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The Bard's Jewish Beard? Why I Don't Buy It

By Sarah Seltzer

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The Globe and Mail recently wrote up the latest in the endless “Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare’s plays” conspiracy theories. This time, though, instead of the usual protestations that the writer must have been a member of the nobility, there’s a new twist. It’s been written up in The Oxfordian, a journal dedicated to disproving Shakespeare’s authorship in a scholarly manner.

Writes Michael Posner of the Globe and Mail:

The nominee is a complete shocker: Amelia Bassano Lanier, a converso (clandestine Jew) and the illegitimate daughter of an Italian-born, Elizabethan court musician.

Her name is not new to Shakespeare studies. In 1979, British historian A.L. Rowse suggested that Bassano, with her family’s Mediterranean skin coloring, was the famous “dark lady of the sonnets,” Shakespeare’s mistress. Ridiculed at the time, that view has now gained ground among scholars. John Hudson, the man behind the theory goes further: He maintains that Bassano wrote the sonnets about herself; as with the plays, Shakespeare was simply a front used to hide her identity.

This is not a new theory for Forward readers. In fact, in 2008, our own Rebecca Honig Friedman interviewed Hudson about the evidence he’d mustered. Still, the provocativeness of this theory — combining the “behind every great man, a woman” and “behind every great Christian , a Jew” ideas — makes it pop up in the news repeatedly. One of Hudson’s arguments is the much remarked-upon use of Hebrew transliteration throughout Shakespeare’s plays. The Globe and Mail article provides a biography of Lanier (also spelled Aemilia or Emilia Lanyer), a poem herself, and a rundown of all the other contenders for the “true” Shakespeare.

Being an English-Lit geek, a huge fan of Shakespeare (who isn’t?) and a proud Jewish woman, I am delighted to know that many have identified a sultry Jewess as the Bard’s fabled dark lady, to whom so many perfect sonnets were addressed. And I’m tickled by the idea that the Bard’s writings, which invented of English as we know it and displayed unparalleled genius and insight, arose from a female member of the Tribe.

But I’m not convinced in the slightest. Shakespeare scholars on the whole remain skeptical of this theory. And I’m deeply skeptical of the classism and snobbery inherent in all these efforts to disprove Shakespeare’s authorship — the belief that someone from outside the noble classes couldn’t self-educate enough to write as marvelously as Shakespeare did. I disagree with that premise. Many — maybe most — great and enduring writers have not been from the aristocracy, but from the middle class or lower (Austen, Joyce, Dickens, and the Brontes to name a few), and Shakespeare’s appeal to the masses as well as the court suggests someone who has seen a variety of human existence, high and low.

I’d love to read more about Lanier’s life in the Elizabethan era, her own writing and about her involvement in the literary goings-on of the time. But I’m going to continue believing that the writer of the plays and sonnets was a Christian guy from Stratford who happened to have a humanistic, and therefore somewhat more sympathetic, take on women and Jews than others of his time.


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Comments
Jean Whitten Wed. Jan 27, 2010

the dark lady theory absolutely makes sense, there is a lot of convincing evidence for it. of course the "orthodox" scholars will refuse to listen to that evidence, just as "orthodox" Egyptologists reject re-chronicler David Rohl, and fossilized Darwinists reject the clear DNA evidence against evolution, nothing new here. The academic world is now 99% left-wing radicals who don't have any time for those who don't bow down to their "orthodoxies".

Jack Wed. Jan 27, 2010

Er... “clear DNA evidence against evolution”!?

Gene frequencies [DNA frequencies] change from generation to generation as result of the interaction of mutation, random statistical processes, recombination, and selection. Generational change in population gene frequencies _is_ evolution.

cohen Wed. Jan 27, 2010

FORWARD letter to the editor, Dec. 29, 2006:

Shakespeare did not select a biblical or Hebrew-sounding name for the highly identifiably Semitic character of Shylock. How odd.

If, however, you transliterate the word “Shylock” into Hebrew characters and subsequently read the results right to left, you approximately wind up with — depending on whether you employ the letter kaf or qaf for the “ck” sound and whether you use the vowel waw for the “o” sound — either “kol ish,” meaning “everyman,” or “qol ish,” meaning “voice of a man.”

As Pete Rose might say, figure the odds. Did Shakespeare, or perhaps one of his close acquaintances, know some Hebrew? If this speculation on my part is correct, then this linguistic oddity goes far to remove the taint of antisemitism from Shakespeare’s portrait of Shylock.

S.R. Cohen Baltimore, Md.

david melech Thu. Jan 28, 2010

Some people will go very far to "remove the taint of antisemitism from Shakespeare’s portrait of Shylock."

Sorry Shakespeare's portrayal of shylock was antisemitic. No use pretending otherwise. Each of us has to slay the goliath of antisemitism. Does no good to make excuses for it.

Motic Fri. Jan 29, 2010

To David Melech or King David. Shakespeare may appear anti-Smitic from our perspective looking back, but in the context of what came before him he was a vast move in the modern direction. As Venice was competing directly with he City of London there is quite a lot of anti-Venetian undercurrent and a bit of anti-Catholic feeling as well. Venetians and Catholics are just not so uptight about it.

Historian Fri. Jan 29, 2010

"Did Shakespeare, or perhaps one of his close acquaintances, know some Hebrew?"

Shakespeare's plays emerged during a time when a cadre of Christian scholars throughout Europe were studying Hebrew. Known today as Christian Hebraists, these men (mostly) wanted to study the Hebrew scriptures in the original language, and were also intrigued by Jewish mystical texts. This time also saw the emergence of Christian Kabbalah, so-called. Sir Isaac Newton, for example, was a Christian Hebraist.

That said, I think it highly unlikely that Shakespeare himself knew Hebrew, as he was an actor and writer, not a scholar of the noble or new merchant classes, nor a cleric. It also seems unlikely that he would have gone to such trouble to find an English name that obscured a Hebrew one. That's a bit too "Da Vinci Code" for me.

It is also very unlikely that Shakespeare knew any Jews, unless Hudson's theory is correct, or unless Shakespeare happened to know any members of London's extremely tiny community of Sephardic conversos. (Officially, there was no Jewish community in England at the time -- Jews were officially banned from England from about 1300 until the mid-1700s.)

Jews were used as symbols, types, or icons by English people in the Early Modern/Late Renaissance era, and this was probably how Shakespeare used them in his works. Again, unless Hudson is right.

James Shapiro's book "Shakespeare and the Jews" is about the best on this complex subject. (Disclaimer: I'm not a bookseller or acquainted with Prof. Shapiro in any way.)




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