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Amelia the Bard

It goes without saying that Jewish women have so many accomplishments to be proud of.  A quick search through the Jewish Women's Archive's Discover pages reveals women both lauded and nearly forgotten who have made strides in business, medicine, philosophy and the arts.  Telling their stories is our mission.  And this story is a big one.  It's a big maybe, but it's a big one.  John Hudson, a Shakespeare scholar and fellow at the Shakespeare Institute in Great Britain, has put forth a theory that William Shakespeare was in fact a woman.  A Jewish woman, in fact, named Amelia Bassano Lanier (or Lanyer).

Amelia Bassano Lanier is a big deal anyway.  She is the first woman known to have published a book of poetry in England, a volume called Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, published in 1611, and she was an early feminist critic of the Christian gospels.  And now, basing his research on recent scholarship that has pointed to Amelia as the mysterious "Dark Lady" of Shakespeare's sonnets, the idea that many of the dramas are based around Jewish themes, as well as the discovery of her literary signature on some of the plays, Hudson has put out a paper identifying her as a "possible new collaborator in the Shakespearean works."  How cool is that?

The next question, of course, is why, if William Shakespeare was in fact Amelia Bassano Lanier (or at least partially her) why we didn't know it until nearly 400 years later.  First of all, for Amelia to have published a book of poetry was an almost unbelievable trick, since in Elizabethan London it was nearly impossible for women to publish literature under their own names.  So to also have plays put up, Amelia would have needed to assume a man's name.  Secondly, Amelia's family, Italian court musicians who had been forced to convert to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition, but who maintained a secret Jewish identity, was likely to be accustomed to living a double life.  I have to say, that if I had Shakespeare's genius beating inside my little Jewish heart, I would have done whatever it took (including writing under a pen name and possibly waiting 400 years to be discovered) to get those ideas and verse out into the public sphere.  Because as we know,

"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages."

To read Rebecca Honig Friedman's interview with John Hudson, click here.  And to find out more about the Dark Lady Players -- Hudson's theater company, which "[Performs] the deep allegorical levels of Shakespeare's plays, demonstrating that they contain Jewish religious satires AND THUS were written by England's ONLY Jewish poet," visit

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More on: Plays, Poetry, Shakespeare

Lanier was definitely not the first woman to publish a book of poetry in England--that honor goes to Isabella Whitney:

Like all theories that posit Shakespeare didn't write the plays, this is a fantasy dressed up as facts. Amelia Bassano Lanier was not Jewish. That's the first problem with the theory.

Her mother was not Jewish and there isn't any research that proves her father was a hidden Jew, so it's all supposition. She should be celebrated for her poetry, but she doesn't need to be touted as something she isn't.

The latest book to look at the whole vexed question of people being unable to accept Shakespeare as the author of the plays is James Shapiro's terrific Contested Will.

And there's a long examination of Hudson's theory here:

Yes, they were two different people! Sorry John Hudson: you'll have to try to make your name as a Shakespearean in some other forum. Lanyer is one of the under-appreciated poets of the seventeenth century, but her poetic style is more Jonsonian (Ben, not Samuel) than Shakespearean as any undergraduate who reads the poem carefully will tell you. Why do we have to turn Lanyer into Shakespeare to acknowledge the powers of her poetic voice? The Salve stands on its own as one of the great works (with Herbert's Temple and Donne's Songs and Sonnets) of the early part of the century. But we don't have to turn a woman into a man in order to proclaim her a great poet. She was that all on her own--without having to be transformed by academic whimsy (and desire for fame) into Shakespeare. So let them be: Amelia and the Bard: two separate people!

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How to cite this page

Rabinoff-Goldman, Lily. "Amelia the Bard." 11 July 2008. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 16, 2018) <>.


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