Emilia Bassano: a Black Jewish Woman Wrote Shakespeare?
In his book Shakespeare’s Secret Messiah, Joseph Atwill argues that the Shakespeare plays were written by Emilia Bassano Lanier, who he believes was secretly Jewish. Emilia’s father, Baptista Bassano, had emigrated to London from Venice to become a musician for the Tudor court. The Bassanos of Italy were Sephardic Jews of Moroccan ancestry. Emilia herself was referred to as ‘the Moor’. The woman in the image to the right probably looked nothing like Emilia Bassano, aside from the color of her skin. (However, Emilia Bassano’s mother was an Englishwoman and a ‘radical’ Protestant.)
Emilia received an aristocratic education at the estates of Susan Wingfield, Countess of Kent and Margaret, Countess of Cumberland. She became a mistress to Queen Elizabeth’s first cousin, Lord Hundson, and became pregnant at the age of twenty-three. She was then married off to her cousin, Alphonso Lanier, a volunteer in the British navy. The marriage was unhappy, and scholars have been speculating that Emilia was involved in an affair with William Shakespeare, who wrote about her as his “Dark Lady” of the Sonnets. Hundson went on to become the patron of Shakespeare’s theater company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.
Atwill maintains that Bassano was the primary author, although he acknowledges the possibility of group theories. However, in this article I will argue that it’s just as likely that Shakespeare and Bassano worked together as a team to produce the works.
Maya Angelou agrees: “Shakespeare must be a black girl.”
He wrote it for me:
“When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least.
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”
Of course he wrote it for me: that is a condition of the black woman. Of course, he was a black woman. Nobody else understands it, but I know that Shakespeare was a black woman.
The CIA and the counter-culture
A major theme at this website is that the CIA and its MK-Ultra project set the 1960’s counter-culture in motion. We believe that in order to accomplish this goal, they promoted LSD and other drugs to the general public. As a result, many citizens have been turned into drugged, confused slaves. We claim that cultural heroes such as Ken Kesey, Aldous Huxley, and even The Beatles were part of the plot. Atwill argues that even Shakespeare should be regarded in the same way, as sophisticated propaganda.
By working to expose this scheme, we see ourselves in the role of cultural defenders. Paul Dunbar seems to agree with us about most of this. However, he does not extend that same respect towards Joseph Atwill’s review of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In his post Very Like a Whale, Dunbar ridicules Atwill’s view that Shakespeare himself was part of the plot.
I would like to respond on Atwill’s behalf, to aspects of this critique from Dunbar. This is based on conversations with Atwill, as well as the experience of working with him on podcasts over the last two years. Joe has reviewed and approved the statements made on his behalf. This post also includes my own reactions and responses to the issues Dunbar raised.
Dunbar’s critique of Joseph Atwill
Here is a summary of Dunbar’s critique of Atwill’s thesis:
- It is ‘apophenia’ (that is, Atwill is seeing faces in the clouds) rather than legitimate analysis.
- The approach is ‘reductivist’ (reductionist?), ignoring vast layers of meaning and significance in Shakespeare’s work.
- It is culturally destructive, because Atwill wants his readers to avoid Shakespeare. Atwill says Shakespeare is boring and hard to read, not to mention sick. Dunbar complains that Atwill “must destroy what he does not understand.“
- Emilia Bassano Lanier couldn’t have been the author, because she was too young.
- It seems that Dunbar smells a whiff of anti-Semitism rising from Atwill’s theory.
Again in summary form:
- The analysis of The Tempest is entirely grounded in the known fact the author used Isaiah as the play’s symbolic framework. The parallels cannot be viewed in isolation, but must be evaluated in that context.
- The new framework solves many previously inscrutable mysteries about Shakespeare. No other analytical framework is equally powerful.
- If the analysis is correct, Shakespeare should be avoided.
- Dunbar’s analysis of the chronology is simply incorrect. Many authors have produced significant works at the same age postulated for Emilia Bassano Lanier in the role of Shakespeare.
- Dunbar is trying to accomplish by an obscene scatalogical slander, what he could not do with analysis. The bankruptcy of his position is only underscored by his curt dismissal of our attempts to engage in public discussion.
Atwill’s ‘Jewish Conspiracy’ hypothesis
In a follow-up post, Dunbar re-iterated his theme of an unpleasant smell coming from Atwill’s direction. Dunbar leaves some room for plausible deniability, but his meaning seems clear enough. Dunbar says that according to Atwill, The Tempest is ‘really’ about a “fiendish Zionist plot to put the Gentiles into an MKULTRA dream-state” which will lead to the end of the world. After this apocalypse, “there’ll be nothing left but owls and blossoms. And Jews, obviously”.
In his article on The Tempest, Atwill expressed it this way: “it is hard not engage in paranoid wondering of to what extent Jewish influence in the media is related to the ‘dream state’ for Gentiles described in the Tempest”. And furthermore, Atwill is certainly steadfast in maintaining that his fearful curiosity and concern about the political situation is well warranted.
Atwill’s view is that US and world governments, media, corporations, and religions are becoming increasingly dominated by a secret society. His working hypothesis is that, at its core, the secret society may be ruled by a very small group of oligarchs, or perhaps even a single family or person.
Considering the hierarchical nature of so many human organizations, Joe’s concern cannot be ruled out a priori. And if there is such a ruling center, its agenda might very possibly be rooted in some primitive tribal or ethnic viewpoint.
Atwill points to Shakespeare as the first evidence of a possible breakaway scheme by elite Jews, perhaps one particular family, to infiltrate and then achieve domination over ‘the Gentiles’ and their cultural and governmental institutions.
Can there be any justification for “paranoid wondering”?
Long-time visitors of this website will be well aware of a simmering controversy among the authors here, regarding this Jewish question. Rick Stanley and I feel that the hypothesis of a Jewish takeover of the New World Order is demonstrably wrong. As we have argued in several articles, actually the Jews seem to be in a scapegoat or sheepdog role with respect to more powerful Gentile institutions. And it’s often hard to know whether to describe this as a “plot”, or more of a result of age-old, impersonal cultural memes.
What’s worse: by entertaining the hypothesis, Atwill leaves himself (and, by extension, us) vulnerable to Dunbar’s charge of anti-Semitism. We have enough problems with marginalization of our ideas, without having to deal with this as well.
But, I don’t feel the charge of anti-Semitism is accurate, even when it comes to Atwill’s hypothesis.
Atwill is opposed to anti-Semitism!
Or at any rate, Atwill’s hypothesis of a possible Jewish conspiracy is very different from anti-Semitism in its classical, medieval or Fascist forms. He does not hold that there is any fundamental flaw in the Jewish character. Nor does he claim that Jewish religion is any more flawed than the other ancient traditions, Abrahamic or otherwise.
Indeed, if there is a Jewish conspiracy, Atwill believes the vast majority of Jews don’t know anything about it, and therefore are completely blameless. If indeed a tiny cabal of Jews has “taken over”, it’s purely an accident of history, and any other ethnic or religious group might have been in this role instead.
Futhermore, Atwill also recognizes that the plot involving MK-Ultra and the CIA seems to have involved people of various religions and ethnic backgrounds. Similarly, secret societies such as the Freemasons, Bohemian Grove, Bilderberg and so forth, are very diverse in ethnic terms, although to varying degrees they attract mostly elite participants.
Neither is there any obvious pattern of ethnicity at any other major power center. That is, except for the oft-noted concentration of Jews in media and banking. In both of these arenas, this can be explained in terms of Rick Stanley’s Shepherd-Sheepdog model. Or, more prosaically, the Christian religion has often taken a dim view of professions such as money-lending or acting. Thus, those fields have been wide open for Jewish participation.
Atwill’s call for DNA testing
Recognizing these issues, Atwill has stated that “DNA testing of all involved is necessary to determine the role ethnicity has played in the creation of the secret society that rules our country.” It is only on the basis of such testing, that Atwill believes anyone could be justified in going beyond paranoid wondering. He argues that such testing has the potential to put an end to speculation about Jewish plots, as well as the potential to confirm such speculations.
There’s no reason for anyone to oppose the evaluation of DNA data or samples that are offered voluntarily. With Facebook and Twitter, most people don’t have any secrets left anyhow. Sites such as 23andme.com already give customers the option to make their DNA information available for genealogy research.
However, many people (including, especially, elites) will not voluntarily choose to supply the data Atwill is asking for. In this case, principles of natural law (such as the right to privacy, and to avoid self-incrimination) come into play. I would strenuously oppose any efforts to get this data involuntarily, either through legal proceedings or stealth. Attempting to obtain DNA samples from deceased persons also poses ethical and practical problems. It may be extraordinarily difficult to acquire the sort of data Atwill is hoping for.
The Biggest Trial of the Ages?
Another question is, how would you know whose DNA to test? In other words, who is part of the alleged inner core of the conspiracy? And just as important, who is to be held guilty? We can only hope that even in the innermost circle, at least some of the elite are fighting hard against the tide of evil. Sorting out the guilty from the innocent would require a trial that would dwarf the Nuremberg proceedings. And who is fit to play the role of judge and jury?
And if we were able to put on such a trial, why would we then need DNA data? It would be purely a matter of scientific curiosity at that point, to determine the ethnic aspects of the conspiracy.
But without some sort of way to sort out the guilty from the innocent, and insiders from collaborators, there is a danger of circular reasoning from DNA. That is, it would be tempting to assume guilt based on racial criteria, rather than perform a fact-based analysis of the ethnicity of the conspiracy. Using DNA to ferret out some suspect ethnicity and eliminate them from powerful positions, would be the very essence of racial profiling.
Atwill needs to map out a strategy for how this pitfall can be avoided.
Dunbar plays the ‘anti-Semitic’ card
Regardless of the details of the analysis, it’s impossible to discuss the “New World Order” without having some model of the role of the Jews. So anyone who addresses this topic at any honest level, is at risk of being accused of anti-Semitism.
Considering that Dunbar seems generally inclined to share the analysis expressed by Jan Irvin and Joe Atwill at Gnostic Media, his attack on Joe seems most un-collegial. We especially don’t appreciate his playing the ‘anti-Semitic’ card. In the alternative media, we need to be able to follow an analytic path without fear of being called on the carpet for being politically incorrect. It should be clear enough, that elite Jews do have some sort of role to play in the power structure. If nothing else, the memes of the Jewish religion play an important part in the culture wars. We aren’t going to make much progress towards understanding, if we enforce a gag order about these issues. And this can be handled tactfully without giving a green light to hate speech.
Shakespeare as Jewish revenge literature
In Shakespeare’s Secret Messiah, Atwill argues that the Shakespearean plays are all, in a way, the same. That is, they always involve the Jews taking revenge for sins of long ago. In the Jewish war of the 1st century, the Romans defeated the Jews after a titanic struggle. The Romans destroyed the Temple, and invented a new religion to compete with Judaism. The new religion mocked Jewish ideas of a Messianic leader. Instead, the world was given a pro-Roman pacifist as a Messiah. The Roman Empire impudently grafted itself into the Jewish tradition, as the new chosen people. And ever since then, the Jews lived as a second-class people, trapped in ghettos, or hounded from country to country.
In the Shakespeare plays, according to Atwill, the Jews turn the tables. They punish the Gentiles (that is, the white Europeans) for the ancient sins of the Flavian Roman Emperors. Atwill suggests that this can only mean that the true author of the Shakespearean plays must be Jewish. He finds that the most likely candidate is Emilia Bassano. Coming from a family of ethnically Sephardic Jews whose loyalty to Christianity was always open to question, she would have been well aware of the Jewish aspects of her heritage.
