Heretic’s Foundation XVII: More on the Woman Who Wrote the Shakespeare Plays



By John Hudson
Special to the Clyde Fitch Report

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On Tue., Dec. 15, at Manhattan Theatre Source, I will curate a one-night festival of short plays by New York City writers offering different takes on the same subject: the life of Amelia Bassano Lanier. October 2010 marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of Lanier’s Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, the first book of original poetry published by a woman in England. Long known as the ‘Dark Lady’ of the Sonnets, she was unquestionably one of England’s first proto-feminists, a woman whose poetry explicitly advocated gender equality. She was also, for a decade, mistress to Lord Hunsdon, the man in charge of the English theater. Her family was Venetian Jews who had moved to London in the 1530s to be the court musicians under King Henry VIII. They played in the flute and cornett and shawm and sackbut consorts, and formed the entirety of the recorder consort comprising around a dozen musicians.

Lanier’s kin were also closely involved with the theater as the musicians who played for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the company that performed the Shakespearean plays.

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Two years ago, Lanier was listed by the Shakespearean Authorship Trust in London as one of the top eight most likely candidates to have written the plays.

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Last week, the Shakespearean authorship journal The Oxfordian published my article, ‘Amelia Bassano Lanier; A New Paradigm,’ in their special issue on top authorship candidates.

To celebrate the life of this remarkable woman, nine New York City playwrights — Montserrat Mendez, Ed Malin, Maria Micheles, Kathleen Potts, Alaina Hammond, Vincent Marano, Lucile Scott, Michelle Poynton and Heather Violanti — have written short plays about Lanier’s life for the aforementioned festival. The latter two playwrights, for example, offer very funny new takes on how Shakespeare became Lanier’s play-broker. Others cover how learning about Lanier’s authorship impacts a modern relationship with an uncomprehending partner. Theree is a reconstruction of how the Bassanos gave Lanier, age 13, to Lord Hunsdon, 45 years her senior, as his mistress to buy protection at Court. Yet another piece is about Lanier’s love affair with Christopher Marlowe.

Regardless of circumstances — which we may never know for sure — I believe evidence for Lanier’s authorship to be conclusive. Unlike any other candidate for the authorship of the Shakespearean plays, I believe she is an exact match for several areas of rare knowledge that the playwright demonstrates. To wit:

The Most Musically Aware, Informed Plays in England. The plays contain nearly 2,000 musical references, a more intensive usage of musical references than any others in the English language. They use 300 different musical terms and even refer to a 5th century manuscript on recorder playing by St Paulinus of Nola. None of Shakespeare’s friends or associates were professional musicians; how could he have developed this practical musical knowledge? On the other hand, Lanier’s family were musicians, as previously noted. One of them, the lutist Robert Johnson, was the leading composer for the Shakespearean plays, including such tunes as ‘Full Fathom Five‘ for The Tempest.

Spoken Hebrew. Although in late 16th century England about 30 scholars were studying written Hebrew, none of them actually spoke Hebrew. Spoken Hebrew, in fact, was used only among a few Italian Jews, as evidenced by the writing in Mantua of Leone de Sommi’s play The Betrothed, which, by dint of being written in Hebrew, implies it was intended for a Hebrew-speaking community. How did Shakespeare create the examples of spoken Hebrew identified in All’s Well That Ends Well in which the interpreter says to Parolles, “Boskos vauvado. I understand thee, and can speak thy tongue. Kerely-bonto, sir, betake thee to thy faith…” (IV.i.75-77)? Or incorporate several quotations from the Talmud in the plays along with reference to Maimonides and uses of the Mishnah? Lanier’s family, however, were Italian Jews living in the same household with the Lupo family, relatives imprisoned under King Henry VIII.

