Overturning the icons of toxic masculinity
What difference would it make if Shakespeare’s work was written by a dark-skinned woman, a feminist courtesan-poet, from a family of second generation Jewish-Italian immigrants?
When my book on Shakespeare came out in 2014, I was happy to get a supportive reception from Dr. Gina Luria Walker, professor of women’s studies at the New School, and from the New Historia—a project Dr. Walker directs, and which includes an international scholarly collaborative. The New Historia team knew very well that what we think of as ‘facts’ about Shakespeare are actually a mental model based on many dozens of assumptions and inferences, many of them highly questionable. These ‘facts’ exist to support an overall knowledge map that supports and endorses male privilege. The New Historia team knew that accounts of the achievements of historical women intellectuals have been dismissed and ignored. They understood that members of the Academy frequently engage in biased, self-seeking groupthink to defend their reputations and interests, and will deny the admissibility of any evidence and methodologies that challenge the status quo. I knew all this as well, because that was how the world of Shakespeare professors, English Literature professors, History professors, etcetera, had responded to my work. Each looked only from their fragmented perspective, and were incapable of examining the whole complex, multi-disciplinary problem, which requires creative, open-minded generalists to work across perhaps twenty different disciplines.
At the New Historia, my suggestion that the writer of the Shakespeare canon might not be the man from Stratford-upon-Avon, but instead was a dark-skinned woman from a family (on her father’s side) who were Venetian Jewish immigrants (Marranos), did not meet instant dismissal but, rather, intelligent questioning. They did not insist that women could not be geniuses. They did not dismiss out of hand that England’s first published feminist poet, whose epic poetry was the length of a Shakespeare play, might match all the 30 or so rare areas of knowledge demonstrated by the playwright. Or that the 21 key plot points found in the Shakespearean Romances written around 1610 were also found in her poetry written at that date. They did not reject my methodology, from the sociology of knowledge (my original training), as illegitimate, or, as the theater department of one large university in north Manhattan told me, as “too sophisticated” for them. They did not insist, as did the theater department of another major university in south Manhattan, that “there is nothing more to be learned about Shakespeare.” Unlike those universities, which insisted on defending and entrenching the status quo by rejecting opportunities for questioning, the New School thankfully lived up to its values of creativity, innovation, and a desire to challenge the status quo. They were willing to encourage students to be critically engaged and dedicated to solving problems for the public good, rather than pretending that questions do not exist.
The New Historia team was not scared of the idea, as many women Shakespeare scholars were, fearing that they would lose tenure, lose grants, and no longer be invited to conferences, so that even though they privately admitted the ideas were largely correct, they dared not say so in public. They were not terrified, as those theater directors and TV directors I approached were, claiming that their theaters would be closed or that they would never be allowed to do Shakespeare again. They did not insist, as those synagogues I talked to did, that work by a woman who was a converso—and somehow not fully Jewish—could not possibly be of interest to Manhattan’s liberal Jews. The New Historia did not insist, as Shakespeareans did, that the plays had to be read superficially, according to what they mean to modern readers on the surface. The New Historia had no problem with the originalist argument that these texts had to be read in accordance with the cultural environment and styles of composition—such as multi-level polysemous allegory—that applied when they were written, which showed them to be very complex religious allegories, several concerning the Roman-Jewish wars.
Instead, the New Historia asked sensible questions and recognized the profound implications that would result if the most canonical works in Western literature were not written by a white, middle class, Christian man, but by a dark-skinned, female, Marrano Jew. They did not act as if somehow I had unleashed the Apocalypse and the End of the World. They wanted to know more. It was with that encouragement that I was able to take the work to the next level, which has led to a number of new media projects for 2019.
Usually, when people were willing to discuss my work with me at all, I would get one of two responses. Didn’t I know that there were no women playwrights in London before 1613? That was the absolute inviolable orthodoxy, and could not be challenged. Or I would sometimes be told that if, hypothetically, such a playwright existed in Elizabethan London, and if she was working on the Shakespeare plays, then someone would have known. Someone would have left a record. All the research on how Amelia Bassano Lanier’s verse corresponded to the Romances, and how her knowledge areas perfectly matched those in the Shakespeare canon, was just not enough. They had to have a contemporary record. And now I can finally produce one.
