Amelia Bassano Lanier (1569-1645) was the first English woman to publish a book of original poetry. It now appears she may also have been the long-sought major author of the Shakespearean plays.
She was born into a family of Venetian Jews who had been brought to London to be the Court recorder musicians, and who lived as secret Jews or Marranos practicing their faith covertly. From the age of 7 she was educated like a countess in the household headed by Lord Willoughby, the Danish ambassador, and his sister Countess Susan Bertie. About the age of 13 she was given to be an ‘honest courtesan’ to Queen Elizabeth’s half-brother Lord Hunsdon, 43 years her senior. He was the royal falconer, a judge, a general, and the Lord Chamberlain in charge of Court entertainments and the theater industry.
During this time she had an affair with playwright Christopher Marlowe. After she got pregnant she was expelled from court. Two years later Lord Hunsdon became the Patron of the Chamberlain’s Men that performed the plays which were brokered by their producer Mr. William Shakespeare.
During the next 20 years the plays were written containing over 30 areas of rare knowledge which could only have come from a particular social network of relationships, such as knowledge of Hebrew, Italian, Italy, kabbalah, silk-weaving, court knowledge, falconry from the viewpoint of a falconer, generalship, the law and so on. Amelia is an exact match for all these areas of knowledge.
In 1611 after the Shakespearean plays had been written she published her volume of poetry which has a Latin title Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, meaning Hail God King of the Jews. These are the words of mockery spoken to Jesus on the cross. The whole volume is a satire of the crucifixion which treats the gospels as secular literature that can be re-written for her own purposes. She challenges the myth of the Fall from Eden and the sin of Eve, and in doing so undermines the basis of Christian doctrine and in particular St Paul’s teachings about the inferiority of women.
Lanier’s volume of poetry shows that she was highly educated, had read many learned books including the work of feminists like Christine de Pizan and Veronica Franco, and that she had a knowledge of the theatre, in particular the plays of Lyly and Daniel, the unpublished manuscript of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and the allegorical meanings of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which were only rediscovered in the 21st century. Her poetry also has close resemblances to the Shakespearean plays in terms of structure, sources, use of rare words and their theology. For instance it was unusual and risky to parody the Fall of Eden as she does, but this is something that is done in 25 of the Shakespearean plays.
She also challenges the theology of the Apocalypse as is done in about a third of the Shakespeare plays. In the case of the two Venetian plays, The Merchant of Venice and Othello, it has been recently suggested that she has left her literary signatures on these plays in the form of the characters Emilia and Bassanio each of whom is associated with the standard image of the great poet, namely the swan dying to music, a classical literary device to protect against plagiarism.
Written for Sheroes of History by John Hudson, director of the Dark Lady Players, an experimental Shakespeare company in New York City www.darkladyplayers.com and author of the biography Shakespeare’s Dark Lady (Amberley Publishing, 2014).
Find out more…
You can listen to some of Amelia’s poetry in free audio books which you can download here.
To read more about Amelia’s life and why some people believe she was the real author of Shakespeare’s plays check out John Hudson’s book, Shakespeare’s Dark Lady
If you don’t have time to read the whole book, John sums up why he believes Amelia wrote Shakespeare’s plays in this short video: