A Scholar Argues That Shakespeare Was a Jewish Woman
By Rebecca Honig Friedman
J.H.: There was only one Talmud known in England, in the Westminster Cathedral library; however, talmudic teaching was also oral, so individual quotes could have been transmitted that way. There are several quotes from the Pirke Avot, which was available as a standalone volume in Latin, as was the Zohar.
There were women scholars at the time, including one who was a distant relative of the Bassanos: Donna Ana (Reyna) de Nasi continued her mother’s vision and support for Torah scholarship, and in her 50s set up a printing press at Belvedere Palace that published a dozen Hebrew books from 1592 to 1599, including an allegorical drama and a talmudic treatise.
RHF.: Why would Bassano have written sonnets about herself as “the dark lady”?
J.F.: The Sonnets have several voices, and the so-called dark lady sonnets are written to herself in the third person, describing a woman whose cheek is gray and whose breasts are dun.
RHF.: We are told that Shakespeare’s works are timeless. But your staging of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the upcoming “As You Like It” puts a specific, time-bound spin on the plays. Are you not damaging their appeal — even their genius — in some way?
JH: Some directors anachronistically set the plays at the North Pole or in outer space or in a Mafia village. They therefore destroy and suppress the allusions that the plays contain and make them impossible to discern. I understand why directors who do not understand the plays might resort to such misleading devices. But they should do so no longer, and should use their staging to reveal what the author really meant.
RHF: Many actors seem to enjoy the fact that Shakespeare was an actor, too. Does the idea that Bassano has written the plays change that aspect of their appeal?
J.H.: All the world is a stage, and this was especially true at the Elizabethan court, where courtiers were constantly creating and performing meta-theatrical dramas to persuade the queen about various issues. This is where the author learned his or her highly developed sense of theater, and as a Marrano passing in a Christian society, she had to act every moment of her life.
RHF: Your theory adds a new layer to the manipulation of gender roles in Shakespeare’s plays, doesn’t it?
J.H.: Yes, the Shakespearean plays have more examples of women characters dressing up as men than in the whole of the English theater up to that point. Now we know why.