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Presentation of Women. The plays depict strong female characters who play music and read Ovid; Shakespeare, it is alleged, kept his daughters illiterate. Lanier, however, was educated at Court, raised in the household of the early English feminist Catherine Willoughby, the Duchess of Suffolk, and her daughter, Susan Bertie, the Dowager Countess of Kent (who had been educated by Coverdale and by one of the highly educated Grey sisters — who had been taught by the same Cambridge tutors as Queen Elizabeth I herself). This may explain why The Taming of the Shrew refers to the Book of the Knight of La Tour Landry that was the standard manual for training girls at Court in etiquette, and why other plays refer to The Heptameron of Margaret, Queen of Navarre, the most popular book among ladies at Court. Lanier’s own poetry draws on the French writer Christine of Pisan, whose work is used in three of the Shakespearen plays and nowhere else in the English literature of the period.

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Italian and Italy. There would have been no way for Shakespeare to learn Italian in Stratford-upon-Avon, but the plays show the author was fluent in Italian, made Italian puns, and read multiple sources in the original Italian. For instance, Othello, The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure were based wholly or in part on Italian texts of Cinthio, Bandello and Ser Giovanni Fiorentino. Twelfth Night and The Merry Wives of Windsor used the anonymous Italian play Gl’ Ingannati and Ser Giovanni Fiorentino’s Il Pecorone. The author had particular knowledge of the town of Bassano, as shown in a recent article by Roger Prior in the Journal of Anglo-Italian Studies. The Bassano family had a house there and originally came from that town before moving to Venice and thence to London. As their surviving letters show, they wrote fluent Italian, and their police records — available in the London Public Records Office — show that when the younger members of the family were arrested, they would curse the police in that language.

Major Poet. None of the other potential authorship candidates is a major poet. Lanier, however, certainly is. She was an innovative poet, in fact, and as noted, the first woman to publish a book of original poetry in England. One of her poems, On Cookham, is a country house poem, the first use of this genre since Roman times. Her mixture of secular and sacred themes in the same verse is unusually experimental for the period. Included in the collection is a 160-line verse sequence that resembles a masque, a dramatic entertainment similar to opera, popular in England in the 16th and 17th centuries in which masked performers represented mythological or allegorical characters. For a masque to appear in her verse is comparable to the plays and masques within the Shakespearean canon. Lanier’s poetry is highly theatrical, too, through the use of direct address. In Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, the central poem is a blatant parody of the crucifixion (as one of the short plays at Manhattan Theatre Source will explore). Her final poem in the collection includes clusters of words found together only in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and A Passionate Pilgrim:

On Cookham:
Those pretty birds that wonted were to sing,
Now neither sing, nor chirp, nor use their wing,
But with their tender feet on some bare spray,
Warble forth sorrow, and their own dismay.
Fair Philomela leaves her mournful ditty,
Drowned in deep sleep, yet can procure no pity.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
Through the house give gathering light,
By the dead and drowsy fire:
Every elf and fairy sprite
Hop as light as bird from brier;
And this ditty, after me,
Sing, and dance it trippingly.

First, rehearse your song by rote
To each word a warbling note:
Hand in hand, with fairy grace,
Will we sing, and bless this place.

The Passionate Pilgrim XV:
While Philomela sits and sings, I sit and mark,
And wish her lays were tuned like the lark;
For she doth welcome daylight with her ditty,
And drives away dark dismal-dreaming night:
The night so pack’d, I post unto my pretty;
Heart hath his hope, and eyes their wished sight;

Emilias in the Plays. One of the most popular names in the Shakespearean plays is Emilia, in various spellings. Why should he have favored this name so much? Equally important, between 1622 and 1623, when Shakespeare was long dead, someone changed the quarto of Othello to associate the standard image of the great poet (presumably Lanier herself) — the swan who dies to music — with Emilia, and to give her the “willow” song to repeat. Moreover, the dying swan in The Merchant of Venice is associated with the character of Bassanio. The author of the plays thus associates the symbol of the great poet with the baptismal, adopted and family names: “Amelia,” “Willough(by)” and “Bassanio.”

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Who else had a reason for leaving behind such a complex literary signature?

John Hudson is a strategic consultant who specializes in new industry models and has helped create several telecoms and Internet companies. He has recently been consulting to a leading think tank on the future of the theater industry and is pioneering an innovative Shakespeare theory, as dramaturge to the Dark Lady Players. This fall he is Artist in Residence at Eastern Connecticut State University. He has degrees in Theater and Shakespeare, in Management, and in Social Science.