Unmasking Shakespeare

Question: Apart from the fact that they were all venerable, intelligent men, what did Sigmund Freud, Charles Dickens, Henry and William James, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Orson Welles, and Walt Whitman have in common? Not one of them believed that William Shakespeare, a country lad from Warwickshire with a grade six education, who signed his surname six different ways, all illegibly, was capable of producing the single greatest canon of western literature: 38 transcendent histories, comedies, and tragedies, as well as 154 sonnets. They believed the Shakespeare legacy to be a colossal hoax, a charade designed to conceal an author who was unable or unwilling to acknowledge authorship.

The verifiable facts of Shakespeare’s life are few. He acted in two of Ben Jonson’s plays, owned shares of the Globe Theatre and the Blackfriars, sued people for petty sums, and bought land in Stratford. How, asked distinguished British actors Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance in their 2007 “declaration of reasonable doubt” (signed online by some 1,700 people), did this Shakespeare acquire his knowledge of foreign languages, which the plays’ author clearly demonstrates? Where did he develop, seemingly overnight, dramatic mastery of the Elizabethan worlds of law, the court, mathematics, heraldry, medicine, horticulture, falconry, astronomy, and the military, to which he had no known exposure? Why did he leave a last will and testament that made no mention of anything he wrote? Why is there no contemporaneous evidence of his actual authorship? As Jacobi and Rylance note in their declaration: “Not one play, not one poem, not one letter in Mr. Shakspere’s [their spelling] own hand has ever been found….”

It is true that Shakespeare acted in the company that performed the plays after 1594, and that the same name appeared on the long poems, on the 15 plays published in Quarto after 1598, on the First Folio, and in documents of the acting company. But no evidence demonstrates that he actually wrote the plays. The playwright Ben Jonson wrote in his diary that although Shakespeare passed manuscripts of plays to the actors, who in their “ignorance” admired Shakespeare for providing clean unblotted copies, he was to be “most faulted” for telling them that the copies were his original drafts.


If Shakespeare did not write the plays, then who did?


The Shakespeare Authorship Trust, founded in 1922 “to seek, and if possible establish, the truth concerning the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays and poems,” has to date endorsed the alternate candidacies of almost a dozen other Elizabethans, including statesman and essayist Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere (the Earl of Oxford), playwright Christopher Marlowe, writer Mary Sidney, Roger Manners (the Earl of Rutland), and diplomat/courtier Henry Neville. There’s also a group theory, suggesting that many backstage hands were complicit, conspiring to use Shakespeare as a mere cardboard prop.


In April 2007, the Trust added a new name to the list and, at first blush, it’s a complete shocker: Amelia Bassano Lanier (1569-1645), daughter of a Venetian-born court musician and converso (a Jew who is forced to convert to Christianity but remains secretly Jewish). Last year, The Oxfordian, a peer-reviewed journal of Shakespeare authorship studies, published essays on four leading rival authorship candidates, including one on Bassano.


A feminist of her day, Bassano composed Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail God, King of the Jews), a 3,000-line book of original poetry. Its appearance in 1611 made her the first woman to have published a work of original verse in the English language. Andrée Brooks (who has written about this period) points to a poem in which Bassano writes of “evil disposed men who forgetting they were borne of women, nourished of women, and that if it were not by the means of women, they would be quite extinguished from this world.” Certain men, Bassano declares, “have tempted even the patience of God himself.”


The Bassano authorship theory’s principal proponent is John Hudson, a graduate of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, England. Hudson has spent the last seven years poring over Shakespeare texts and scholarly material as well as mounting productions of the plays with his New York–based troupe, the Dark Lady Players. He’s also written an 800-page manuscript in support of his contention that if Amelia Bassano did not author all of the works, she was a major collaborator, influenced them all, and contributed their underlying allegorical plots.


