The Secret Jewish History of William Shakespeare

450 Years Later, Bard Remains a Man of Infinite Jewishness

Kurt Hoffman

By Seth Rogovoy

Published April 23, 2014, issue of May 02, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Had William Shakespeare never died, he would be turning 450 years old this month, which would put him in biblical territory for longevity. As it turns out, that’s not necessarily such an unusual place for him to be. While little is known about the historical Shakespeare, there is much to suggest in his work and in what we know of his life and times that he just may well have been familiar with the Torah — and perhaps even engaged with Jewish thought.

The search for Shakespeare’s true identity has long fueled a cottage industry of books, doctoral theses and crazy theories. Wikipedia lists no fewer than 84 possible “Shakespeare authorship candidates” — historical figures whom scholars have proposed are the actual authors of the Bard’s plays and poetry. Among the better-known candidates, including Francis Bacon and playwright Christopher Marlowe, is Amelia Bassano Lanier, a crypto-Jew born in 1569 into a family of Venetian Jews who were court musicians to Queen Elizabeth I. A creative and independent figure on the cultural scene who had an affair with Marlowe, Lanier was the first woman to publish a book of original poetry.

In his new book, “Shakespeare’s Dark Lady: Amelia Bassano Lanier — The Woman Behind Shakespeare’s Plays?” author John Hudson proposed that it was Lanier herself who wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare. Hudson points to Lanier’s cosmopolitan upbringing and familiarity with the many literary, geographic, religious and factual touchstones in Shakespeare’s work, to which a country bumpkin from Stratford-on-Avon would presumably not have had access. (In fact, an entire theater company in Manhattan called The Dark Lady Players is devoted to performing Shakespeare’s works as the biblical allegories its members believe Lanier embedded in them, as religious parodies that were then brought to the public by a theater owner and impresario named William Shakespeare.)

It doesn’t end there. Author Ghislain Muller has suggested that Shakespeare himself was a crypto-Jew with a grandfather named Shapiro in “Was Shakespeare a Jew?: Uncovering the Marrano Influences in His Life and Writing.” And in “Shylock Is Shakespeare,” author Kenneth Gross argues that the key to understanding the character of Shakespeare’s most notorious Jewish character is to view him as the voice of the playwright himself.

One of the key characters in Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest” is named Ariel, a spirit rescued, controlled and eventually freed by the play’s hero, the magician Prospero. Ariel serves as Prospero’s eyes and ears throughout the play, using his own supernatural powers to cause the tempest of the title and to fend off plots to bring down Prospero. Ariel, of course, is a Hebrew name meaning lion of God, which poetically suggests that Ariel was a defender of righteousness.

“Love’s Labour’s Lost” includes a character named Holofernes, a pedantic schoolmaster who plays the role of Judas Maccabeus in the Pageant of the Nine Worthies — a knowing allusion to the story in the Book of Judith in which the historical Holofernes — an invading general of Nebuchadnezzar — is taken down by Judith, a beautiful Hebrew widow who entered Holofernes’s camp, seduced him with wine and salty cheese, and then beheaded him while he was drunk — thus giving us an excuse to smother our potato latkes in sour cream at Hanukkah.

“As You Like It,” which contains one of the most famous Shakespeare speeches (“All the world’s a stage…”) is set in the Forest of Arden, a possible allusion to eden. Indeed, some read the play as an edenic allegory, an idea supported by the fact that the play also includes a character named Adam, a kindly old servant rumored to have been played by Shakespeare himself. It has also been suggested that the Book of Job, rather unique among the books of the Bible, was the original literary tragedy, and that Shakespeare’s “King Lear” holds many echoes of the biblical Job; its eponymous protagonist, like Job, is a great man who experiences a remarkable reversal of fortune.

The affinities among Shakespeare, his plays, and Jewish themes run in both directions. In modern times, Jewish authors and playwrights have found plenty of resonances to inspire their own work. One of Philip Roth’s best-known novels is “Operation Shylock.” The Broadway musical “West Side Story,” a collaboration among playwright Arthur Laurents (born Levine), choreographer Jerome Robbins (born Rabinowitz), composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, was based on “Romeo and Juliet.” In its earliest versions, it was called “East Side Story,” and depicted a gang conflict between Jews and Irish Catholics on the Lower East Side. The book for Cole Porter’s musical “Kiss Me, Kate” was written by Samuel and Bella Spewack, each of whom won Tony Awards for their efforts on the show based on “The Taming of the Shrew.” The Rodgers and Hart musical “The Boys from Syracuse” is modeled on “The Comedy of Errors,” while the science fiction film “Forbidden Planet,” written by Irving Block and Allen Adler — grandson of Yiddish theater star Jacob Adler — drew its inspiration from “The Tempest.”

I need no more proof of Shakespeare’s Jewish inclinations than the opening soliloquy to “Richard III,” in which the title character bemoans his fate in one of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches, which begins: “Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York…” Having seen Al Pacino perform the role on Broadway in his inimitable New York Jewish accent, I can report that the speech is basically just a long-winded, fancy-schmancy way of saying, “Oy vey iz mir.”

Seth Rogovoy has mined the Jewish affinities of such unlikely pop culture figures as James Bond, David Bowie, Aerosmith, Cher and Steve Jobs in the pages of the Forward.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here:
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.