Anyone but Shakespeare
I’ve been enjoying Shakespeare since elementary school, starting with Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare and then by gradual immersion in the plays via television, classroom readings, and ultimately stage performances in New York, some of them as school field trips, all of them vivid and exciting. I can still recall the shock of a nude scene in Troilus and Cressida, and then later on when I studied Shakespeare in a college theater class, the thrill of Michael Moriarity's insidiously evil Richard III, and the roller coaster ride of young Sam Waterston's blistering Hamlet. That was the first time I’d seen Hamlet played so full of rage, and years later when I’d watch Waterston on “Law & Order,” the poster from that play would often be like a pentimento for me.
Living in Michigan, I became a member of Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival and some years—when the dollar was high—have made three or four visits a season. I’ve now seen all of Shakespeare’s plays at least once in performance, including the most obscure ones, and I’ve seen quite a few half a dozen times. Oddly enough, the Troilus I saw most recently also had a nude scene, and this daring production ended with Nine Inch Nails' “Closer.”
Pretty dramatic stuff, but the theory is fallacious, and the story is deeply flawed.
Let’s start with this specious argument by celebrity. The print version of the Posner article actually opens with a “revelation” missing from the online version: Writers and thinkers like Freud, William James, Henry James, Dickens, Twain and Emerson all believed that Shakespeare couldn’t have been the author of the canon.
It’s a mistake to invoke Dickens as someone who doubted the authorship of the plays. One of his letters from 1847 is often quoted as if to prove he feared revelations about Shakespeare’s true identity, but the full passage has a very different thrust. Dickens wrote that “it is a Great Comfort, to my thinking, that so little is known concerning the poet. It is a fine mystery; and I tremble every day lest something should come out. If he had had a Boswell, society wouldn't have respected his grave, but would calmly have had his skull in the phrenological shop-windows.” Unless you believe that Dickens also thought that Samuel Johnson was a beard for some other writer, Dickens is clearly expressing relief that we don't know more about the playwright, not saying that he has doubts that Shakespeare wrote the plays.
As for the other authors on the list, so what if they didn’t think Shakespeare wrote the plays bearing his name? Emerson believed in telepathy and William James thought you could contact the dead through a séance, but even if they didn’t, why does their opinion of Shakespeare matter?
Freud didn’t even believe that Shakespeare was English; he claimed the name was a corruption of “Jacques Pierre” and so the man Shakespeare was French. Mark Twain’s fancies were wilder: According to award-winning Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro, Twain not only “thought that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare, but that Milton, not Bunyan, wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress. He also thought Queen Elizabeth was a man.”
Did any of the writers in this roster write plays? Twain’s play was never published or produced until recently. Henry James did try writing plays in a misguided attempt to make money, but they were turgid failures, so why should we value the two novelists’ opinion about Shakespeare’s plays?
James’s contemporary George Bernard Shaw was his infinite superior as a playwright, and he had no doubt Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him. Shaw saw Shakespeare’s genius this way: “[he] was extremely susceptible to word-music and to graces of speech; he picked up all sorts of odds and ends from books and from the street talk of his day and welded them into his work.” Shaw was no Bardolator, however, and “harbored an animus against Shakespeare for elbowing out other important playwrights: ‘It was hard for a serious playwright to get a word in edgewise.’ ”
INVOKING BEN JONSON
But really, none of that proves anything. And neither does the Reform Judaism cover story, except that there’s clearly something about Shakespeare’s genius that drives people over the edge into conspiratorial thinking, or you wouldn’t be reading a passage like this near the very beginning of the article, one that a more scrupulous editor would have flagged:
[N]o evidence demonstrates that [Shakespeare] actually wrote the plays. The playwright Ben Jonson wrote in his diary that although Shakespeare passed manuscripts of plays to the actors, who in their ‘ignorance’ admired Shakespeare for providing clean, unblotted copies, he was to be ‘most faulted’ for telling them that the copies were his original drafts.