To the litany of skeptics’ doubts about Shakespeare, Hudson adds some striking new ones: Would a man whose works portray strong, well-educated, proto-feminist women raise his own daughters (as Shakespeare did) as illiterates? Why do the Shakespeare works contain some 2,000 musical references (110 in Taming of the Shrew alone)—many displaying a firm grasp of musical intricacies? For Shakespeare, there is no obvious answer; for Amelia Bassano, there is: her 15 closest relatives—father, husband, uncles, brothers-in-law—were professional court musicians, members of the Queen’s recorder troupe, which performed regularly at plays and masques. Her maternal cousin, lutenist Robert Johnson, was the most popular musical composer for the plays attributed to Shakespeare, which typically included half a dozen songs, such as “Where the Bee Sucks There Sucks I” and “Full Fathom Five Thy Father Lies” (both composed by Johnson for The Tempest).

The canon also displays a sure knowledge of falconry; there are some 50 references to hawking, a rich man’s preserve not generally available to commoners like Shakespeare. None of his writing contemporaries—Kyd, Marlowe, Greene—made so many references to hawking in their works. As nobles, other authorship candidates—Bacon, Sidney, de Vere, Manners, and Neville—would likely have hunted with falcons, but this in itself would not necessarily have given them the degree of knowledge and perspective demonstrated in the plays, such as how to repair a wing feather or how to raise young birds from eggs. Amelia Bassano lived for 10 years as the mistress of the Queen’s master falconer, Lord Henry Hunsdon.

In Taming of the Shrew, Petruccio famously tames his truculent wife, Kate, with precisely the methods used in falconry—starvation and sleep deprivation: “My falcon now is sharp and passing empty. And till she stoop she must not be full-gorg’d, for then she never looks up her lure….” (Act IV, Scene 1). Is it just a coincidence that an earlier version of the play, called Taming of a Shrew, was written in 1593, just a year after Amelia Bassano married Alfonso Lanier, whose name means falcon in French? Is it a coincidence, too, that both play versions feature characters named Emelia, Alfonso (her husband’s name), and Baptista (her late father’s name)?

 Yet even if we concede that Shakespeare’s authorship is in doubt, is it not an Olympian leap to believe that he was simply a front, a middle man brokering the plays for a conversa in deeply anti-Semitic England? A look at Bassano’s biography suggests that it is not.

Indeed, we probably know more about Amelia Bassano than we do about Shakespeare. King Henry VIII brought her converso father, Baptista Bassano, and his brothers from Venice to England in 1538 and installed them as court musicians. Her mother, Margaret Johnson, was a Protestant and the daughter of another court musician. The family lived in London’s Aldgate district, a short walk from the theatres. Although her mother was still alive when Baptista died in 1576, young Amelia was sent a mile down the road to live with and be educated—in Greek, Latin, and the Bible—by English feminist Catherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk; her daughter Susan Bertie, Countess of Kent; and her son Peregrine Bertie, the Lord Willoughby.

In this heady environment, 13-year-old Amelia Bassano caught the eye of Henry Carey, also known as Lord Hunsdon, the son of Mary Boleyn and a cousin of Queen Elizabeth. Although he was some 45 years older than Bassano, he took her as his mistress. Among Hunsdon’s many titles was Lord Chamberlain, which meant that he presided over entertainment for the court and, as such, was patron of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men—the very company that mounted the works that would be attributed to Shakespeare.

A decade later, at 23, Bassano became pregnant, ostensibly by Hunsdon. To avoid scandal—Hunsdon had 12 other children by his wife, Elizabeth Spencer—Bassano was forced to leave the royal court and was married off to her cousin Alfonso Lanier, another court musician. They lived in Westminster, where she gave birth to a son, Henry, and later a daughter, Odelia, who died in infancy.

Nobody, Hudson notes, has explained why Shakespeare started writing Italian marriage comedies in 1592, just as he was thought to have arrived in London, but it’s a perfect fit for Bassano’s biography. She had left the court to be re-absorbed by her Italian family. Moreover, the following year, three of her Bassano cousins took a nine-month leave from their jobs at court. Hudson suggests that she may have then deposited her young son with his nurse, temporarily left what is known to have been her unhappy marriage to spendthrift husband Alfonso, and joined her cousins in visiting Italy, where they made arrangements for the visit of Lord Willoughby the following year. On this trip, she might have gained the striking familiarity with Italy that the plays display. Almost half of the non-historical canon is set in Italy, and contains detailed descriptions and references that only someone familiar with the country could have written. For example, one of Iago’s speeches in Othello is a virtual description of the entire distinctive fresco painted on a house in the family hometown of Bassano. Whoever wrote the text must have visited the town. Arguably, Shakespeare and some of the other authorial candidates may have visited Italy, but there is no known reason why any of them would have stopped in the town of Bassano. Unlike Venice, Mantua, Verona, Padua, and other bustling Italian cities, Bassano was hardly a major tourist centre.

