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

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:

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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