The Excellent Gentlewoman

In  my contribution to the New School Public Seminar I suggested that the Excellent Gentlewoman who Harvey identifies in 1593 as being a female playwright could have been Amelia Bassano Lanier.

I ended that short article by suggesting that the play she was writing might be a Shakespearean play. As a step towards the follow-on article, this Working Note  sets out some of  the evidence for that proposition;

1.The common use of very rare words used both by the Gentlewoman and Shakespeare,
‘termagant’, ‘bombard’, and  ‘gallimaufry’,  which have very few uses at the time. The word ‘bombard’ is especially interesting since one of its meanings referred to a kind of shawm, a musical instrument made by the Bassanos.
2. The Gentlewoman was  reading 2 plays by Plautus  in the process of writing her “old comedy” or ‘doubty comedy”. We know this because she refers to the “glorious and braving knight” referring to the play Miles Gloriosus (the Glorious Knight) by Plautus, and that he is “Truculental”  referring to another play Truculentus also by Plautus.  This was the time when Shakespeare was also reading Plautus as sources for  Comedy of Errors (using the Menaechni)  and Taming of A Shrew (using the Mostellaria), and perhaps 1 Henry IV . John W Draper in ‘Falstaff and the Plautine Parasite (1938) first suggested that the knight Sir John Falstaff also was a type of Miles Gloriosus.
So  both these playwrights were writing plays based on Plautus in the same time frame. This is a remarkable co-incidence.
3. The Gentlewoman’s play is a satire of Nashe (as a ‘bombard-goblin’,’bug’ and ‘elf’) in relation to a truculent knight who is more like the large cannon, which is  what a bombard meant, a ‘Sir Bombarduccio”.
This matches the satire in LLL, pointed out by many scholars,  of Moth (Nashe) as a tiny page to  the Knight Armado (Harvey). There is reasonable scholarly agreement that the Miles Gloriosus, the glorious knight, shaped the character of Armado, together with the model of the Capitano, and influences from other real people as well as Harvey. (See ‘Armado; the Braggart’ in William C. Carroll ,The Great Feast of Language in Love’s Labour’s Lost.
Nashe apparently was a very small man. Lyly calls him a “little wagg”. Moth’s master is the bombastic knight and pedant Armado who, to some extent, represents Gabriel Harvey with his Latin looks and rumpled skin, the color of burnt parchment. Though Harvey was lean and starved looking , his writings were so huge that Nashe compared them to the giants Gogmagog and Gargantua.
4. The Gentlewoman writes;
“I knew a glorious and braving knight
That would be deemed a truculental wight
Love’s Labor’s Lost uses exactly the  same rhyme of knight/wight  for Don Armado
“Armado is a most illustrious wight,
A man of fire-new words, fashion’s own knight”
So  there is an accumulation of  evidence that  the Gentlewoman could have been  writing  at least part of the early version of LLL. Scholars have thought there was a 1589 version and a 1591 version, and then other revisions up to the point it was acted at court in Christmas 1597.(See M.B. Saenger ‘Nashe, Moth and the Date of Love’s Labour’s Lost’, 1998).
New York
November 30, 2018
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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.

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Workshop at HB Studios on Advanced/Experimental Shakespeare

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Talk at the Scholar’s Panel on the Caesar’s Messiah Documentary, September 2012

Shakespeare’s Plays as a Response to the NT Gospels

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Review of Shakespeare’s Gospel Parodies

