by Rebecca Honig Friedman
John Hudson is the author of “The Dark Lady”, a historical biography of Amelia Bassano, a Marrano Jewess living in Elizabethan England who he contends is the true author of William Shakespeare’s plays and poetry. The Bassano theory is based on the discovery of Jewish allegories in the plays, and Hudson formed The Dark Lady Players theater company to bring out the true meanings of the plays, as Bassano intended them, through performance. For further reading on Hudson’s arguments regarding Bassano as the true Shakespearean author, see this article by one of the Dark Lady Players in the NJ Jewish News and Hudson’s recent article in Jewcy, “Shakespeare’s Plays Were Written by a Jewish Woman.”
Hudson holds numerous degrees from numerous prestigious academic institutions, with specialties in Tudor history, Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare and Performance, sociology and anthropology, dramaturgical theory, structuralist analysis, and the social scientific study of literature and the media. Over the last 30 years he has been employed as a cognitive scientist, working on the restructuring of the communications industry and inventing new industry models — which is exactly what he is now doing with Shakespeare. He is a reviewer for Shakespeare, the journal of the British Shakespeare Association, occasionally performs Renaissance music, and has studied at both Christian and Jewish theological colleges. He is now continuing his research at the Shakespeare Institute, where he is writing a thesis on “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
After attending a lecture Hudson gave on Bassano last week, we put his theory to the Jewess test via an email Q&A.
JEWESS: So, you’re not yourself Jewish, are you?
HUDSON: Although I not now a practicing Jew, my mother was a hidden child in Germany during the war but did not bring me up as Jewish. On coming to New York I was for some years a member of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun under Rabbi Marshall Meyer until his untimely death. I have also studied with Rabbi David Silber and the traditional approach to reading Torah is invaluable in reading the Shakespearean plays which use many of the same compositional features.
How did you first hit upon Amelia Bassano as a candidate for author of the plays we’ve come to know as William Shakespeare’s?
If the plays contain Jewish satires and allegories, then there was only one Jewish candidate.
How much knowledge of Jewish texts was Bassano likely to have as a Marrano and a woman?
There was only one Talmud known in England, it was in westminster cathedral library; however, Talmudic teaching was also oral, so individual quotes could have been transmitted that way. There are several quotes from the Pirke Avot which was available as a standalone volume in Latin, similarly the Zohar.
There were of course women scholars at the time, including one who was a distant relative of the Bassanos–Donna Ana (Reyna) de Nasi continued her mother’s vision and support for Torah scholarship, and in her 50’s set up a printing press at Belvedere Palace that published a dozen Hebrew books over 1592-99 including an allegorical drama and a Talmudic treatise.
Why would Bassano have written sonnets about herself as “the dark lady”?
The Sonnets have several voices, and the so-called dark lady sonnets are written to herself in the third person describing a woman whose cheek is gray and whose breasts are dun.
Would you then read Sonnet 130, for example, as a woman celebrating the earthly beauty of women, so to speak, taking women down from the pedestal that male poets generally put them on?
Sonnet 130 is one of the ‘dark lady’ sonnets, and is written to herself, as a literary conceit, as if by a third person who loved her, and refers to her beauty as black. It is not a general comment about women; it is highly specific.
Do you imagine there will ever be a time when the world will refer to Bassano’s “Romeo and Juliet” and Bassano’s “Hamlet,” or is the persona of Shakespeare too deeply ingrained in the popular imagination? Could the world ever accept that these plays were written by a Jewess?
I don’t know. It depends how successful we are in getting the information out.
What kind of response has the Bassano theory gotten from the academic world?
Most academics have refused to look at it. However some of the Oxfordians are proving to be very interested in it, and Dr C.M.S. Alexander, the editor of the Cambridge Shakespeare Library has given it the following endorsement: “Controversial and provocative, this well researched and wide ranging book establishes a legitimate new area for scholarship.”
Pioneering an entirely new area of scholarship is about the most anyone can aim to achieve!
In your mind, is this the hugest literary hoax ever pulled off by a woman or is it the worst example of a man stealing a woman’s glory?
I don’t think this is a hoax. It is a stratagem she used to get her work published, as many other women have done, by having their work published under a man’s name. In Elizabethan London women could not write original literature at all, let alone plays, so this was her only option.
So then would you consider it a triumph on Bassano’s part?
The example I use is that of the Pharos lighthouse of Alexandria. In order that his name might be known, the architect Sostratus had his name carved on the stone base, then covered over with a piece of plaster with a dedication to the king. In time the plaster fell away revealing the architect’s name. Amelia’s strategy was to leave behind a preposterous case for William Shakespeare, which has now fallen away revealing the true creator who is now at last visible.
We are always told that Shakespeare’s works are timeless — universal — and that is why they have aged so well. But in your staging of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and now “As You Like It,” with the Dark Lady Players, you seek to put a very specific, time-bound spin on the plays. Are you not damaging their appeal — even their genius — in some way?
Some directors anachronistically set the plays at the North Pole or in outer space or in a Mafia village. They therefore destroy and suppress the allusions that the plays contain and make them impossible to discern. I understand why directors who do not understand the plays might resort to such misleading devices. But they should do so no longer, and should use their staging to reveal what the author really meant.
Your theory adds a whole new layer to all the play with gender roles in the plays, doesn’t it?
Yes, the Shakespearean plays have more examples of women characters dressing up as men than in the whole of the English theater up to that point. Now we know why.
At the lecture you gave on Bassano last week, someone said that, as an actor, he always took comfort in the idea that Shakespeare was also an actor and understood what actors go through. He was dismayed at the prospect of giving up that notion. You responded by suggesting that Bassano was an actor, too, in a much more profound way. Can you elaborate on that?
Yes, all the world is a stage, and this was especially true at the Elizabethan court, where courtiers were constantly creating and performing meta-theatrical dramas to persuade the Queen about various issues. This is where the author learnt their highly developed sense of theater, and as a Marrano passing in a Christian society, she had to act every moment of her life, including being a cheerful mistress to a man 45 years her senior.
Are there any other examples of “secular” literature written by Jews during the time Shakespeare/Bassano was writing? If so, do they bear any
connection to “Shakespeare’s” work?
No. There were only 200 Marrano Jews living in England at the period. Though many were musicians, Amelia is the only one who was a poet.
You have a documentary about Bassano in the works. A feature film can’t be too far behind (and with all those possible lovers you mentioned it’s sure to be a good one). Which actress would you choose to play Bassano?
In our workshop of “As You Like It,” the part of Touchstone (who is an allegory for Amelia Bassano since, for example, Touchstone in Greek is basanos) is played by Daniela Amini, an Italian speaking Jew with degrees in literature from Oxford and Harvard, who is an excellent comic. In a movie I would also look for an actress who had the intellectual and cultural understanding of the role.
Posted on March 17th, 2008 Filed under: Interviews |