Since his death in 1616, William Shakespeare’s fame has risen while doubts as to his authorship of the works attributed to him have persisted.
Elizabeth Winkler in the June Atlantic Monthly lists heavy- hitter doubters including three Supreme Court justices, along with Freud, Whitman, Twain, Emerson, Helen Keller and Charlie Chaplin. But these skeptics have failed to rally sufficient support behind any of the suggested claimants to Shakespeare’s crown, such as the Earl of Oxford, to dislodge Will.
This stubborn resistance to the almost universal acceptance of Shakespeare is explained by the lack of any firm evidence that ties William of Stratford to the works. His name, yes. His pen, not so much.
Other aspects of his life are well documented in his paper trail: his legal disputes, his marriage to Anne Hathaway, their substantial house in Stratford and, notably, his will with its puzzling provision leaving Anne his second-best bed. But there are no receipts for written work, as there are for Ben Jonson and other contemporary writers.
Added to that lack of connection between Will and writing is the hard-to-explain wealth of allusions of various sorts — to court he never attended, to musical instruments he seemed not to have played, to foreign cities he never visited and, singularly, to books alluded to in the plays but not included in the bequests in his will. Did he use the local lending library?
Skeptics are willing, for the most part, to grant Will the possibility of extraordinary genius, but they can find no plausible explanation for what appear to be disqualifying holes in his background. One example would be the plot for “Othello,” based on an Italian source that had not been translated into English when the play was written. There is no evidence Will ever went to Italy or knew Italian.
So it is not surprising that the search for someone who more plausibly could be identified as the author of this great body of literature continues in spite of the massive industry celebrating Will. What is surprising is how Winkler expands the search.
She suggests that while the exhaustive search for a male author has failed to produce a convincing alternative, we should consider a woman candidate, specifically one Emilia Bassano.
This gender move explains the need for a pseudonym. Elizabethan women were not supposed to write for the theater. They could, and did, write and publish poetry, and write closet dramas, intended to be performed in private but not for public performance.
Bassano checks off boxes that Will does not. She was familiar with the court, having been a lord’s mistress. She was an accomplished musician. Her family was originally from Venice, the setting for “Othello,” which she could have read in the original Italian. Her family might have been conversos — Jews who converted to avoid persecution. Her Jewish roots, according to Winkler, appear in several places, most dramatically in Shylock’s cry against the prevailing antisemitism, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”
Winkler points out what others have noted: that Will seemed to have had an extraordinary ability to a create plausible and strong women characters. Maybe that was just his genius. But maybe Bassano, forced into a loveless and abusive marriage, is expressing Elizabethan feminism, protesting the domination of women by their husbands as does Iago’s wife, also named Emilia, in “Othello.”
Winkler’s article, containing much, much more detail than can be included here, makes a plausible case centering on the plays. She only takes a quick look at the sonnets, which do read as though from a male perspective.
But maybe the elusive “dark lady” in those poems, long thought to be Will’s secret love, now needs to be understood from a very different perspective.