No evidence? Well, evidence is right there in the material being described. Jonson is acerbically criticizing his colleague for being a braggart, for passing off finished drafts as rough drafts. To assume otherwise means that Jonson, even in his private diary, was complicit in a giant conspiracy to hide the authorship of the plays. Or it means that somehow Jonson didn’t know that his friend and rival was just a shill for somebody else, which seems equally ridiculous, given that Jonson wrote these words about Shakespeare:
I loved the man, and do honor his memory on this side idolatry as much as any. He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions.
That doesn’t sound like the praise of someone who wouldn’t have seen through a charade of pretended authorship, or sound like the description of a fraud. The Reform Judaism article neglects to tell us Ben Jonson actually thought that Shakespeare’s work needed more editing: he told actors Shakespeare should have blotted a thousand words, “which they thought a malevolent speech.” That’s pretty specific criticism by one writer of another (as well as recognition that Jonson was perceived as jealous).
Parenthetically, it’s worth noting that Heminge and Condell, the actors who knew Shakespeare and edited the 1623 first Folio edition of his plays, put a more positive spin on his manuscripts: “His mind and hand went together: And what he thought, he uttered with that easiness, that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers.”
Knowing something about Ben Jonson helps you appreciate how ridiculous it is to quote him as evidence that Shakespeare didn’t write the Shakespeare plays. Jonson famously called Shakespeare “Soule of the Age!/The applause, delight, the wonder of our Stage!” Trevor Nunn, who was Artistic Director of The Royal Shakespeare Company for almost two decades, points out that Jonson was “Shakespeare's great rival and a real talent. Garrulous, argumentative, jealous, proud, and deeply committed to exposing hypocrisy and corruption . . ." Jonson would clearly have nosed out a fraud—think of the scandal for Shakespeare and the triumph for him in unmasking his great rival as a fake. Nunn also reminds us that Jonson called Shakespeare “immortal” and linked Shakespeare the playwright with the town of Stratford for all time by calling him “the Swan of Avon.” Nunn asks “Why on earth . . . would Jonson, who owes nothing to anyone, and who had competed with Shakespeare throughout his professional life, take part in a cover-up?”
WHERE ARE THE MANUSCRIPTS?
As for the absence of actual manuscripts in Shakespeare’s hand, finding anything suspicious in that is completely anachronistic. University of Chicago’s David Bevington, a Professor of English, notes that “the lack of manuscripts, of handwriting samples . . . are all what one would expect of a playwright of the period, even the most famous. We don’t read and preserve movie scripts today, and often do not even know who wrote a movie we particularly like. Play scripts were like that in the Renaissance. They existed to enable an acting company to put on a play. The wonder is that so many of Shakespeare’s plays were published at all. We have no manuscripts of plays by Marlowe or Jonson or Webster, even though some of their plays rival Shakespeare's in their literary and dramatic qualities." And as James Shapiro demonstrates in detail in his new book Contested Will (reviewed here next month), there was a great deal of contemporary commentary about Shakespeare. People who claim there wasn’t are ignoring inconvenient evidence that contradicts their conspiracy theory.
THE LATEST CANDIDATE
So who is the woman joining the roster of the dozens of presumed possible authors of Shakespeare’s works, according to the Shakespeare deniers? She is Amelia Bassano Lanier (1569-1645), a crypto-Jew, we’re told, about whose biography we supposedly have more facts than we do about Shakespeare. And some of these facts are suggestive—to the overly suggestible.
The article offers us a furious bluster of seemingly significant details that reminded me of the hugger-mugger of The Da Vinci Code. What makes Bassano the candidate for authorship? Well, she was the mistress of Queen Elizabeth's master falconer and there are many references to falconry in the plays. The plays have a multitude of musical references and her family had fifteen members who were musicians. She was—supposedly—Jewish and The Merchant of Venice is according to this article a sympathetic play urging equality for Jews that shows deep knowledge of Jews, so who else could have written it? She might have gone to Italy, and the plays are filled with Italian settings and characters. She was educated in Greek, Latin, and the Bible and the plays have Classical and Biblical allusions.
