Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

THE SHAKESPEARE ENCYCLOPEDIA: The Complete Guide to the Man and His Works<br></br><br> By A.D. Cousins, Firefly, 304 pages, $35<br></br><br> Half coffeetable tome, half Coles Notes compendium, this lavishly produced book provides richly layered synopses of each of the Bard’s plays, poems and sonnets. Beginning with a summary of the world before Shakespeare, it then moves briskly through his life and times, before diving into each piece of work. Plot summaries and character lists are here, of course, but so too are commentaries on each play’s contemporary significance. The countless illustrations, charts and diagrams ensure that readers can capture the key points. </br>
THE SHAKESPEARE ENCYCLOPEDIA: The Complete Guide to the Man and His Works<br></br><br> By A.D. Cousins, Firefly, 304 pages, $35<br></br><br> Half coffeetable tome, half Coles Notes compendium, this lavishly produced book provides richly layered synopses of each of the Bard’s plays, poems and sonnets. Beginning with a summary of the world before Shakespeare, it then moves briskly through his life and times, before diving into each piece of work. Plot summaries and character lists are here, of course, but so too are commentaries on each play’s contemporary significance. The countless illustrations, charts and diagrams ensure that readers can capture the key points. </br>

Was Shakespeare a woman? Add to ...

One of the most prestigious academic journals devoted to Shakespearean authorship studies has just added a new candidate to the centuries-old debate about who else plausibly might have written the works we associate with the little-educated merchant and actor from Stratford-Upon-Avon.

The nominee is a complete shocker: Amelia Bassano Lanier, a converso (clandestine Jew) and the illegitimate daughter of an Italian-born, Elizabethan court musician.

Dozens of luminaries (Sigmund Freud, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain among them) over the years have joined the so-called anti-Stratfordian camp, convinced, as Henry James put it, "that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practised on a patient world."

Until now, most of the proposed alternatives have been aristocrats such as William Stanley, the sixth earl of Derby, and Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford - championed by the New York-based Oxford Society, publishers of the annual journal The Oxfordian.

"When you look at the plays without preconceptions of the author," observes the journal's newly appointed editor, Michael Egan, "we'd have to say this is a highly educated person, well travelled, with intricate knowledge of the courts and aristocratic life. Where did an obscure provincial boy gain all this information?"

The Oxfordian's current issue profiles Stanley and de Vere along with another perennial choice, playwright Christopher Marlowe. But it's the addition of the female, Jewish contender - a pioneering woman poet - that will turn heads.

The principal proponent of this theory is 55-year-old John Hudson, a British Shakespeare scholar and director of the New York theatre ensemble the Dark Lady Players. In The Oxfordian, Mr. Hudson argues that if Bassano (Lanier was her married name) did not write all of the plays, she was certainly a major collaborator.

Her name is not new to Shakespeare studies. In 1979, British historian A.L. Rowse suggested that Bassano, with her family's Mediterranean skin colouring, was the famous "dark lady of the sonnets," Shakespeare's mistress. Ridiculed at the time, that view is now commonplace among scholars.

Mr. Hudson 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.

Immigrants, intrigues and instruments

While Mr. Hudson's scenario has met with skepticism, it would help to explain some enduring mysteries, including the prevalence of musical and northern Italian references in the plays, and even possible smatterings of Hebrew.

Amelia Bassano was born in 1569 of the union between Margaret Johnson, a Christian, and Baptista Bassano, one of a group of Jewish musicians brought from Venice by Henry VIII. On her father's death, she was sent to live with English feminist Catherine Willoughby, duchess of Suffolk, where she was educated in Greek, Latin and the Bible.

In her teens, she became the mistress of a cousin of Queen Elizabeth I named Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, the son of Mary Boleyn. Hunsdon wore many hats: He was the patron of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, the ensemble that mounted Shakespeare's works; warden of the Scottish Marches, with a castle at Berwick; and the Queen's royal falconer.

Mr. Hudson points out that the plays contain about 50 references to that sport - far more than in the works of any of the Bard's contemporaries - a rich man's preserve, generally unavailable to commoners such as Shakespeare.

Bassano became pregnant, probably by Hunsdon, in 1592, later giving birth to a son, Henry. To avoid scandal - Hunsdon and his wife already had 12 other children - Amelia was married off to her cousin Alfonso Lanier, a musician.

Mr. Hudson notes here that the Shakespeare plays contain 2,000 musical references - three times more than other typical plays of the period. Why? If the Stratfordian wrote them, there's no obvious answer. But Amelia Bassano's 15 closest relatives - father, husband, uncles, brothers-in-law - were all court musicians.

In The Taming of the Shrew - and an early version that would have been written just after her marriage to Lanier - there are characters named Emelia, Alfonso (her husband's name) and Baptista (her late father's name).

Single page
 

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories