello at Broadway’s Shubert Theater in 1943, it was the first time that a black lead actor appeared with a white supporting cast on Broadway. (At the time, Major League Baseball excluded black players.) Robeson portrayed a black military general at a time when the U.S. military, which was in the midst of World War II, was still segregated. His character Othello was married to a white woman, portrayed by a white actress. At that time, interracial marriage was illegal in many states.

Paul Robeson with Uta Hagen in the Theatre Guild production of Othello (1943–4)

The Dark Lady Players feel that the plays contain overt and subtle expressions of defiance against the misogyny, whiteness, and anti-Semitism of Tudor society. It seems unlikely that a white Anglian man in Tudor England could have developed such sensitivity to those issues. Yet those issues would have been everyday concerns for a woman who was considered a Moor and was secretly Jewish. Perhaps the works of Shakespeare are so compelling, even today, because they were written by someone who inhabited the highest ranks of Tudor society yet at the same time felt that she was an outsider, looking in.

Even in the 21-century, we still have problems with diversity in the entertainment industry. Many men are telling stories about women and many white people are telling stories about people of color. We even see white actors portraying people of color. Yet if the entertainment industry wants to produce something worth watching, it will let people tell their own stories.

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