Nobody, Hudson notes, has explained why Shakespeare started writing Italian marriage comedies in 1592, just as he was thought to have arrived in London, but it’s a perfect fit for Bassano’s biography. She had left the court to be re-absorbed by her Italian family. Moreover, the following year, three of her Bassano cousins took a nine-month leave from their jobs at court. Hudson suggests that she may have then deposited her young son with his nurse, temporarily left what is known to have been her unhappy marriage to spendthrift husband Alfonso, and joined her cousins in visiting Italy . . . On this trip, she might have gained the striking familiarity with Italy that the plays display. Almost half of the non-historical canon is set in Italy, and contains detailed descriptions and references that only someone familiar with the country could have written.
Sorry, but this is not evidence, it’s speculation; there’s no proof offered that she ever went to Italy: “may have,” “might have.” One could just as easily claim that because her family was of Italian origin, she gathered what she knew from conversations with people who had been there and from books in the family’s possession or borrowed from friends. But of course that would mean that Shakespeare could have done the very same thing; that is, unless he didn’t have to, since he was Italian himself. Yes, there’s an academic out there who believes Shakespeare was born in Italy. It’s also been posited that Marlowe faked his own death in 1593 and secretly wrote Shakespeare’s plays afterward. Perhaps there are even some who think Shakespeare was kidnapped by aliens and injected with a play-writing virus. Why not? When it comes to Shakespeare Denial, nothing seems off-limits.
LOOK! UP IN THE AIR!
Posner’s article claims the “fifty” references to falconry, one of the period’s most popular upper-crust sports, had to have come from someone like Amelia Bassano because only the nobility engaged in this sport, and she was mistress of the Queen’s master falconer. “None of [Shakespeare’s] writing contemporaries—Kyd, Marlowe, Greene—made so many references to hawking in their works.” But they did refer to it, so are we to assume that Bassano or someone else wrote their plays as well? How did they come about their knowledge? Ben Jonson’s play Every Man in his Humour actually opens with a scene in which a gentleman purchaser of a falcon is looking for a book to help him learn the sport. Clearly, some people in this period consulted falconry texts.
In his article “Shakespeare and his Falconry,” Oxford University’s Maurice Pope makes several important observations. One is that in the plays, falconry “transcends class barriers. Quite lowly characters possess them and talk about them”—so much for the sport being only accessible to nobles (or their mistresses). Edmund Spenser, who like Shakespeare was also not nobly born, made extensive references to falcons in his work, and Pope judges that Spenser gave falcons “the same degree of prominence” that Shakespeare did.
More importantly, Pope believes the opinion that Shakespeare spoke about falconry from experience is generally “presented as a matter of feeling, not demonstration. It is therefore sterile.” The same would apply to any candidate, and while Pope does conclude that Shakespeare did know about falconry on a personal basis, he is very careful to say that his reasoning “does not amount to proof.” It certainly isn’t proof that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays.
The most ridiculous aspect of the falconry argument offered by Hudson via Posner’s article is a supposed clincher: There’s a falconry reference in The Taming of a Shrew, and the article asks us—drumroll, please!—“Is it just a coincidence that an earlier version of the play, called Taming of a Shrew, was written in 1593, just a year after Amelia Bassano married Alfonso Lanier, whose name means falcon in French?” This is nonsense. In every French dictionary I have checked, the French word for falcon is faucon; Lanier does not mean falcon in French (and neither does Alfonso).
There’s really no excuse for getting something so basic wrong, and if the article’s editor were on the ball, he or she would have caught that glaring mistake and used it as an opportunity to ask some probing questions. But it’s apparently more entertaining to “discover” and trumpet a secret and far-fetched code in the plays than to stick to facts.