Emilia Bassano’s Cannibal Feast
Dunbar complains that Atwill’s Shakespeare is “nasty, vengeful and Jewish“. Although Dunbar says he hasn’t read Shakespeare’s Secret Messiah, this is reasonably close to the views Atwill spells out in his book. He says that Bassano “intended to inflict the same sense of humiliation on uncomprehending Gentiles that Titus intended for the Jews“.
As Dunbar points out, Bassano published one long poem under her own name, in 1611. This is generally thought to be just after Shakespeare’s retirement from playwriting. This, Dunbar suggests, would be the place to look for Jewish revenge literature. Atwill has already thought of that. In SSM, he argues that the central metaphor of Bassano’s Salve Deus is the presentation of Jesus to the British noble women in her circle, first as an illicit lover and then as a cannibal feast. The rich carnal images are thinly disguised with the liturgical metaphors of church and communion.
Bassano’s poems includes a series of puns on the name of ‘Will’, similar to puns in the Sonnets. Atwill interprets these puns to mean that Bassano is identifying herself with Shakespeare. He suggests that the plays (or, perhaps, the playwright’s body) are being ‘served’ at the cannibal feast. Atwill concludes that Bassano “was taking a personal as well as a historical vengeance” with the dedications of the poem.
So, is this racist?
Dunbar doesn’t explain exactly why he finds this characterization of Shakespeare objectionable. Perhaps this is because there’s nothing to object to. What’s wrong with a Jew who takes some pleasure in imagining the tables reversed, after a millennium of oppression?
Now of course it would be evil for Shakespeare (or Bassano) to seek to actually carry out such a revenge project against all Gentiles. Such a dragnet would include innocent men, women and children who had absolutely nothing to do with the oppression of the Jews, either in the past or present. However, Bassano could hardly be blamed for imagining this reversal, as a literary device. Indeed, for anyone who understands the enormity of the Roman imperial conspiracy to create Christianity, it’s a delicious treat to see the Flavians and their proxies get their just desserts.
Furthermore, it would also be ridiculous to blame Bassano if such a plot were to materialize over the centuries after her death. Anyone who would seek to take ‘an eye for an eye’ in that fashion, is obviously lacking in the sense of humor necessary to read Shakespeare.
You don’t have to be Jewish to know a little Hebrew
Dunbar would also argue that we don’t need to worry about this alleged Jewish agenda in Shakespeare, because it’s all in Atwill’s imagination. Here’s where I don’t agree with Dunbar. I believe that Atwill is correct to see a pattern of Flavian reversal in Shakespeare. But when it comes to the interpretation, here’s where I diverge from both Atwill and Dunbar.
My view is that even a good-hearted Jesuit like Shakespeare (the Stratford man) might take some pleasure in a fantasy of revenge against injustice. And that Shakespeare may also have been working on a propaganda mission for the Tudor court. But if so, it may have been consistent with his own inclinations.
Many commentators have recently speculated that Bassano may have been Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’. If so, and if they worked on some or all of the plays together, so much the better. Such a partnership could easily account for the more strikingly Jewish elements in the Shakespeare plays. Of course, either could have gotten some help with Hebrew puns, from their friends in the Bassano family, even if neither of them knew any Hebrew.
As a basis for his view, Dunbar analyzes three particular examples from Atwill’s essay about the Tempest. Or rather, I should say he subjects them to ridicule, as Dunbar feels that there is no need to take the arguments seriously. Dunbar has cherry-picked these three items for condemnation, completely neglecting the broader context which Atwill has painstakingly constructed. Dunbar tells his readers to “Read it for yourself if you don’t believe me. Read it, before accusing me of creating straw men or any such thing.” We hope that if his readers take his advice, they will discover that is exactly what Dunbar has done.
Atwill’s analysis of The Tempest is built around the observation that the play is a re-enactment of Isaiah 29 through 35. Atwill is far from the first scholar to have remarked on the relationship between The Tempest and Isaiah. At a certain level it’s obvious, because of the shared character Ariel. What Atwill has done is to go further than other scholars, bringing out more of the parallels between Isaiah and The Tempest, which can be seen to extend across the entire play.
As Dunbar points out, some of those parallels are weak enough that they can only be seen if you’re looking for them. Maybe they were intentional, maybe they weren’t. But they’re consistent with Shakespeare’s strategy, as it emerges across many plays. This is, of course, discussed at greater length in Atwill’s book.
The Four Horsemen In the Clouds
Consider a similar interpretation of the ‘photograph’ that Dunbar uses at the heading of his article. This image, frankly, looks like it’s probably been Photoshopped. If not, it could be the result of combing through thousands of images of clouds. Or perhaps the photographer waited patiently for months, until the desired clouds appeared. In any case, the fact that the image depicts the ‘four horsemen of the Apocalypse’ is no coincidence. It’s by design. (According to Snopes, the mystery has been solved. The image originally appeared in a Kenwood car stereo ad.) And furthermore, notice that two of the ‘horsemen’ are unmistakable. However, two others can only be seen because one knows what to look for. It’s a well-known trope that horsemen come in groups of four.
Now, what can you say to someone who says there are only two horsemen in that image? Well, from a purely legalistic perspective you can’t really argue, because they’re only wisps of grey on grey. But on the other hand, that attitude is certainly obtuse. All four of the horsemen are easy to see if you’re looking for them.
Now, similarly, Dunbar has chosen to single out Atwill’s most pale horseman for ridicule, while ignoring the clearer parts of the picture. And while it helps to have a deeper grounding in Atwill’s broader analysis, this is true even within the article at hand. It’s not necessary for readers to go beyond Atwill’s article about The Tempest, to realize that Dunbar’s analysis is cherry-picking.
Was Emilia Bassano too young?
She was five years younger than the Stratford man. But, the earliest works of ‘Shakespeare’ were just beginning to emerge in 1592. This was after the seven-year period known as the ‘Lost Years’. Shakespeare was 28 at this time, Bassano was 23. But, ‘Shakespeare’ was hardly already recognizable as ‘the greatest… genius in English literary history” by 1592. He (or she) was hardly as famous at that time as the 23 authors named in this article, 23 Writers Who Were Famous by Age 23.
