Was Shakespeare Jewish?

Like other fringe beliefs, the theory that Shakespeare was actually Jewish has been kicking around the Internet for awhile, but it just got a major print boost with a specious, sensationalistic 3000-word cover story in Reform Judaism. This magazine claims the widest Jewish circulation in the world, which means it potentially misled thousands of people into believing nonsense.

Who's the mystery author? A little-known poet named Aemilia Bassano Lanyer. She supposedly filled the plays with tons of previously-ignored coded references to herself and Judaism. Now that's genius: fooling the whole world for four hundred years.


John Hudson, a graduate of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, uncovered the buried treasure. And who's he? That's hard to pin down, since his biography is never described the same way when he's interviewed or profiled. He sounds like a cross between a social theorist and a media consultant, and is currently a "scholar-in-residence" of a New York theater company dedicated to his take on Shakespeare. He's been covered twice before by Toronto Globe and Mail reporter Michael Posner, who's written this badly edited, badly argued story.

Hudson's starting point is the same tired song about Shakespeare being a dumb hick who never went anywhere, so how could he write brilliant plays that changed the world? He must have been a fake because we don't have his diary, his letters, his rough drafts, his library card, his pen and pencil set, the hair he pulled out when he had writer's block, blah blah blah.

But don't let anyone fool you into thinking that there have always been doubts about his "true" identity. The doubts only cropped about about 150 years ago, as James Shapiro explains in the hilarious bookContested Will. Before that, and in Shakespeare's own time, nobody doubted that he wrote the plays.


Dozens of candidates have been suggested as the "real" Shakespeare--from Marlowe to Queen Elizabeth (seriously!). Nobody's suggested aliens or vampires--yet. So that brings us to Lanyer (1569-1645), one of the first English women to publish a book of poetry, described by one scholar as arguing for "women's religious and social equality." The book's centerpiece is a long poem about The Crucifixion. It paints Jews as "wolves" who bite Jesus and "use all meanes they can devise/To beate downe truth, and goe against all right." Try reading it. There's nothing there that sounds remotely like Shakespeare, but hey, maybe she was a split personality: One side boring anti-Semite, one side brilliant Jew.


Hudson is convinced Lanyer was Jewish and claims her father was a hidden Jew. He's ignoring a huge problem: Jewishness is determined by your mother and her mother wasn't Jewish. End of story. Lanyer was also baptized a Protestant and educated among Protestants. Despite that, Hudson believes she spoke Hebrew and knew Talmud even though there was only one copy of the Talmud in all of England at the time. Maybe she was a shape shifter and could get in and out of the room where it was kept to secretly take notes?

Hudson has no proof that she wrote the plays. He says she was the mistress of the Lord Chamberlain who later became patron of Shakespeare's acting company, so she had to know the theater intimately. But she didn't have acting experience and she wasn't a partial owner of an acting company. Shakespeare was.


Then there's bogus argument this: Shakespeare set over a dozen of his plays in Italy--but class, he never went there! How is such a thing possible? Can any authors write about a place or even mention it if they've never been there? Has that every happened in the world of Literature? But guess what, there's no proof that Lanyer went to Italy herself. Oops.


Still, the plays have Italian words in them, and the article state "there would have been no way for Mr. Shakespeare to learn Italian in Stratford." That's just ridiculous, since it assumes Shakespeare's education began and ended in his home town, and once he got to London he never learned a damned thing from anyone.

Okay, what else supposedly makes the case? The plays are filled with musical references and we don't have any hard evidence that Shakespeare went to recorder raves or even played air lute. Lanyer's family included many Court musicians, so she's obviously the best candidate for having written the plays, and far more believable as an author than Shakespeare. But how do we know Shakespeare didn't have good friends who were musicians? Once again "proof" is just smoke and mirrors.


Then there's A Midsummer Night's Dream ending with a Jewish Apocalypse. Seriously. When Pyramus and Thisbe die in the play-within-a play and Oberon bids Puck and the fairies to bless the three newlywed couples in Theseus' palace, that's actually an apocalypse. For Hudson, the whole play is really about the Jewish War with the Romans that ends with the Temple being destroyed. We're in Monty Python territory now.

Here's my favorite "proof": Among the hundreds of characters in Shakespeare's three dozen plays we find a Bassanio, an Emilia, and an Emillius--get it? But wait, there's more tomfoolery, or is it willfoolery? In the 1623 text of Othello published after Shakespeare died, Desdemona's maid Emilia echoes a sad traditional English tune her mistress sang, though she didn't do that in a previous version. The song's refrain of "willow, willow, willow" just has to be a reference to the Willoughby family that helped raise Lanyer, and Lanyer must have revised the text. Gadzooks!

Who was it who adapted Thoreau and said that some scholars live lives of quiet desperation and will say anything to get known? Then, of course, there are always editors hungry for click bait. That's understandable, up to a point.

Unfortunately, Hudson's wild theory is gaining some ground. Shakespeare scholar David Bevington recently told me he's getting asked about the Lanyer theory when he does lectures, and readers of the hot mess Reform Judaism story have told me they were convinced Lanyer wrote the plays, or at least shaken in their belief that Shakespeare was the author. Heavy coverage and a rhetorical nagic act can do that with ease.

Shakespeare Denial in its newest, Jewish incarnation is a very sad example of the rise of conspiracy theorizing to a respectable forum where it's being given infinitely more space than it deserves.

Lev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books in genres from memoir to historical fiction.

(This blog has been revised for Twitter in 2016)