The Secret Jewish History of William Shakespeare
Editor’s Note: This story originally ran on April 23, 2018. We are revisiting it on the occasion of William Shakespeare’s 456th birthday.
Had William Shakespeare never died, he would be turning 456 years old this year, 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 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 is a contributing editor of the Forward./