Dunbar also claims that Bassano would have written Hamlet at age nineteen. This is either a joke or a blunder. Most scholars date Hamlet to between 1599 and 1602. Bassano would have turned thirty years old in 1599. Shakespeare himself would have been thirty-five. Either age seems equally amazing, considering the achievement.
This is not to say I would view the identification of ‘Shakespeare’ with Bassano as a proven fact, but Dunbar hasn’t given any basis to reject it. Certainly not on age considerations alone.
Did Shakespeare write Titus Andronicus?
Although Dunbar notes that Atwill’s interpretation of Titus Andronicus is a crucial aspect of the theory, he dismisses it as “substandard“, with a hint that perhaps Shakespeare didn’t write it. After all, he says, Shakespeare never published it in an “authorized edition”. Actually, Shakespeare never published any of his plays as “authorized” versions. Bootleggers produced the folios, and Shakespeare’s friends published the First Folio long after Shakespeare’s death. Like many other Shakespeare plays, Titus Andronicus was published in quarto form in 1594 and was included in the First Folio. This should establish its basic level of credibility as part of the Shakespeare corpus.
More importantly, Atwill’s analysis establishes through a series of highly dense parallels, that this play exists in the same thematic universe as the Flavian comic system exposed by Atwill in Caesar’s Messiah, but with the players’ fortunes reversed. That is, as Dunbar puts it, “endlessly repeated visions of dire and degrading punishments to be meted out to the Gentiles at the Apocalypse.” Or as A.L. Rowse said of the violence of Titus Andronicus: “in the civilised Victorian age the play could not be performed because it could not be believed. Such is the horror of our own age, with the appalling barbarities of prison camps and resistance movements paralleling the torture and mutilation and feeding on human flesh of the play, that it has ceased to be improbable.”
Is Titus Andronicus a Special Case?
However horrendous Titus Andronicus might be, it is far from unique among the Shakespeare tragedies. As Atwill shows in Shakespeare’s Secret Messiah, the ‘romantic’ Romeo and Juliet and the ‘noble’ Hamlet are just as filled with violent and even cannibalistic imagery, as well as unmistakably clear and detailed allusions to the Flavian comic theme.
Yet while Dunbar sees these alleged counter-Flavian plot elements as imaginary, I see them as very real in the plays. However, the Flavian reversal is not organized on strictly ethnic or racial basis.
Atwill’s interpretation sometimes requires that apparently Gentile characters are actually Jewish. For example, he argues that ‘Friar Lawrence’ in Romeo and Juliet, and ‘Fortinbras’ in Hamlet, are playing that role. However, there is little if any evidence that would identify them as ethnically Jewish. In Verona, Catholic priests would typically be Italian, and Lawrence is a classic Roman name. The Norwegian royal family is descended from Nordic Viking roots, and Fortinbras is the crown prince of Norway. It is difficult to explain how ‘Friar Lawrence’ could have ethnic Jewish ancestry. It is almost impossible to justify this idea for ‘Fortinbras’.
The Jewish ethnic interpretation of The Tempest is also problematic, at least at a surface level. According to Atwill, Prospero is the type of the ‘Jewish’ righteous king. Yet, Prospero is also the rightful heir to the Dukedom of Milan. As such, he could be nothing other than the scion of a well-known old Italian Catholic family.
Is the Duke of Milan Jewish?
Prospero calls Antonio a “false brother” and a “false uncle” to Miranda. Describing Antonio’s treasonous alliance with the King of Naples, he demands of Miranda: “Mark his condition and the event; then tell me If this might be a brother“. So, clearly, Prospero is asserting that no true brother deserving of the name would behave so treacherously. Moreover, with the admonition “Mark his condition“, Prospero seems to be hinting that Antonio doesn’t even look like his brother.
Miranda replies “I should sin To think but nobly of my grandmother: Good wombs have borne bad sons“. That is, Miranda is asserting that Prospero and Antonio at least had the same mother. She presented both sons to the world with the claim that both had the same father as well. But if Prospero’s mother has in fact been unfaithful (as Prospero suggests), then with who? The obvious implication from Prospero’s accusation would be an illicit coupling with the royal family of Naples: that is, another ancient Italian Catholic family. It is difficult indeed to imagine how ethnically based crypto-Judaism could arise as an issue in such a situation. If Prospero is Jewish, it would have to be a result of an act of deliberate conversion on his own part.
Does Shakespeare reward the righteous?
Inclusion in “God’s chosen people” is not, for Shakespeare, a matter of being born into a Jewish family. What does it mean to be ‘chosen’? Perhaps it is a matter of righteousness. Prospero is a wise and noble magician. His enemies are drunken, scheming, worthless frauds. It does not seem to be a matter of class. Prospero and his arch-enemies such as Antonio and Sebastian are royal. But several of Prospero’s enemies are lower class. In other plays, we also find heroes and villains in all walks of life.
Is there a broader Shakespearean pattern of rewarding the virtuous, at least typologically? The answer is far from obvious, without further study. Juliet does not seem to deserve her fate in Romeo, unless you question the virtue of falling in love at such a young age. Aaron in Titus Andronicus is an ethnically Jewish avenger, but he is not portrayed as an especially noble character. Instead, his bitterness and anger knows no bounds. However, he is an atheist, not a person of the Jewish faith. And he is rewarded by passing his genes to the next generation, but also by being buried alive.
Who are the chosen, and who are unclean?
At any rate, what Atwill is missing in his analysis, is that the Old Testament, and all the ideas of a Chosen People, were taken over by the Christians. The ‘British Israel’ movement was already gaining strength in the Elizabethan era. So, there is no basis to interpret the Shakespearean literature as having an exclusively Jewish perspective, as opposed to a Catholic or even humanist perspective, regarding recapitulation and reversal of the Flavian comic system in the Gospels.
Is Shakespeare the essence of Western Culture?
