On April 26, 2014 the world will be celebrating the 450th birthday of England’s greatest celebrity ‘William Shakespeare’. Indeed in some ways that celebration began at the start of the year with a glut of Shakespeare productions both in New York and in London. The story that this birthday celebrates is a story of truly inexplicable genius.
Gulilemus Shaksper is supposed to have arrived in London at the age of 25 in 1589, as a believing Catholic possibly with a grammar school education. There is no evidence as to what he had been doing for the past decade. However, it must have been pretty remarkable in terms both of skills and networking among the highest levels of the aristocracy. It equipped him to almost immediately achieve the following things; a love affair with England’s richest nobleman, the Earl of Southampton; trusted access to Lord Hunsdon’s library for several weeks to write The Reign of Edward III; demonstrably excellent Italian; a knowledge of Judaism and of Hebrew, including the Talmud, the Zohar and Maimonides; knowledge of French, Scots and Danish diplomacy; a detailed knowledge of and interest in the order of the Garter; a set of feminist values that was very unusual for anyone at the time; a detailed knowledge of the geography of various Italian cities; much greater knowledge of falconry than any other playwright, and from the falconer’s viewpoint; a knowledge of rare plants; an expertise in the courtly skill of creating neologisms; a greater knowledge of music than any other playwright; a knowledge of generalship; a highly developed sexual vocabulary; knowledge of astronomy particularly Danish astronomy; knowledge of the law including obscure sources written in Norman French; knowledge of cooking; knowledge of literature written for girls including the manual used for teaching etiquette to girls at court; knowledge of playwriting; knowledge of Court dramaturgy; an obsession with the Roman-Jewish war; knowledge of 14 different translations of the Bible; and knowledge of navigation. All these areas of knowledge would have been accessible to a courtier in London with the right connections to the Jewish Italian community, the nobility, early feminists, and court musicians. To develop this combination of interests outside London would have been almost impossible. Traditionally the explanation is that he was divinely inspired.
For the next five years it is assumed he was an actor, although he does not appear in the lists of any acting company. Actually the only evidence is Greene’s famous ‘upstart crow’ reference, which seems more likely to have been referring to Edward Alleyn. Oddly for an actor, his first published creative works would not be plays but the two long pornographic poems Venus & Adonis and the Rape of Lucrece. We are also asked to believe that he published this poetry using an artistic pseudonym, a slight variant on his name ‘William Shakespeare’ . This was perfectly suitable for a pornographic poem since it meant ‘Penis Masturbator’ (or worse) in Elizabethan English. Yet he continued to use the name ‘William Shakspere’ for his other business affairs, including doing the dirty business of Francis Langley, a theatrical gangster on Bankside, for which he appears in a legal case in 1596 accused of making death threats.
While ‘William Shakespeare’ appears in 1595 as one of the members of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, this is in a document that passed through the hands of notorious forger John Collier. It is part of a set of Pipe Roll accounts for which the counter balancing book entry is missing, refers erroneously to a theatrical performance, and is in a different hand from the other entries. This might all be explicable, but the authenticity of the record is open to some doubt. Meanwhile the plays were published anonymously and it would be another four years before the name ‘William Shakespeare’ was attached to Love’s Labors Lost(1598) the first play to bear his name. Most contemporaries looked no further and assumed that because his name was attached to the plays and the poems that he was therefore their author. However using a pseudonym was very, very common among Elizabethan writers. Quite a large number of contemporaries left documents questioning whether Shakespeare the actor was the author of the plays he claimed as his own. These include Ben Jonson’s Every Man Out of His Humour, the writers of the Parnassus plays and the playGuy, Earl of Warwick, and several poets such as Everard Guilpin and Joseph Hall.
To add to the questioning of contemporaries, today we can raise additional questions about why a believing recusant Catholic (such as William Shakespeare is supposed to have been) would write these particular plays in this particular way. For example, a production of Othello at the New Perspectives theatre in New York (which opened in mid April 2014), assembled various academic scholarship to show that the play begins with a Christian parody of the wise men following the star to the inn, followed by a parody of the Annunciation, a parody of the temptation scene, and multiple parodies of the Passion story. All of this is based on established, if obscure, academic scholarship. It is difficult to imagine why a recusant Catholic would not only have good knowledge of Judaism and the Talmud, but would also be writing parodies of the Gospels. It is even harder to explain why he would have named the play Othello after an anti-Semitic Jesuit in the town of Bassano, why the play refers several times to a fresco in this small Italian town, and why it also refers to the Bassanos, who were a family of Venetian Jews who formed the royal recorder troupe. Why does the play create a new character named Emilia who was not named in Cinthio’s source text, and why does she shape so much of the action in the play?
The answer I suggest, in my new book Shakespeare’s Dark Lady (Amberley Publishing, March 2014) is that there was a hitherto unsuspected co-author of these plays. Her name was Amelia Bassano Lanier, and she is known as the ’dark lady’ mentioned in the sonnets, and for being the first woman in England to publish a book of original poetry. Rather than supposing that Mr Shakespeare had certain background, which cannot be proved, why not consider the case for Amelia’s authorship? She can be proved to have all the right contacts for all of the specialist knowledge in the plays. She was actually living in Lord Hunsdon’s palace when Reign of Edward III was being written. She might have had very good reasons for mentioning her family and her hometown of Bassano in Othello. As a Marrano Jew she might also have had a reason for writing the play as a series of parodies of Christian theology, since her collection of poetry Salve Deus(1611) is a long epic poem parodying the crucifixion, and has odd resemblances to the Shakespearean Romances.
It is time to take advantage of Mr Shakespeare’s 450th birthday celebration to ask hard questions about these plays and what they mean and who could have written them. The answers may turn out to be very, very, surprising.