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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 ...

Shrew was part of a series of Italian marriage comedies that Shakespeare suddenly started writing around 1592. Those plays aren't merely set in Italy; whoever wrote them seems to have read Dante and other Italian literature in the original. The Bassanos, surviving letters indicate, spoke and wrote fluent Italian, which may well have been Amelia's mother tongue.

Belfast University professor Roger Prior noted in a recent article that one speech Iago makes in Othello even seems to match, image for image, a fresco in the Italian town of Bassano, north of Venice. Perhaps Shakespeare himself visited this small town off the typical Italian tourist trail. But Mr. Hudson argues that it makes more sense to believe that Amelia Bassano made a return visit to her family's hometown.

Similarly, it makes no obvious sense that there should be spoken Hebrew in Shakespeare's plays. No Jews lived openly in Elizabethan England - even clandestinely, the community did not number more than 200. Only a small fraction of those could read the language. The likelihood that Shakespeare himself knew it is nil. Yet Mr. Hudson says that scholars have identified dozens of transliterations of Hebrew words in the Shakespearean canon, as well as quotations from the Talmud and allusions to the Mishnah.

Finally, he asks, why would a man whose works portray well-educated, proto-feminist women raise his own daughters as illiterates, as Shakespeare did? Bassano, on the other hand, made feminist history when she became the first English woman to publish a book of original poetry - the 3,000-line Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail God, King of the Jews), a satire sometimes known as "Eve's Apology," published in 1611.

Mr. Hudson has found connections between that book and the plays, in their biblical allusions and, he argues, their common references to the late medieval writings of French lawyer Christine de Pisan. He also contends that both the poem and the plays contain vengeful parodies of Christian thought.

A black swan among theories?

Not surprisingly, many academics reject the Bassano theory. "John's evidence is entirely circumstantial, or depends on quasi-allegorical readings of the texts," says Kate McLuskie, director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham. "It is elegant and ingenious, but has no documentary foundation - a beautiful story that is not less beautiful for being entirely false."

Mr. Egan of The Oxfordian allows that Bassano "was a remarkable woman with strong literary and court connections. But it's a big step from that to Shakespeare. Unfortunately, Hudson's evidence, such as [the]detailed knowledge of northern Italy, also supports other candidates. My view is that the Shakespeare mystery remains unsolved."

Indeed, recently some researchers have questioned whether the immigrant court-musician Bassano family was Jewish after all.



It is … a beautiful story that is not less beautiful for being entirely false. Kate McLuskie, director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham


But Mr. Hudson is undaunted. He fondly believes that Amelia Bassano went to great lengths to encode her authorial claim for posterity, by amending several of the plays when they were published in the First Folio in 1623 (seven years after Shakespeare's death). He says the lines she inserted include a classic Renaissance trope, derived from Ovid - the poet as a swan that dies to music.

In Othello , the figure is evoked by Desdemona's maid Emilia, who then sings, "Willough, willough, willough." The same analogy is used in King John , associated with John's son, and in Merchant of Venice , in which Portia says of her suitor, Bassanio: "Then, if he lose, he makes a swan-like end, fading in music."

Emilia, "willough" (Willoughby), John's son (Johnson) and Bassanio - these could be allusions to Bassano's baptismal name, adopted name, mother's name and family name. Here, Mr. Hudson finds the poet leaving her signature.

The majority view remains deeply entrenched - that Stratford's Shakespeare really did write Shakespeare. But with the 400th anniversary of Amelia Bassano's Salve Deus in prospect, Mr. Hudson - 800-page manuscript, making her full case, in hand - aims to lay siege to the redoubt.

Michael Posner is a Globe and Mail reporter.



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