It’s one thing to say that Ken Kesey was attacking Western culture. It’s quite another to make the same accusation against Shakespeare. On the contrary, many people would say that Shakespeare’s work is the greatest literature our culture has ever produced. The development of a taste for Shakespeare is a central part of every liberal education. As such, it seems to be the opposite of the ‘degraded’ hippy counter-culture.
Perhaps Dunbar’s anger is related to culture shock. Dunbar sees Shakespeare as the epitome of English genius, but Atwill says that ‘she’ was a Jew with an agenda. That is, a ‘Lifetime Actress’ who foisted vicious propaganda on an innocent public. It is hard to imagine any more culturally disorienting claim. As we said recently, culture provides the definition of people’s identities and their self-worth. Thus, any change, for better or worse, can be seen as a threat. We are old and cautious enough to feel threatened by the drug counter-culture. But it seems that Shakespeare is also part of Dunbar’s cultural self-image. Perhaps this is why Dunbar feels so disturbed by Atwill’s view.
Now, Dunbar would certainly object to find himself subject to this psycho-analysis. He would say that Atwill is simply wrong. Of course, I strongly disagree. But, for the moment, let’s just assume that Atwill is basically right. (I will return to a factual defense later.) First I would like to address Dunbar’s other points, which I think are far more interesting.
Is Atwill’s theory ‘Reductionist’?
At a surface level, The Tempest tells the story of Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan. First he achieves a just revenge against his enemies. But then he forgives them and permits his daughter to marry into their family. Many (though not all) Shakespearean plays have similarly basic plots. But, they feature richly developed characters, told with a fascinating combination of blank and rhymed verse.
Dunbar does not see any hidden agenda lurking beneath this surface narration. However, he does see a depth of meaningful nuance. He calls his work “the greatest poetic oeuvre in the English language“. The works had “a primary role in the unification, expansion and refinement of English into a literary language“. And, Dunbar obviously believes that The Tempest is a fine example of Shakespeare’s work. He describes one scene as “charming entertainment“. Ariel’s farewell speech is “a lyrical anticipation of pastoral bliss, the end of toil and resumption of play“. Prospero’s renunciation of magic is “one of the greatest speeches in English poetry…. So inward, yet so resonant, so limpidly clear even while contemplating the deep mystery of reality itself“.
Inasmuch as Atwill is rejecting all this, his view does seem to meet the definition of reductionist. I would add that Dunbar’s reading of Atwill is vulnerable to the same criticism. That is, Dunbar seems unable to detect when Atwill is speaking tongue-in-cheek, such as the remarks that the real Shakespeare had been kidnapped when the conclusion to The Tempest was written. Perhaps the writing wasn’t clear, and perhaps the analysis really hasn’t properly recognized the difference between comedy and tragedy. Atwill’s analysis of Merchant of Venice, another comedy, revealed a similarly veiled tragic subtext.
But there is at least some justification for Atwill’s disparaging remarks about Shakespeare, as I will now explain.
The Deification of Shakespeare
During the 18th century, the British admiration for Shakespeare evolved into a sort of secular religion. Simon Andrew Stirling delved into the story in his book Who Killed William Shakespeare. At a 1769 festival in Stratford, revelers honored a great statue of Shakespeare as “the God of our Idolatry”. An actor named David Garrick planned a magnificent pageant, including a masquerade ball, fireworks display, horse race, and grand procession. A huge rainstorm ironically ruined the festival. But, Garrick used the pageant as the basis of a London stage play dedicated to the Stratford hero. In 1815, a merchant was profitably selling wood curios in Stratford. The merchant said he carved the relics from a mulberry tree planted by “the immortal Bard” himself.
And then we have Atwill, who says that this same literature is “boring, incomprehensible, and sick“. Now, certainly everyone is entitled to their opinion. It’s not so easy to come up with an objective standard for the quality of literary art. Shakespeare can be tedious, paradoxical, and indeed at times almost as incomprehensible as if written in a foreign language. English of the 16th century is in some respects almost a foreign language. Many students who have struggled with Shakespeare, will smile in sympathy with Atwill’s complaint. But, others who have struggled through to achieve some comprehension, will be aghast.
In Defense of Cultural Quality
The established culture has spoken, and has declared that Shakespeare is virtually a secular God. I understand and respect why Atwill has taken an opposing position. But, my own opinion is closer to Dunbar’s: I think that Shakespeare at his (or her?) best, is really, really good stuff. Have I been brainwashed by the establishment? If the Bard is a mere propagandist, that’s shocking enough. But if it’s propaganda, does that take away its quality as literature? The mind reels at the contradiction.
Many readers will, no doubt, have the same feelings of disorientation. We all have drawn key parts of our personal identity from these cultural icons and their art. The Beatles defined the meaning of love and peace. Ken Kesey defined the difference between sanity and insanity. George Orwell and Aldous Huxley taught us how to recognize technological tyranny. The US Constitution is the basis of our democracy, even if it was mostly written by Illuminated Masons and Jesuits. And when it comes to ethics, the Bible is generally our cornerstone, even if it was also ancient elite propaganda. How can we escape the elite’s definition of our culture? And, would we want to? That is, if Atwill is correct that an elite agenda is behind them all.
Everyone’s a Sellout (but not to the same extent)
In every case, there is an undeniable genius behind these works. It seems obvious that the creators must have felt a strong, abiding drive and desire to create great, memorable and enticing art. To be great, this art must contain generous portions of truth, as well as profound insight. If the artist has a hidden agenda, nevertheless he still needs to be entertaining. And furthermore, in order to gain an audience, artists have always had to work with elites: either seeking patronage, or contracts. Some artists struggle to avoid “selling out”, but others seek fortune as well as fame. Either way, no artist can afford to come down too strongly against the interests of their great and powerful patrons.
And, those interest are not necessarily incompatible with great art. Surely the elite enjoy a good movie, novel or symphony as much as anyone. Their children need cultural role models, as much as anyone. Art such as Shakespeare must serve this purpose, at least to some extent.