Further, the playwright had to have known Italian well enough to make elaborate puns, and to have read Dante, Tasso, Cinthio, Bandello, and others in the original language. There’s a reasonable likelihood that Bassano spoke Italian fluently. Surviving letters from her family to Queen Elizabeth were written in Italian, and police records of younger members of the family indicate they spoke it on the streets. Of the rival candidates, only the Earl of Oxford is known to have spoken the language (but his overall claim is weakened by the ostensible date of his death—1604—since Measure for Measure alludes to an account published in a news sheet of 1621).

 But if Bassano is the playwright, how could she, as a conversa, have authored Merchant of Venice, which is widely perceived as anti-Semitic?

Hudson and other scholars maintain that Merchant of Venice is not an anti-Semitic slander, but an extraordinary appeal for equality. The protagonist Shylock pleaded that he be accorded basic rights as a human being and that Jews be seen as subject to the same passions, diseases, organs, dimensions, and affections as Christians.

Michael Egan, who has taught English literature at universities in England and America and written extensively on Shakespeare, has explained to author Andrée Brooks (see “Secret Jews in Shakespeare’s London,” page 38) that the playwright’s understanding of the Jewish predicament—the torment of being reviled and persecuted—suggests that the writer had spent considerable time with Jews. Shylock’s reflection on anti-Semitism—“Still have I borne it with a patient shrug/For suff’rance is the badge of all our tribe”—was, Egan believes, “unlikely to have been learned from a book.”

And Peter Bassano, a British conductor and music historian, points to the “mixed marriage (between Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, and her non-Jewish lover, Lorenzo), which is not something you would talk about if you were anti-Semitic” in Elizabethan England.

Both Bassano’s authorship and Jewish subtext, Hudson contends, are further supported by the use of Jewish sources. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, the Mishnah’s Tractate Nedarim (The Book of Vows) is used to structure how Helena, the daughter of her absent father Nedar (in Hebrew nedar as an adjective means “missing” or “absent,” and as a noun means “pledge” or “vow”), compares herself to Hermia. Her criteria—beauty, fairness, and height—are the very same—and in the same order—as those in the tractate to determine the annulment of marriage vows: “[If one vows,] ‘Konam if I marry that ugly woman,’ whereas she is beautiful; ‘that black[-skinned] woman,’ whereas she is fair; ‘that short woman,’ who is in fact tall, he is permitted to marry her, not because she was ugly, and became beautiful, or black and turned fair, short and grew tall, but because the vow was made in error” (Nedarim, Folio 66a, Soncino Babylonian Talmud). In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the apocalyptic ending alludes to the distribution of dew—an image found only in Jewish accounts of the apocalypse, when “the Holy One revives the dead and will shower dew from his hair” (Zohar 1:131a).

And there is spoken Hebrew in several plays. In All’s Well That Ends Well, the character Parolles says: “Boskos v’vado [B’oz k’oz v’vado—in bravery, like boldness, in his surety], I understand thee, and can speak thy tongue. Kerely-bonto [K’erli b’onto—I am aware of his deception], sir, betake thee to thy faith….” It’s possible, says Hudson, that the young man from Stratford somehow learned Hebrew and immersed himself in the Talmud and Jewish history, but it’s highly unlikely.

In 1979, British historian A.L. Rowse advanced the then controversial theory that Amelia Bassano, with her Mediterranean skin coloring, was the famous “dark lady” of the Shakespeare sonnets, arguing that the woman’s physical characteristics, musical talent, tyrannical and temperamental character, age, marital status, and promiscuous nature—all described in the sonnets—match the known facts about Bassano more closely than those of any other woman of her time and place.