Review by Ed Malin of Shakespeare’s Gospel Parodies (September 13, 2011)
Step into a venerable Upper West Side church where Joe Papp once installed the Riverside Shakespeare Company. You will be ushered from room to room by docents who fill you in on the surprisingly consistent vein of Gospel parody that runs through Shakespeare’s plays. As they say, in the whole of Shakespeare’s dramas there are 14 resurrections, 12 apocalypses, 5 Virgin Mary allegories, 3000 additional religious references, and quotes from 14 different translations of the Bible including Apocrypha. What can it mean? Why are these actors putting on such an irreverent pageant of Satanic astrological references with Protestant overtones? It is a fun and funny take on what you may think of as “establishment” theater of the Elizabethan era.
John Hudson and The Dark Lady Players present nine scenes from Shakespeare, divided into three thematic groups and casts. When you see two back-to-back Annunciation scenes (from Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet) you may be persuaded that something is going on underneath the surface of these plays. For example, Ophelia (in Greek, “Lady of Succor”) is in danger of “conceiving” in broad daylight (a medieval belief cited by Alanus de Insulis) but the source of the light is Hamlet, “son of Hyperion” (which makes him Helios, or “Lucifer”); thus we see that the whole Hamlet and Ophelia romance is leading towards the birth of the Antichrist. This takes a bit of explaining, but the chosen episodes make a clear case for it. In Othello, Desdemona (Mary/Jesus) is condemned because of a handkerchief that covers her face like a shroud, she comes back to life after being killed, and then other characters announce an earthquake. Not only is this similar to the Gospel account, but Shakespeare the notorious plagiarist has modified his source material (the Hecatommithi) so that Desdemona is killed with a symbolic handkerchief instead of bludgeoned with a sandbag. If you believe that Shakespeare has something for everyone—from swordfights for the working class patrons to allegories for the educated viewers—then start looking for hidden heretical themes.
Another thought-provoking scene is the trial of Shylock (whose name, “Shiloh,” means the Messiah as per Genesis 49:10). We are shown that there are three trials going on, just like the three trials of Jesus. And just as non-legal processes are evident in the Gospel (a mob decides which prisoner will be set free), Shylock’s punishment has no basis in Venetian law. This follows the exorcism scene from Twelfth Night. Which scene is that, you ask? The one where Malvolio is blindfolded, referred to as “Legion,” and a priest tries to cure his madness, ending in satirical failure. Other highlights parody the Last Supper with a cannibal feast from As You Like It, and show three “magi” in Titus Andronicus greeting a black baby and killing a pig. The assertion here is that Titus and Domitian’s invasion of Judea is the real story in Titus Andronicus, as per extensive quotes from Josephus and medieval historians. If Titus was an oppressive theocratic ruler, Elizabeth must have been one, too.
This is just a summary. Do go see the show, watch the group’s explanatory videos, and feel free to discuss at length.
As an evening of theater, it is gorgeous. The Woodshed Collective, who are running their own show The Tenant in repertory, has brought all sorts of ancient-looking furnishings into the currently vacant and under-renovation West-Park Church. Jenny Greeman directs a committed troupe of mostly women, who are quite willing to strike Gothic poses, pretend to be pregnant, wear Jewish religious garments, and anything else they need to do to breathe fresh air into Shakespeare. Elizabeth Weitzen’s costumes (including a shirt which shows all the cuts of meat on the character of Adam, who is about to be devoured) don’t let your mind wander from the action. Since the piece comes off as “scholarly,” it relies on the docents Meaghan Cross, David Reck, Shykia Fields, and Carolina Mesinara, who provide a heck of a lot of information and levity as well as let the audience stretch its legs between scenes.
Opened: September 11, 2011
Closed: September 25, 2011
• Cast: Alexandra Cohen Spiegler, Mimi Hirt, Megan Frances Abell, Kris Aigner, Meaghan Cross, Petra Denison, Shykia Fields, Alicia Giangrisotomi, Monica Miller, David Reck, Petra Sanader, Isaac Scranton, Elizabeth Weitzen, Matthew J. Willings
• Author: William Shakespeare
• Adapted By: John Hudson and Jenny Greeman
• Director: Jenny Greeman
• Costumes: Elizabeth Weitzen
Producer: The Dark Lady Players

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Reply to Shakespeare Bites Back, October 28, 2011

Reply to Shakespeare Bites Back

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Revised Bios for Cast and Crew of Shakespeare’s Gospel Parodies

Actos bios for web

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Cast for Shakespeare’s Gospel Parodies

Actos bios for web

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Dark Lady Players Study Group Fall 2011

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