Whether or not Atwill is reductionist, it is certainly unfair to claim that he is oblivious to surface meanings. But I’m not sure he has come to terms with the full extent of the paradox he has created. That is: literature that we are denouncing as black propaganda, is also the source of our culture. And at least to some extent, this includes Huxley and The Beatles, as well as Shakespeare.
However, Dunbar’s solution of going into denial is not the answer. We need a new way of looking at Shakespeare, and literature in general.
Shakespeare: The Myth of No Information
Along with The Bard’s apotheosis, Stirling argues that Shakespeare’s admirers invented two other myths. The first was the myth that little or no information has survived about Shakespeare’s life. The claimed lack of information opened a vacuum which historians filled with speculation, or legend. The second myth, Stirling argues, is the idea that the Stratford man was not the true author of the plays. Of course, according to Atwill, this is no myth at all. But, the literature has been so lionized that it can be hard to imagine any human being could have written it. At the very least, the author seems to know a lot about life at royal court. Additionally, Shakespeare’s plays exhibit a wealth of knowledge of many specialized topics. Many critics have felt that the author must have come from the noble class.
Stirling argues that Shakespeare’s life is not such a blank slate after all. In fact, there is significant evidence that Shakespeare was a Catholic. Or at any rate, he came from a Catholic background and traveled in Catholic circles. If this scenario is correct, it may explain how Shakespeare gained the education and experience necessary to write the plays. For an excellent review of this evidence, I recommend Clare Asquith’s “Shadowplay“. Asquith also provides an in-depth analysis of Catholic-oriented content in the Shakespeare plays. As Asquith notes, Shakespeare’s voice often seems pro-Catholic. This was at a time when open practice of Catholicism was considered treasonous. Asquith sees Shakespeare as brave, if not rebellious. However, she also notes that he did not cheer for open revolt. Instead, he advised peaceful accommodation. Accordingly, I argue, this is exactly what the regime needed.
The Stratford Man’s Deep-State Connections
In The Shakespeare Conspiracy, Martin Keatman and Graham Phillips build a circumstantial case that Shakespeare was involved with British state intelligence. They show that he led a sort of double life. He was an actor and playwright in London, and a tax delinquent. But in Stratford, he was a prosperous grain merchant who bought the finest home in town.
However, Keatman and Phillips conclude that the Stratford man and the London playwright were one and the same person. The best evidence of this, is a mention of some of the actor’s partners in the Stratford man’s will. They explain that Shakespeare needed to protect his family from the dangers of his life in London. Also, I would speculate, he may have needed to hide the income he was earning in London. Playwrights and actors didn’t normally earn much money. But Shakespeare might have earned a significant income as a spy, propagandist, or literary front man.
Marlowe and Shakespeare
Atwill has noted similarities between Christopher Marlowe’s work, and Shakespeare’s early work. Marlowe and Shakespeare were probably working for Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange, at his acting company, in about 1592. Keatman and Phillips argue that they would have met at that time. Marlowe had been a spy for Francis and Thomas Walsingham’s secret service. Their goal was to uncover Catholic plots against the government. However, Marlowe had come under suspicion for atheism, and was allegedly killed in a quarrel with another of Walsingham’s agents.
Sir Thomas Hesketh may have introduced Shakespeare to Strange’s acting company. The Hesketh family may have employed William Shakespeare as a tutor, under the name of Shakeshafte. Another Hesketh tried to convince Lord Strange to plot to gain the English throne. Lord Strange declined to participate in the plot, and reported the plot to William Cecil. But Cecil doubted Strange’s loyalty, and he found himself under investigation for atheism anyhow.
The Atheist ‘School of Night’
Informants also reported that both Marlowe and Strange were associated with Sir Walter Ralegh‘s ‘School of Atheism’. This group also probably included Richard Field, Shakespeare’s early publisher. Field had lived in the same neighborhood in Stratford as Shakespeare, and was about the same age. Critics believe that Shakespeare’s play Love’s Labour’s Lost contains a reference to Ralegh’s group as the ‘School of Night’. If so, Shakespeare at least knew of the group.
Francis Walsingham had recruited theatrical actors and playwrights to serve in his Secret Service. He also recruited opportunistic Catholics and religious liberals. Thus, there was significant overlap between Walsingham’s group of spies, Ralegh’s school of atheists, the Catholic underground, and the London theatrical circuit. Shakespeare’s interests overlapped with all three of the latter groups.
After Thomas Walsingham’s death in 1590, Francis Walsingham took over his Secret Service group. Keatman and Phillips speculate that Francis may have been a wild card whose dedication to the anti-Catholic cause was uncertain. Some spies gradually gravitated to the direct service of William Cecil. Keatman and Phillips suggest that Cecil might have had Marlowe and Strange murdered because of his doubts about their loyalties.
Keatman and Phillips argue that Shakespeare must have been involved with this network. They suggest that Shakespeare served as an agent under the alias of William Hall. About the same time that Shakespeare was writing Hamlet, William Hall traveled to the Netherlands as a diplomatic courier. In 1603, Hall worked with an agent named Parrot to expose William Watson’s nebulous “Bye Plot”. They also exposed the related “Main Plot”, which implicated Walter Ralegh.
Anthony Munday and ‘Sir Thomas More’
One spy in Walsingham’s service was Anthony Munday. He traveled abroad in 1578 to Rome where he joined the Jesuit English College. On his return to England, he became a playwright. In about 1592, Shakespeare worked with Munday on the play ‘Sir Thomas More’. The original manuscript of the play has survived. The handwriting of one three-page scene matches the six existing Shakespeare (Stratford Man) signatures. Or at least this appears to be true, although experts are reluctant to draw firm conclusions based on such a small sample. The spelling is also typical of Shakespeare, and the section features Shakespearean cannibal humor.
