In this article:
- The Amelia Bassano Facebook post is mostly inaccurate, but vaguely inspired by a real theory that Emilia Lanier (neé Bassano) may have written the plays attributed to William Shakespeare.
- The idea that William Shakespeare did not write his own plays is not just a hokey conspiracy theory. It’s a fringe theory, to be sure, but it’s one grounded in a serious academic debate.
- Many alternative authors have been proposed, but Emilia Lanier is a new (and more convincing) candidate.
- Whether or not she’s the “real Shakespeare,” Lanier was a real poet whose work showcases feminist themes that are still progressive by today’s standards.
Within the academic world, there’s a fringe group of scholars who are not convinced that William Shakespeare wrote the plays we think he did. Within that fringe group, dozens of candidates for who the “real Shakespeare” is have been proposed.
Most of them are men, however, and their proponents don’t convincingly explain why a man would write under another man’s name.
Publish anonymously if you’re afraid of the consequences of a scandalous work. Publish under a pen name if you just don’t want the public to know who you are. Why use another living man’s name?
This is one reason some skeptics believe that a more convincing theory is that the “real Shakespeare” must have been a woman. Women would have found it all but impossible to publish in Elizabethan England, let alone publish work with as many sex jokes and controversial themes as found in Shakespeare’s plays.
One of the women that skeptics believe may have been the “real Shakespeare” is Emilia Lanier (neé Bassano). This is her story.
The Amelia Bassano Post Misses the Mark
If you’re here because of the Amelia Bassano Facebook post that claims Bassano was a Black woman who died in poverty, while Shakespeare was too illiterate to write his own name, that post is false.
Like most things on the internet, it’s a wildly oversimplified and misleading rehashing of the case for Emilia Lanier as the author of Shakespeare’s plays.
The woman shown is from Paolo Veronese’s painting, “Portrait of a Moorish Woman.” There are no known surviving portraits of Emilia Lanier.
Also, Shakespeare was certainly literate. He had at least an elementary school education. He was also a businessman and an actor who would have had to read scripts.
The Case Against William Shakespeare Is Stronger Than You Think
Doubts about William Shakespeare first crept in around the middle of the 19th century. As more details of the actor from Stratford’s life were discovered, they lined up less and less with the kind of person who could have written those plays.
The most glaring problem is that his plays betray an insider knowledge of Elizabethan court life; broad knowledge of law, music, astronomy, and military strategy; and command of multiple languages as well as familiarity with the landscapes and cultures of other countries.
The Bard must have been well-educated, well-traveled, and connected to English nobility.
William Shakespeare of Stratford Upon Avon was none of those things. His father was a glove-maker whose time serving on the town council won William a free slot at a local grammar school, which he stopped attending at the age of 13. No evidence exists that he ever traveled or continued pursuing scholarly interests after that.
For an author who referenced Italian and French literature that had not yet been translated into English and used over 300 musical terms, the man’s will — which meticulously itemizes every piece of property he owned — does not mention a single book or musical instrument.
It doesn’t mention any manuscripts or writings, either, something you’d imagine a playwright who’d found considerable success would care to mention.
His will isn’t the only surviving record we have, either. Shakespeare’s life is remarkably well documented for someone who lived in the 16th century. A long paper trail confirms Shakespeare was an actor, a moneylender, a property investor, a shareholder in the theater where he performed, a tax evader, and a temperamental businessman prone to petty lawsuits. What that record doesn’t have is any mention that he was a writer.
For Shakespeare skeptics, the answer to this puzzle is that Shakespeare served as a “front” for an author who remained in hiding.
For most, of course, the answer is that, even though so many documents relating to Shakespeare survived, much was still lost to history. What records survive might not definitively point to him being the author, but nothing definitively points to him not being the author, either.
Emilia Lanier Checks All the Boxes
John Hudson was the first to propose Emilia Lanier as a candidate for the “real Shakespeare.”
In 2007, he wrote Amelia Bassano Lanier: A New Paradigm for The Oxfordian, in which he outlined the biographical evidence from Lanier’s life to argue that she had the knowledge and experience on display in the plays.
Here’s the short version:
- Jewish and Italian language and culture: Emilia was born in 1569 to a family of Jews, originally from Venice, but now living in London (either as converts to Christianity or as hidden Jews, presenting as Christians). Her male relatives regularly visited Italy. She may have accompanied them on at least a few of those trips.
- Elizabethan court life: Her father was a violinist, who became a Court musician that also performed stage music for the nearby playhouses as a side gig. This, combined with the fact that she was not a lady herself, would have given her the dual perspective needed to write plays featuring multidimensional characters across all classes of society.
- Technical musical terms and jokes: Again, Emilia was the daughter of a Court musician. She was also a member of a family containing no less than 15 professional musicians. She would have been fully immersed in the musical world.
