Arts & Culture

Shakespeare’s Plays Were Written By A Jewish Woman

For hundreds of years, people have questioned whether William Shakespeare wrote the plays that bear his name. The mystery is fueled by the fact that his biography simply doesn't match the areas of knowledge and skill demonstrated in the plays. … Read More

By / March 13, 2008

For hundreds of years, people have questioned whether William Shakespeare wrote the plays that bear his name. The mystery is fueled by the fact that his biography simply doesn't match the areas of knowledge and skill demonstrated in the plays. Nearly a hundred candidates have been suggested, but none of them fit much better. Now a new candidate named Amelia Bassano Lanier—the so-called 'Dark Lady' of the Sonnets and a member of an Italian/Jewish family—has been shown to be a perfect fit. Here are eight reasons that are sure to convince you:

1. The Most Musical Plays in the World The plays contain nearly 2000 musical references, use 300 different musical terms, and refer to a 5th century manuscript on recorder playing. None of Mr. Shakespeare's friends or associates were professional musicians, so how could he have developed this practical musical knowledge? On the other hand, Amelia's family were the Court recorder troupe and around 15 of her closest relatives were professional musicians. In fact, one of them was the leading composer for the Shakespearean plays. 2. Spoken Hebrew Although in late sixteenth century England about 30 scholars were studying written Hebrew, none of them actually spoke Hebrew. Spoken Hebrew was used only among European Jews, as a commercial language, to keep their information secure. How, then, was Mr. Shakespeare able to make the Hebrew puns or include examples of Hebrew transliteration identified by Israeli scholar Florence Amit? Or incorporate several quotations from The Talmud along with reference to Maimonides? Or integrate the examples of spoken Hebrew, seen, for instance, in All's Well That Ends Well?

Amelia's family was Jewish, living as Marranos with members of the Lupo family, who were imprisoned for their faith. 3. Feminism The plays depict strong female characters who play music and read Ovid, but Mr. Shakespeare kept his daughters illiterate. Amelia, however, was educated at Court and raised in the household of the early English feminist Catherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk, and her daughter Susan Bertie, the Dowager Countess of Kent. This explains why Taming of the Shrew references a book that was the standard manual for training girls at Court in etiquette, and why other plays refer to Margaret of Navarre's Heptameron, the most popular book among court ladies. Finally Amelia's own poetry draws on the feminist Christine of Pisan, whose work is used in three of the plays and nowhere else in English literature of the period.
4. Italian There would have been no way for Mr. Shakespeare to learn Italian in Stratford-upon-Avon, but the plays show that the author was fluent in Italian, made Italian puns, and read Dante, Tasso, Cinthio, Bandello, and others in the original language. The Bassano family came from Venice. As their surviving letters show, they spoke and wrote fluent Italian. 5. Major Poet None of the other potential candidates who have been put forward is a major poet. But Amelia Bassano certainly is. She was a major experimental poet and the first woman to publish a book of original poetry in England. That poetry includes a 160 line poem that resembles a masque (a dramatic entertainment similar to opera, popular in England in the 16th and 17th centuries, in which masked performers represented mythological or allegorical characters) about the descent of the chariot of Juno. Bassano's masque-like poem resembles the masque about the descent of Juno's chariot in The Tempest. Her final poem includes unusual clusters of words that are also found in Midsummer Night's Dream. 6. Her Names in the Plays One of the most popular names in the plays is Emilia (in various spellings). Why should Mr. Shakespeare have liked this name so much? In Titus Andronicus there are characters oddly called Emillius and Bassianus. Why are they there? But most importantly between 1622-1623, when Mr. Shakespeare was long dead, someone made changes to the Quarto of Othello to associate the standard image of the great poet—the swan who dies to music—with Emilia, and to give her the "willow" song to repeat. Moreover, the swan appears in King John associated with John's son, and in Merchant of Venice associated with Bassanio. The author of the plays thereby associates the great poet with her baptismal, mother's, adopted, and family names:

  • AMELIA
  • JOHNSON
  • WILLOUGH(BY)
  • BASSANO

This is over 99.999999% certain to be no coincidence, and only one person would have had a reason for leaving behind this complex literary signature! 7. Link to the Theater Mr. Shakespeare was an actor, but actors had no training in rhetoric and only got cue scripts, not complete plays. They had no training in play analysis. Amelia however, not only came from a family of musicians who moonlighted as musicians for the two theaters opposite her home. For ten years she was also mistress to Lord Hunsdon—the man in charge of the English theater. He was patron to the company that performed the Shakespearean plays, and England's only work on play analysis was going on in his offices.
8. The Jewish Allegories in the Plays Finally, many plays contain allegories about the Roman-Jewish War. In Midsummer Night's Dream, Oberon represents Yahweh, who is fighting a war against Titania, who represents Titus Caesar. According to research by Professor Parker at Stanford, Peter Quince is St. Peter, who presides over the collapse of Christianity, in the parody of the deaths of Pyramus and Thisbe. When the Wall comes down it is Apocalypse, and the start of a new Jewish year marked, as in The Zohar, by the distribution of dew. In As You Like It, the forest is surrounded by a circle, everyone is starving, people are hung from trees, and deer are being slaughtered like men. All of this resembles the actual events of the Jewish War. We are told the Duke in charge is a “Roman conqueror” who is also identified with Satan—and his allegorical identity can thus be uncovered as Vespasian Caesar. As a believing Catholic, why would Mr. Shakespeare have created these complex Jewish allegories? Amelia however, wrote a collection of poetry that includes the long satirical feminist critique of Christianity known as Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611), meaning "Hail God, King of the Jews." As a Jew she might well have wanted to create an allegory that took comic literary revenge upon the men who destroyed Jerusalem.

To learn more, the Dark Lady Players invite you to attend our free workshop productions of As You Like It, on Sunday March 16 & 23, at ManhattanTheaterSource, 177 MacDougal Street, NYC. A full production is expected in summer 2008. If you are unable to attend please take a look at the Dark Lady Players website and join our mailing list by writing to us so we can keep you informed of future productions.