Will Hall also received a payment for services rendered to Anthony Munday in 1592. This is another in the series of coincidences connecting Hall to Shakespeare, and connecting Shakespeare to Walsingham’s spy network. While this evidence suggests Shakespeare may have been a spy like Munday, it also suggests that Shakespeare was an actual author. However, in addition to Munday and Shakespeare’s work, several other authors also contributed. Thus, the manuscript shows the collaborative nature of theatrical writing at the time. Thus, there is no basis to rule out group theories of Shakespeare authorship.
Shakespeare’s Surprising Success
As Cecil became more powerful, many Catholics and their atheist friends fell under a pall of suspicion and/or were prosecuted. By contrast, Shakespeare’s career soared. After Marlowe’s death, “Lord Strange’s Men” combined forces with the Burbage Theatre. Thus, Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, became Shakespeare’s patron. After Lord Strange’s death, the new boss was the Queen’s cousin, Lord Hundson. Finally, in 1603, King James himself adopted the company. He dubbed them as “The King’s Men“, and called on them for many performances for the royal court.
None of this proves that Shakespeare was the author of the plays. If he was serving as a diplomat and spy as well as an actor, he must have been very busy. This only adds to the idea that no one could have written so much in so little time. However, this alternative biography of Shakespeare seems rich enough in education and intrigue, to suggest that such a person could have been at the head of the authorship group.
Innocent until proven guilty?
None of this will convince the more skeptical reader. The identification of William Hall with William Shakespeare is clearly speculative. The rest of Keatman and Phillip’s case is largely an argument of guilt by association. And even if Shakespeare was somehow affiliated with Walsingham’s company of spies, this would not prove he was sympathetic with every aspect of the project.
But this seems more than sufficient to raise reasonable doubts. It no longer seems safe to simply assume that the author had no agenda other than creation of great literature. For more evidence, we turn to that literature itself.
Catholic interpretive level
Elsewhere, I have summarized arguments that the plays also include a symbolic level which plays off the Catholic-Protestant dialectic. Clare Asquith (in Shadowplay, pp. 265-273) provides an analysis of this Catholic layer in The Tempest. Atwill’s neglect of this level is another aspect where his view is arguably reductionist. In this symbolic layer, the plays provided reassurance that Catholicism is a fine religion. It is portrayed as far superior to all varieties of Protestant innovation. However, the plays also encouraged rebellious Catholics to exercise patience in the face of adversity. This message was, arguably, perfectly tuned to the needs of the authorities. The Catholic population at that time was large and potentially formidable. They needed to be seduced, not bludgeoned.
Asquith sees the plot of The Tempest as a sort of recapitulation of Shakespeare’s earlier plays. She argues that Shakespeare repeatedly represented the Reformation as a great storm. In her view, Prospero and his group represent the righteous Catholics. The Italian nobles remind her of the Anglican high church and the Tudor royalty. The clowns, she says, are like the Puritans and Calvinists.
A chess game between Catholic and Protestant
According to Asquith, the marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda is an obvious message to Catholic recusants. Ferdinand represents the future of Protestantism reborn. Asquith sees a poignancy in the moment the lovers are revealed to Alonso and the other shipwrecked nobles. Miranda and Ferdinand are playing chess. It is, Asquith says, “the ultimate refinement of a war between black and white, of conflict within harmony. The scrap of dialogue over the chessboard in which Miranda laughingly accuses a protesting Ferdinand of cheating has profound significance. Though Ferdinand may wrangle for ‘a score of kingdoms’, when it comes to ‘the world’ the pair are at peace: a brief vision of the perfect balance… in which political power-games have no impact on matters of the soul“. In other words, it is (again) a message encouraging passivity and acceptance.
The Tempest as Shakespeare’s testament
In Asquith’s view, Shakespeare wrote The Tempest as a “comprehensive coded apologia for his life’s work“. As evidence of this, she points to its placement at the head of the First Folio. In her view, the most important aspect of this ‘apologia’ was Shakespeare’s use of the character Prospero to represent himself. As The Guardian‘s Sam Jordison points out, this is a difficult thesis to prove. We don’t have many details about Shakespeare’s life. But, one connection is that Shakespeare himself had once played a character named Prospero. This happened to be the central role in Ben Jonson’s most famous play, Every Man in His Humour. Furthermore, Shakespeare’s Prospero orchestrates every event in the play, just as a playwright would. Asquith explains:
From beginning to end, running jokes and puns remind the audience of another coded identity. The island has all the features of the stage, full of sounds that ‘give delight and hurt not’, the magic at every point mimicking the illusions of the theatre. … The Tempest is a play about play-making.
In another possible analogy to Shakespeare’s (that is, the Stratford man’s) own life, Prospero repeatedly renounces his magic. In other words, he is announcing his eminent retirement from the theater. Following this play, the Stratford Man went home from London. After that, he wrote no more. The London audiences hardly knew he was gone, at least not for awhile. Two more great plays, The Two Noble Kinsmen and Henry VIII, appeared after his departure. However, most critics agree that those plays were largely or entirely ghost-written by John Fletcher.
Asquith suggests that Ariel, Miranda and Caliban also represent ingredients of the author’s personality. She imagines their dialog creating a form of “literary psychoanalysis“. Ariel represents the creative aspect. Miranda represents purity and spirituality. Caliban represents the lower, physical portion. Furthermore, Miranda and Ariel contrasted with Caliban represent “the most extreme refinement of the principles of ‘dark’ and ‘fair’“. That is, Miranda and Ariel are Catholic, while Caliban is Protestant. “By means of this double allegory, Shakespeare’s work is presented as integral to his nature,” says Asquith. Well, perhaps this is going too far, but it’s interesting.
The stage has been set by the witch Sycorax. She has given birth to Caliban, her dark (Protestant) offspring. Worse than that, she has also captured Ariel and frozen the spirit in a tree. To Asquith, Ariel must represent the spirit of English Catholicism. The Sycorax, Asquith suggests, is an “angry caricature” of Queen Elizabeth. Asquith supports these comparisons by observing that Caliban is referred to as a “moon-calf“. A Prague astrologer had famously hurled this epithet at Martin Luther, to the delight of Catholics everywhere. Ariel was confined with the help of Sycorax’s “more potent ministers“. This reminds Asquith of the action of Elizabeths’s royal court.
