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Portrait of Emilia Bassano, circa 1590, by Nicholas Hilliard; portrait of William Shakespeare, attributed to John Taylor. (Wikimedia)
Portrait of Emilia Bassano, circa 1590, by Nicholas Hilliard; portrait of William Shakespeare, attributed to John Taylor. (Wikimedia)


Were Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets really the work of Venetian poet Emilia Bassano?

By WITW Staff on May 17, 2019

For centuries, scholars have argued over whether William Shakespeare truly authored the legendary plays and sonnets that bear his name. Despite countless hours of research, no-one has yet been able to definitely prove that Shakespeare was even a writer at all.

Shakespeare’s work famously showcases a highly specific knowledge of languages, the Elizabethan aristocratic court, astronomy, music, and Italian and Jewish culture. But Shakespeare the man was a Stratford-born actor with no known highborn connection, whose academic education ended at age 13. While many have suggested that Shakespeare took credit for the work of someone else, it is only recently that some scholars have managed to come up with a convincing reason for why Shakespeare might have wanted to conceal his identity — perhaps, noted Elizabeth Winkler in a fascinating article for The Atlantic, it was really her identity that needed to be hidden.

According to Shakespeare historian John Hudson, the most likely candidate for the real author of Shakespeare’s work is Emilia Bassano, a woman born to a family of Venetian immigrant musicians and instrument-makers. Her life, Hudson claims, bears remarkable similarities to the heroine of All’s Well That End’s Well — Helena, a low-born girl who lives with a dowager countess and a general named Bertram. At age 7, Bassano was taken in and educated by Susan Bertie, the dowager countess of Kent. Bertie’s brother, Peregrine Bertie, a famous general, served as an ambassador to Denmark in Elsinore — the setting of Hamlet — where he met astronomer Tycho Brahe, whose theories scholars say also influenced the popular tragedy.

As a teenager, Bassano became the mistress of Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon — the master master of court entertainment and patron of Shakespeare’s acting company. Her low-class (and likely Jewish) parentage, combined with her early introduction into English high society and close connection to Shakespeare’s acting company, position her neatly as the potential author behind the playwright’s work. Her alleged Jewish-Venetian heritage, similarly, would explain Shakespeare’s unusual (at the time) sympathy for the plight of the Jews, as shown in plays such as The Merchant of Venice. A Midsummer Night’s Dream contains allusions to the Talmud, and All’s Well That End’s Well contains Hebrew secretly mixed in alongside nonsense language. Bassano, unlike Shakespeare the man, was also publicly documented as a writer — in fact, she was one of the first British women to publicly put her name on a volume of poetry.

Other interesting coincidences abound — the name Emilia, for example, is the most common female name in Shakespeare’s work, despite the fact that no other 16th century English playwright is known to have used the name in their work at all. But perhaps the most compelling evidence comes from the character Emilia’s speech condemning abusive husbands in Othello. The speech, Hudson notes, doesn’t show up in copies of the play until 1623 — seven years after Shakespeare’s death. But Bassano, whose poetry contains pointed references to the abuses she suffered at the hands of men, was very much still alive.

Read the full story at The Atlantic.


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