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Was Shakespeare’s Dark Lady Actually Jewish? Was She Actually Shakespeare?

Would the words of William Shakespeare sound different if authored by a playwright with another name? Specifically, what if a dark-complexioned woman of Italian-Moroccan Jewish heritage composed his plays? What if such familiar works as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It were in fact dreamed up by Amelia Bassano Lanye—a little known Elizabethan poet born into a Marrano family of court musicians with strong connections to the same theatrical community to which the Bard of Avon belonged?

Ask John Hudson, a British-born polymath scholar and founder of the Dark Lady Players, a New York-based theatrical group that champions Bassano Lanyer’s authorship of the Shakespeare canon, and prepare to entertain a radical re-reading of the complete works of the poet most of us call Shakespeare.

In the 1970s, the noted Shakespeare scholar and biographer A. L. Rowse asserted that Bassano Lanyer was the “Dark Lady” to whom Shakespeare addressed his famous sonnet cycle, though other Shakespeare scholars have generally disregarded that claim.

But Hudson is the first to propose Bassano Lanyer as the author of Shakespeare’s canon. He cites biographical facts upon which most scholars agree: Bassano Lanyer (January 1569 – April 1645) was a poet in her own right, one of the first women writing in English to publish a substantial volume of her own work, Salve Deus Rex Judæorum (“Hail, God, King of the Jews”), which appeared in 1611. Evidence suggests that her father, Baptist Bassano, was a court musician from Venice whose family had originated in Morocco and had at some point converted from Judaism. Her mother, Margaret Jonson, a British-born Christian, belonged to a family of musicians who performed regularly at court and for the London theater. Especially for a middle-class woman of the era, Bassano Lanyer was highly educated—courtesy of having spent her early years at the home of Susan Bertie, Countess of Kent. She also gained first-hand access to court life when, at age 18, she became the mistress of Lord Hundson, a man 45 years her senior—and who, as Queen Elizabeth’s Lord Chamberlain, supervised London’s theaters. Her life changed yet again, when she became pregnant, in 1592, and was hastily married off to yet another court musician, Alphonso Lanyer.

Getting from this brief life outline to authorship of Shakespeare’s works sounds like a giant leap, indeed. Hudson predicates his theory on close textual analysis that reveals uncanny parallels between the content and wording of the plays and the knowledge and background of Bassano Lanyer. Hudson ticks them off, one by one: the wealth of musical references throughout the plays (300% more, he says, than found in any other contemporary playwright); the detailed knowledge of Italy and use of Italian sources for many of the plays; the use of Hebrew phrases in at least two plays; the frequency with which characters named Emilia, Bassano and variants thereof appear; and all that cross-dressing and those strong female characters….All—and much more, including similarities between Bassano Lanyer’s published poems and those of Shakespeare—specifically point to Bassano Lanyer as the true author of Shakespeare’s works, Hudson believes.

But why would she keep her authorship a secret? According to Hudson, she did so to hide the blasphemous allegorical meanings she embedded within the plays—and to shield herself and her family from severe punishment meted out to religious dissidents. How blasphemous are those allegories? In his view, Bassano Lanyer intended A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a multi-tiered allegory about the destruction of Jerusalem and a cutting religious satire of the Gospels. As You Like It, he believes, can be de-coded as a revenge drama directed against the Roman emperors who waged war against the Jews. A deeper allegorical reading of The Merchant of Venice turns its anti-Semitic message inside out, he suggests. Hudson’s theater company, the Dark Lady Players, has so far produced versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It that underscore these points.

As intriguing as Hudson’s hypothesis is, he has a long road ahead convincing others. According to Kari Boyd McBride, a professor of women’s studies and English literature at the University of Arizona, Hudson’s theory, like other alternative authorship theories, “doesn’t merit consideration…there’s no reason to think that [Lanyer] even knew Shakespeare.”

Nonetheless, the poems Amelia Bassano Lanyer signed with her own name deserve reading in their own right.