THE JEWISH QUESTION
As for the claim that Shakespeare had to be Jewish or know Jews, skeptical readers may doubt Hudson’s contention that The Merchant of Venice is philo-Semitic, since Shylock’s greed and cupidity outweigh his “if you prick us, do we not bleed?” speech. Even when I’ve seen attempts to present Shylock sympathetically, the play itself militates against that interpretation; remember, this is the man who is far more enraged to lose his ducats than his daughter. But however we read Shylock’s portrait—and there is scholarly debate on the issue—the author wouldn’t have to be a Jew or even have associated with any Jews to create Shylock.
Jews featured in English plays despite their having been banned from England since 1290, and a decade before The Merchant of Venice, Marlowe had written The Jew of Malta. As Harold Bloom discusses in Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human, the younger playwright was intent on pricking the bubble of Marlowe's “ranting.” Marlowe’s style was highly bombastic, Shakespeare made his characters speak less wildly, so while Shylock may be despicable, he’s arguably more human than Marlowe’s Jewish money lender, which might lead some people to assume he’s based on personal knowledge of Jews.
Both Shylock and the Jew of Malta, however, are in line with English dramatic depictions of Jews as demonically cruel, and Shakespeare’s audience would doubtless have recalled a spectacular recent event: Convicted of trying to poison her, Queen Elizabeth’s Jewish physician was hung, drawn and quartered just a few years before the play was written. It’s the kind of horror that would linger in the popular mind.
The article seems to enlist Shakespeare scholar Michael Egan in support of the Bassano/Jewish theory, when Egan is quoted as saying that Shakespeare’s understanding of Jewish persecution meant he must have spent time with Jews. However, in Michael Posner’s article “Was Shakespeare a Woman?” appearing in The Toronto Globe and Mail, Egan does not agree with Hudson. Egan holds that while Bassano was “a remarkable woman with strong literary and court connections . . . it’s a big step from that to Shakespeare. Unfortunately, Hudson’s evidence, such as the detailed knowledge of Northern Italy, also supports other candidates. My view is that the Shakespeare mystery remains unsolved.”
Let’s take another one of Hudson’s contentions as relayed via Reform Judaism and turn it around: Shakespeare wasn’t himself a musician—as far as we know—and therefore he couldn’t possibly have put all those references to music in the plays. Well, what about all the references to acting, actors, and plays in works like Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Bassano might have attended plays, though the article doesn’t say she did, but there’s no evidence offered that she ever acted in, directed, personally knew any playwrights, or even read a play. The article tries to finesse the point with this set of connections:
13-year-old Amelia Bassano caught the eye of Henry Carey, also known as Lord Hunsdon, the son of Mary Boleyn and a cousin of Queen Elizabeth. Although he was some 45 years older than Bassano, he took her as his mistress. Among Hunsdon’s many titles was Lord Chamberlain, which meant that he presided over entertainment for the court and, as such, was patron of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men—the very company that mounted the works that would be attributed to Shakespeare.
But Lord Carey didn’t become patron of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men until after his affair with Bassano was over, the relationship ending in 1592 to avoid scandal for the married Lord Chamberlain.
And when we look further at what Shakespeare knew and didn’t know, a site devoted to proving that Shakespeare couldn’t have written the plays asks a number of questions, including these: “How did the man from Stratford gain the knowledge the plays reveal of the law and medicine? Never having been at sea, how did he gain the knowledge the plays reveal of navigation?” You could ask the same questions about Amelia Bassano, or perhaps we should call her “the woman from London,” to echo the way that Shakespeare Deniers try to undercut his authorship by calling him the man from Stratford. They also spell his name in variants like Shag-sper. While that reflects the ways in which spelling was not standardized in the playwright’s day, it seems as childish as the Republicans calling their rivals “The Democrat Party” in an attempt to delegitimize it.
CURIOSER AND CURIOSER
The Reform Judaism article also makes no mention whatsoever of Hudson’s significantly cut and edited version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, performed in New York in 2007 as a satiric allegory of Jewish-Christian conflict in the year 70, which is what Hudson believes Bassano intended. In this version, to summarize from one review, “Bottom = Pyramus = Jesus; Flute = Thisbe = the Church; Titania = Titus Caesar, destroyer of Jerusalem; Oberon = Yahweh (Jehovah), the Hebrew God; Puck = Robin = the Devil; The Wall = the partition between Earth and Heaven; the Little Indian Boy (whom Titania and Oberon fight over) = the Jewish Messiah; the little boy’s Votress mother = the Virgin Mary . . .”