In one of his letters, and in his book Pierce’s Supererogation (1593), the literary critic Gabriel Harvey described an “Excellent Gentlewoman” who had written three sonnets attacking Thomas Nashe, the well-known satirist. It was quite unusual for women to write sonnets at all, let alone ones attacking another well-known poet. The first sonnet asks the Muses whether a poor woman can bind “a lion-dragon or a bull-bear.” Is it possible for a “pulling wench” to tame “the furibundal champion of Fame?” This champion is the dwarfish Nashe, a “bombard-goblin” and “super-domineering elf”, whose words are like a whirlwind. The second sonnet refers to him as this “boy” who is a termagant (a kind of braggart from the mystery plays), whose “braggardous affronts” are the death—“the gibbet”—for other writers.
The last sonnet is given a Latin title: ‘Ultrix accincta flagello’, from the Aeneid (VI, line 570). This is part of a description of the Fury Tisiphone, the “avenger, girded with a whip” who was the minister of vengeance. The Latin is followed by the title ‘Her Old Comedy, newly entitled’, and the poem concludes that the author has written—or rather, “scrawled”—a “doughty comedy.” Her having written this play seems to be related to seeking vengeance on Nashe. The last lines state:
……I knew a glorious and braving knight,
That would be deemed a truculent wight,
Of him I scrawled a doughty comedy,
Sir Bombarduccio was his cruel name,
But Gnashardiuccio the sole bruit of Fame.
See, how he brays and fumes at me poor lass,
That must immortalize the kill-cow ass.
The play she is writing is mentioned twice as an “Old comedy” and as a “doughty comedy.” There has been very little scholarly research into Harvey’s extraordinary reference to the existence of a young woman (a “lass”), who was a playwright in London in 1593, who was known to Gabriel Harvey, and who had a dispute with Thomas Nashe.
There are three possible interpretations of this “Gentlewoman”. Firstly, Nashe claims that she does not exist, and in his Have With You to Saffron Walden, or Gabriel Harvey’s Hunt is Up’(1596), he writes that “… there is no such woman, but tis only a Fiction of His,” and, “No other is this goodwife…but Gabriel himself.” Yet there would be little point in Harvey creating such a Gentlewoman and, possibly, Nashe is dissembling. Penny McCarthy points out that, elsewhere, Nashe discusses the Gentlewoman as if she were a real person, wishing he could encounter her naked, and calling her a strumpet.
A second interpretation is that Harvey’s “Gentlewoman” is referring to Mary Sidney (1561-1621). Certainly, at one point Harvey refers to Mary Sidney as the “Gentlewoman of Curtsie, the Lady of Virtue, the Countess of Excellency.” Harvey mentions Sidney’s translations of the play the Tragedy Antonius and of A Discourse of Life and Death. But although Mary Sidney might be called a “Gentlewoman of Curtsie,” at age 32 she was not a “lass.” As a Countess, Sidney was a noblewoman rather than a “Gentlewoman.” And she was not a playwright.
The third interpretation is that the “Excellent Gentlewoman” is an unknown woman, who has yet to be identified. We know something about her from Pierce’s Supererogation. She is a young woman, a “lass” or a “wench.” Her style is “the tinsel of the daintiest Muses”—although this hardly matches her three sonnets. She is “… neither the noblest, nor the fairest, nor the finest, nor the richest Lady; but the gentlest, and wittiest, and bravest and invinciblest Gentlewoman.” She is situated in the intellectual milieu of the University Wits. Nashe tells us she is highly educated: that she, “… hath read these and these books and is well seen in all languages” and “… hath read Homer, Virgil, the divine Archetypes of Hebrew Greek and Roman valour, Plutarch, Polien, Agrippa, Tyraquell.” (Have With You, 3:110-11).
In the New Letter Harvey then quotes the Gentlewoman:
I have not been squattering at my papers for nothing, and albeit I cannot paint with my pen like fine Sappho, yet I can daub with my ink like none of the Muses: and am prettily provided to entertain St. Fame with a homely gallimaufry of little Art, to requite her dainty flaumpaump [ornamented pastry] of little wit.
