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maryann johanson, striking from a hidden base

curated: were the works attributed to Shakespeare written by a woman?

This is the first argument against William Shakespeare as the playwright of the plays that’ve come down to us under his name that seems convincing to me, and it has nothing to do with “Oh, the uneducated son of a glovemaker couldn’t possibly have written such works of genius!” It’s a lot more radical. From “Was Shakespeare a Woman?” in The Atlantic:

Had anyone ever proposed that the creator of those extraordinary women might be a woman? Each of the male possibilities requires an elaborate theory to explain his use of another’s name. None of the candidates has succeeded in dethroning the man from Stratford. Yet a simple reason would explain a playwright’s need for a pseudonym in Elizabethan England: being female.

Long before Tina Packer marveled at the bard’s uncanny insight, others were no less awed by the empathy that pervades the work. “One would think that he had been Metamorphosed from a Man to a Woman,” wrote Margaret Cavendish, the 17th-century philosopher and playwright. The critic John Ruskin said, “Shakespeare has no heroes—he has only heroines.” A striking number of those heroines refuse to obey rules. At least 10 defy their fathers, bucking betrothals they don’t like to find their own paths to love. Eight disguise themselves as men, outwitting patriarchal controls—more gender-swapping than can be found in the work of any previous English playwright. Six lead armies.

Author Elizabeth Winkler to goes on to discuss a very intriguing female candidate for the genuine author of Shakespeare’s plays, Emilia Bassano:

Born in London in 1569 to a family of Venetian immigrants — musicians and instrument-makers who were likely Jewish — she was one of the first women in England to publish a volume of poetry (suitably religious yet startlingly feminist, arguing for women’s “Libertie” and against male oppression). Her existence was unearthed in 1973 by the Oxford historian A. L. Rowse, who speculated that she was Shakespeare’s mistress, the “dark lady” described in the sonnets. In Emilia, the playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm goes a step further: Her Shakespeare is a plagiarist who uses Bassano’s words for Emilia’s famous defense of women in Othello.

Could Bassano have contributed even more widely and directly? The idea felt like a feminist fantasy about the past — but then, stories about women’s lost and obscured achievements so often have a dreamlike quality, unveiling a history different from the one we’ve learned. Was I getting carried away, reinventing Shakespeare in the image of our age? Or was I seeing past gendered assumptions to the woman who — like Shakespeare’s heroines—had fashioned herself a clever disguise? Perhaps the time was finally ripe for us to see her.

The whole long essay is absolutely fascinating, and it ends with what is perhaps the real question:

What would the revelation of a woman’s hand at work mean, aside from the loss of a prime tourist attraction in Stratford-upon-Avon? Would the effect be a blow to the cultural patriarchy, or the erosion of the canon’s status? Would (male) myths of inexplicable genius take a hit? Would women at last claim their rightful authority as historical and intellectual forces?

Oh, just imagine…


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