It gets better (or worse); according to Hudson, instead of ending with multiple wedding nights and the magical progress of the fairies through the Duke's palace, the play’s real ending “is a Jewish apocalypse characterized by the distribution of dew — as in the Zohar.” We're in Monty Python territory here.
If readers had been presented with the full picture of this interpretation, they might approach Hudson’s theories with less credulity. It also would have helped to know more about Hudson’s background than Reform Judaism bothers to offer. He’s not just, or even primarily, a graduate of the Shakespeare Institute. According to an interview in The Village Voice, Hudson is “a cognitive scientist specializing in complex literary and organizational analysis.” What does that mean? In Hudson’s words, “I come from a background of doing very long-term strategic thinking about extremely complicated things.” Among these, he reported to the Voice, were “global warming, sociolinguistics, telecommunications, and the Gospel of Matthew.” Elsewhere, Hudson has explained, “Most of my work involved helping media companies rethink their industries . . . Now I’ve moved on to rethinking the Shakespearean industry.” Is this scholarship or a business maneuver?
CODES AND CREDULITY
Even more specious than claiming that Bassano wrote the plays is Posner's penultimate point in the article: “Despite the risks, Hudson believes that Bassano signaled her claim to authorship by encoding her name in several plays.” What was the risk if it took almost four hundred years for someone to “discover” the code? And why only encode her name in “several” plays? Why not all of them? Or all of the so-called Italian ones? Or all the ones with fools in them because she’d made a fool of everyone in London who believed Shakespeare wrote his plays?
Relying on the absence of more source material, as Hudson and the Shakespeare Deniers do, is a crass shell game, no matter how it’s dressed up. The fact is, as David Kathman, a historian of Elizabethan theater states, “No Elizabethan ever suggested that Shakespeare’s plays and poems were written by someone else, or that Shakespeare the player was not Shakespeare the author.”
Perhaps the editor didn’t know, but The Forward, a New York Jewish weekly, published something along similar lines two years ago, though much shorter and without such undeserved fanfare, in which Hudson made the ludicrous claim that while Amelia Bassano Lanier published the plays under Shakespeare’s name because that was the only thing she could do as a woman and a Jew, it wasn’t a gigantic literary hoax. Right. Nobody in Elizabethan or Jacobean England knew what was going on, except Amelia Bassano and Shakespeare. Nobody at court, nobody in Shakespeare’s acting company, none of his poet or playwright colleagues. Not a single living soul in all of London. Think of it: a hoax that spanned several dozen plays and roughly twenty years without being discovered, a hoax that fooled even Queen Elizabeth and everyone in her court! It would make a great subject for a Tom Stoppard play.
Works mentioned in this column:
Lev Raphael grew up in New York but got over it and has lived half his life in Michigan where he found his partner of twenty-four years, and a certain small fame. He escaped academia in 1988 to write full-time and has never looked back. The author of nineteen books in many genres, and hundreds of reviews, stories and articles, he’s seen his work discussed in journals, books, conference papers, and assigned in college and university classrooms. Which means he’s become homework. Who knew? Lev’s books have been translated into close to a dozen languages, some of which he can’t identify, and he’s done hundreds of readings and talks across the U.S. and Canada, and in France, England, Scotland, Austria, Germany and Israel. His memoir My Germany was published in April 2009 by the University of Wisconsin Press. You can learn more about Lev and his work on his website. Lev has reviewed for the Washington Post, Boston Review, NPR, the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, Jerusalem Report and the Detroit Free Press where he had a mystery column for almost a decade. He also hosted his own public radio book show where he interviewed Salman Rushdie, Erica Jong, and Julian Barnes among many other authors. Whatever the genre, he’s always looked for books with a memorable voice and a compelling story to tell. Contact Lev.