Ridiculed at the time, this assertion is now supported by a number of Shakespeare scholars who have also identified other similarities between Bassano and the “dark lady.” As a child of a baptized immigrant, Amelia Bassano Lanier was never entirely accepted. She was not regarded as a true lady in the English sense, and her relatively dark skin also set her apart in anti-Semitic England. The paramour in the sonnets is described as poor and despised, lacking honors and titles; she is expected to be buried in a common grave. All of these descriptions applied to Amelia Bassano.

Hudson, however, goes further: He maintains that Bassano wrote the dark lady sonnets about, and sometimes to, herself. Originators of the sonnet form had used only one voice, that of the lover. In 1595, Edmund Spenser’s sonnets introduced the voice of the beloved. The Shakespearean sonnets, published in 1609, added to the complexity, Hudson says, by presenting multiple voices—including Bassano’s imagining how a lover might address her.

But if Bassano were Shakespeare’s paramour, or he knew her through Lord Hunsdon, might he not have simply exploited her knowledge of music, falconry, Italian, Jewish sources, the royal court, and other areas of expertise? Hudson insists otherwise: “He would have had to run to her every minute. The simplest explanation is that all the intellectual content came from her, but she needed a collaborator to provide the odd Warwickshire word (such as ‘quat,’ meaning a pimple, or ‘urchin,’ a rare term for hedgehog) and to serve as her play broker.”

It was not exceptional for actors of the period to earn extra cash by serving as front men, arranging play performances for an anonymous patron. Amelia Bassano would have had more reason than anyone to conceal her identity—and not only because women did not write for the stage in Elizabethan England. Her allegorical Jewish messages encrypted in such plays as Merchant of Venice would have put her at risk of being detected by either the Office of Revels, which censored plays, or the Secret Service, which routinely sent officials known as State Decipherers to play performances looking for secret meanings and coded words.

 Despite the risks, Hudson believes that Bassano signaled her claim to authorship by encoding her name in several plays. When it was published in 1623, Othello contained 163 lines that had not appeared in the first edition, published the year before. Many are spoken by Desdemona’s lady Emilia, such as: “Hark, canst thou hear me? I will play the swan. And die in music. [Singing] willough, willough, willough” (Act V, Scene 2).

The same swan analogy appears in King John, where it is associated with John’s son; and in Merchant of Venice, associated with the character Bassanio.

Thus, all four names—Emilia, Willough, Johnson, Bassanio—correspond to her own names: her baptismal name (Amelia), her mother’s name (Johnson), her adopted name (Willoughby), and her family name (Bassano).

What makes this especially significant, Hudson contends, is that when the First Folio with its additional lines was published, William Shakespeare had been dead seven years. Bassano, however, was alive to edit the text and to leave her literary signature behind. That all of her names should have been accidentally associated with the classical dying swan/poet motif—quite literally her swan song—is improbable. They were deliberately inserted as clues, Hudson believes, so that future generations could discover the author’s true identity.

 After the publication of the First Folio, Amelia Bassano lived for two more decades, during which she was one of the first women to own and operate a school (but had to shut it down due to a nasty legal dispute with her landlord). When she died in 1645 at the age of 76, she was practically penniless. She was buried at Clerkenwell, outside the city of London, in an unmarked grave, as it still remains today. Only nine copies of her Salve Deus volume are known to have survived. In fact, Amelia Bassano might have been entirely forgotten had she not been rediscovered in the 1970s, when feminist scholars began researching historic woman writers.

It is no small matter to violate a cultural shibboleth of Shakespearean stature. Generations of professors, directors, publishers that have made their reputations as mainstream supporters of the man from Stratford have every incentive to resist the suggestion that the author of the plays and sonnets was a Jewish woman.

Hudson remains hopeful that Amelia Bassano will win the recognition long denied her. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, another Shakespeare skeptic, once said, “rough work, iconoclasm, but the only way to get at the truth.”           

Michael Posner writes for Toronto’s Globe and Mail and is author of five books. 

Illustration by Yuan Lee