Harvey says that he cannot provide specific details of the Gentlewoman: “I dare not particularise her Description… without her license or permission.” But he describes the Gentlewoman as writing “… strange inventions and rare devises, as forcible to move as to delight.” Since Harvey taught rhetoric to students at Cambridge University, he should have had a high standard. He says that she is “the mistress of wit”, has “rare perfections”, and that “… the day is yet to come wherein I found her wit a defective or ecliptic creature.” He goes on, “All her conceits are illuminate with the light of Reason; all her speeches beautified with the grace of Affability… all her sentences spiced with wittiness, perfumed with delight.” He says, “In her mind there appeareth a certain heavenly logic; in her tongue and pen a divine rhetoric.” Later, Harvey says, “I dare undertake with warrant, whatsoever she writeth must needs remain an immortal work, and will leave, in the activest world, an eternal memory of the silliest vermin that she should vouchsafe to grace with her beautiful and effective style, as ingenious as elegant.” Concerning her literary composition (inditing): “.. as in the harmony of her mind, so in the melody of her verse, I seldom descry any note out of tune; and it is not the first time I have termed her Prose the tinsel of finest art and sweetest nature.”
The Excellent Gentlewoman’s vocabulary needs to be studied, but one word immediately stands out:“gallimaufry”, meaning a kind of hotchpotch. This word was used by Nashe in his Pierce Penniless and Summer’s Last Will and Testament, and later appears in the Shakespeare play The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597), referring to Falstaff’s taste in women as “He loves the gallimaufry.” The word appears in very few other sources between 1590-1600, according to Early English Books Online. (Its first recorded use is in a translation of Thomas More’s Utopia in 1551). Also, like Shakespeare, the Gentlewoman likes inventing words. In these three sonnets, she appears to have invented “squattering” (the Oxford English Dictionary’s first use is by Florio in 1598); “furibundal”, which apparently here receives its first use; not to mention “tronts” and “railipotent”, which are words which do not appear in the OED at all. This coining of new language invites the question of whether the Gentlewoman and her “strange inventions” could have a connection to Shakespeare.
To date, only one Gentlewoman has been identified who was the age of a “lass” in 1593, was this highly educated, was associated with one of the University Wits, and had the poetical skills to be a covert playwright: Amelia Bassano Lanier (1569-1645). In my book, Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, I proposed her as the main author of the Shakespearean works, and as the character of Avisa, who was described as a concealed playwright in 1594. The writer of the Shakespearean works had a close relationship to the theater company the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and was connected to London’s literary circles. As the former long-term mistress of Lord Hunsdon, the patron of the theater company, Lanier would have been in a perfect position.
However, Lanier does not meet Harvey’s criteria of having written “immortal work” and of having published more than Nashe. This may be Harvey’s characteristic exaggeration, but it remains that at the end of 1593 Nashe had published six works and two prefaces, while Amelia Bassano Lanier had published nothing under her own name. However, if we were to credit her with the Shakespearean works, then Lanier would certainly qualify as having achieved the rare perfection of immortal work that Harvey referred to. At the end of 1593, Venus and Adonis, Rape of Lucrece, Willobie His Avisa, Titus Andronicus, and The Taming of the Shrew were being prepared for publication; and Reign of Edward III, Sir Thomas More, installments of Henry Vi and Henry IV, Sonnets 1 — 17 , and probably Love’s Labors Lost were all complete.
Two Gentlemen of Verona, traditionally thought to have been largely written before 1593, would have been in draft. Harvey says that the Gentlewoman is engaged in creating a specific satire of Nashe, in which his brazen wall will be battered to pin-dust. Harvey says, “It is in the least of her energetical lines to do it,” and that it will be “a pretty experiment,” quoting two lines about “the Noddy Nashe.” Two Gentlemen is extensively influenced by Nashe’s Have With You to Saffron Walden (1596), from which it borrows the names of seven of its characters. The play contains many unusual words and phrases such as “wench… pulling… water in a urinal”, and several lines about Noddy. This led John Peachman (2007) to conclude that “Two Gentlemen… may be in part a satire on Nashe.”
So here at last is direct documentary evidence that there was an active woman playwright in London, close to the University Wits, writing in 1593. It seems likely that she matches the characteristics of Amelia Bassano Lanier, and a future discussion will explore the possibility that the “comedy” the Gentlewoman is working on is a Shakespeare play.
John Hudson has had a career in multiple fields, is a graduate of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, and directs the Dark Lady Players, an experimental Shakespeare ensemble.