The diversity of Shakespeare’s sources
From Atwill’s perspective, the Flavian comic system is the most important source of Shakespearian typology. However, it is far from Shakespeare’s only source of inspiration. To the extent that Atwill ignores this, it is another basis for the charge that his view is reductionist. A complete survey would be a huge task. But, I would like to review some aspects of Shakespeare’s other sources for The Tempest.
The characters in The Tempest play roles that would be familiar to patrons of Commedia del’Arte. This form of Italian improvisational theater was popular in the mid to late 16th century. The actors in these improvisations would always play the parts of a stereotypical set of ensemble characters. In The Tempest, all the characters have different names, but the actors are enacting the stereotypical roles.
Prospero resembles “Pantalone”, a wealthy elder man. He is always seeking to marry off his daughter “Isabella”, just as Prospero is looking for a mate for Miranda. Isabella is in love with “Fabian” (just as Miranda is in love with Ferdinand). Fabian’s father is “The Doctor”, an authority figure like Ferdinand’s father Alonso. “The Captain” is a cowardly blow-hard like Sebastian. “Brighella” is a manipulative schemer like Antonio. “Arlecchino” (the harlequin) is a clown like Trinculo. “Zanni” is a lower-class butler like Stefano. “Pulcinella” (Caliban), a deformed tragic figure, completes the ensemble.
Kings and Dukes named Prospero, Alonso and Ferdinand
Prospero Adorno, the Duke of Genoa, may have been another of Shakespeare’s inspirations for his character Prospero. Similarly, Shakespeare may have known of Alonso II, King of Naples, who abdicated the throne in 1495 in favor of his son Ferdinand.
As noted by Charles Creighton in Shakespeare’s Story of His Life, Trinculo had “lesser legs” like the ventriloquist John Marston. In The Tempest, Ariel plays a ventriloquist’s game with Trinculo and Stephano. Stephano builds a pun on Trinculo’s name: “vent’Triculo”. Creighton also suggests that Stephano may be based on Marston’s close friend, Ben Johnson.
Shakespeare’s shipwreck seems clearly based on the wrecks of Josephus and Paul. Aeneas’s wreck at Carthage may have been the common root of all. However, Shakespeare also took elements of his tale from current events. Of course, all shipwrecks have many elements in common. Thus, the task of evaluating literary dependence is a matter of looking for distinguishing detail. Three accounts of a shipwreck in the Bermuda Islands in 1609, including one by William Strachey, are often mentioned as the most direct inspiration for Shakespeare’s descriptions of the wreck and the island. However, Peter McIntosh argues for earlier sources, describing explorations of Magellan, Drake and Sarmiento de Gamboa.
Shakespeare’s reference to the god Setebos indicates that Shakespeare may have used Antonio Pigafetta’s account of Magellan’s voyage. Pigafetta released his Report on the First Voyage Around the World in 1525. Richard Eden translated the report into English in 1577. McIntosh said that Pigafetta mentioned “St Elmo’s fire, tempests and assorted giants and cannibals“. Francis Fletcher also mentioned the Setebos, as well as a tempest and a drunken native, in his account of Francis Drake’s 1577-1580 voyage.
Charles Frey further notes that according to Pigafetta’s account, a pair of sailors named Antonio and Sebastian mounted a mutiny against Magellan. Fortunately for Magellan, a hero named Gonzalo Gomez de Espinosa put down the mutiny. Furthermore, Pigafetta tells us that one of Magellan’s ships was wrecked, but “all the men were saved by a miracle, for they were not even wetted”.
Sarmiento de Gamboa’s voyage to the Straits of Magellan
In addition to Pigafetta and/or Fletcher, McIntosh argues that Shakespeare must have had access to Sarmiento de Gamboa’s journals. Like The Tempest, Sarmiento’s journal describes a flaming tempest and mariners stranded on a beach. Parallel features of Sarmiento’s island include berries, shellfish, pastures, freshwater springs, evergreens, and oaks. Sarmiento’s villains are named Alonso and Antonio, and witnesses to a ceremony were named Gonzalo and Fernando. Wine casks are washed ashore, lions are afoot, lights are seen in the sky and voices of devils are heard. McIntosh feels that all these parallels, taken in total, establish a connection between Sarmiento and Shakespeare.
And furthermore, McIntosh claims that Sarmiento de Gamba’s descriptions fit Shakespeare like a glove, while in many cases the details of Strachey’s tale are in conflict. Nevertheless, Shakespeare’s apparent reference to Bermuda is a problem for McIntosh’s theory. McIntosh answers that ‘Bermoothe‘ was also a brothel district. Thus, Ariel’s quest for dew from ‘the still vex’d Bermoothe‘ might have been a joke about a search for purity in an unlikely place. Overall, McIntosh concludes, Shakespeare did not need to depend on Strachey. If this is correct, it’s possible that Shakespeare completed The Tempest before 1609. (The first recorded performance was in 1611.) The late date presents a problem for Oxfordians in particular, because de Vere died in 1604.
Conclusion: Was Shakespeare Jewish?
I believe I’ve made the case here to the contrary, that Shakespeare was more likely Catholic. Furthermore, this Shakespeare may well have had the education and connections necessary to have participated in writing the plays. Considering the collaborative nature of authorship in those times, it is impossible to rule out group theories. The author (or authors) knew about the Flavian comic system, and the atrocities that attended the creation of Christianity. There’s no reason why radical Catholics and Protestants of that era, as well as Jews, should not have shared a sense of rage, and a desire for redress.
But suppose we accept that Emilia Bassano Lanier alone wrote the plays from a sectarian Jewish perspective. Even from that conclusion, it doesn’t necessarily follow that this was part of a single conspiracy that continues to the present. Much less so, that the conspiracy was and is essentially Jewish in character.