- Advanced knowledge of astronomy, history, science, and other scholarly subjects. She was educated by Countess Susan Bertie, who came from a family of highly educated, proto-feminist women, meaning she not only received an advanced education typically reserved for nobility, but also was taught to value knowledge and learning as key to women’s liberation (something you can see in her poetry as well as the fact that she would go on to run a school of her own later in life).
- Uncannily accurate description of Kronborg (the basis for Elsinore in Hamlet). Lanier’s tutor, Countess Bertie, had a brother who was the Ambassador to Denmark. He dined with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (whose names appear in the play) and his friend, Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe is credited with developing the astronomical theories that appear in the play. This suggests that Emilia may have been taken on ambassadorial trips to Denmark (or at least heard stories of them).
- Falconry knowledge. She spent decades living with the Royal Falconer.
- Theatrical Knowledge. Many of her family members composed music, designed sets, and did other technical work for local playhouses.
Her personal life also bears a strong resemblance to some of the situations in the plays — most notably, to the abusive relationship between Emilia and her husband, Iago, in Othello.
Elizabeth Winkler builds on Hudson’s case in her article for The Atlantic, expanding on it by adding just how feminist Shakespeare’s work is, how often it’s written from the woman’s perspective, and how utterly unprecedented and uncommon those features are for the time.
Just about every play passes the Bechdel test with flying colors, including dozens of female characters with strong female friendships and plays where women are at the center. They also feature more gender-swapping and cross-dressing than had ever occurred in English literature or theatre up to that point.
In his literary debut, the poem Venus and Adonis, for example, Shakespeare swaps the traditional roles of horny dude and bashful lady by revising the well-known myth of Venus and Adonis.
In the traditional version, Adonis was a willing and eager lover of Venus. In Shakespeare’s version, Venus is the aggressor, using brute strength and bold words to pressure a man into sleeping with her, while Adonis blushes and makes polite excuses to try to leave.
“What seest thou in the ground? Hold up thy head,” Venus says to a bashful Adonis who’s avoiding eye contact. “Look in mine eyeballs,” she commands him. And when he complies, “Then why not lips on lips, since eyes in eyes?”
Later, when he complains about how hot it is outside and says he wants to go home, she offers to shade him from the sun by getting on top of him.
It’s an exchange that any woman who’s tried to politely decline a drunk guy in a bar can relate to. Showing the men in 16th-century audiences what those unwelcome advances looked like from the woman’s perspective made the inherent problems with the whole dynamic comically obvious.
The strong feminist themes and women-led stories continued throughout Shakespeare’s career, and those characteristics bear a strong resemblance to the feminist themes on display in Lanier’s poetry.
Shakespeare or Not, Emilia Lanier’s Poetry Deserves More Acclaim
Though she checks all the boxes, none of these points are enough to say with certainty that she wrote the plays. Shakespeare’s private life (which is the least well-documented) could be full of all the life experiences and scholarly pursuits needed to write the plays himself.
Regardless, the work we do know she wrote deserves to come out of obscurity (as does the work of the many women writing in Elizabethan England).
In Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, the lone book Lanier was able to publish, she showcases a wealth of unique perspective and literary talent.
In “To the Vertuous Reader,” for example, she adopts the somber but confident tone of a philosopher as she exposes the logical fallacies inherent in sexist prejudices and stereotypes against women:
“Evill disposed men, who forgetting they were borne of women, nourished of women, and that if it were not by the means of women, they would be quite extinguished out of the world […] doe like Vipers deface the wombs wherein they were bred.”
Throughout the book, she reexamines biblical, historical, and fictional stories from a feminist perspective. Arguing, for example, that Lucrece was raped, not because she was so irresistible, but because Tarquin was a rapist.
After similarly revising a number of other famous fictional and historical accounts, Lanier writes, “For greatest perils do attend the faire, / When men do seeke, attempt, plot and devise, / How they may overthrow the chastest Dame.”
Women aren’t vulnerable because they’re fair, she tells us. They’re vulnerable because men prey on them.
In the titular poem, her best arguments and deftest use of literary allusions and form come out as she crafts an impeccable defense of Eve, arguing that men are, on the whole, far worse sinners in the bible than she ever was.
When the serpent deceives her, Eve, having no knowledge of good and evil, had no way of knowing she was being deceived, Lanier argues.
Not only that, the sin of eating a fruit you didn’t know you weren’t supposed to eat pales in comparison to the sin of say, crucifying our lord and savior, Jesus Christ — an execution that was carried out exclusively by men.
If women are not worse sinners than men, as she shows through her examination of the bible, and if they are as intelligent and capable, as she reveals through her analysis of female historical figures, then they deserve to have the same freedoms and opportunities.
“Your fault being greater,” Lanier writes to the men of Elizabethan England. “Why should you disdaine / Our being your equals, free from tyranny?”
It’s a phenomenally well-crafted argument for gender equality that would have struck all the right chords at the time but still feels just as important and just as progressive today as it likely did 400 years ago.