Saturday, November 7, 2015

Shakespeare Was An Alien: The Mystery of Shakespeare's Universal Appeal Solved

A persuasive post on Politicworm: Shakespeare authorship, posits that a) Shakespeare obviously wrote from a male point of view, since most of his roles and plum speeches were for males and b) that that male audience was obviously an Elizabethan courtier (not, say, Queen Elizabeth.) Was Shakespeare a woman

As I began reading Shakespeare sporadically over the years, a play here, a performance there, I dismissed this whole debate.  "I think he was an alien," I offered.  "I think he wasn't human at all. There's no one else like him."

Shakespeare doesn't define himself in his plays. Yes, he may have known falconry, music and Italian geography. But unlike all the authors on our shelves, Chekhov, Dickens, Austen, Tolstoy, Orwell, Updike,  his background is a blank. We can't surmise his position in society from his writings alone. We know Jane Austen must have lived in a country house going to parties.  We know Updike was probably a white, educated member of the academic circles of his time.

But Shakespeare.  What do we feel we know about him, really?  Nothing at all.  It's like he's an... alien. If not an alien to our species, perhaps then an alien to the culture in which he was living. In every sense.

And so let's look at what we do know about Amelia Bassano:

  • Amelia Bassano's family was Italian, living in England.
  • Her father was Jewish. If she was not actually a practicing Jew, her parentage made her one of the very small population of 200 converso, or converted Jews, living in England. 
  • Her father died when she was only seven, and she was sent, the child of a relatively poor musician, to live with and be educated in the home of a wealthy countess.
  • In a period when the queen herself powdered her skin with a blend of flour and lead to appear even more pale, Amelia was described as "dark" and "dun".
  • When she was 13, she was sent to be the mistress of  a man much older than herself, rumored to be Queen Elizabeth's illegitimate first cousin.
  • When she became pregnant almost ten years later, she was given a sum of money and sent back to her family, to marry a cousin.
  • The cousin lost all her money over a period of years by bad investments and then died.
  • The cousin's family refused to give her her share of the estate. She had to sue them.
  • She ended up taking jobs teaching to support herself.  
Literary characters defined by their alienation from their settings give them the humanity that draws us to their plights. Holden Caulfield and his uncanny ability to perceive phonies; Elizabeth Bennett's fondness for poking fun of her contemporaries; Winston's rebellion against Big Brother.  We appreciate these great writers who created characters who looked around themselves and questioned the status quo.

We appreciate them, but none of them are Shakespeare!   Which goes back to our problem: who was Shakespeare!  I posit that he was someone who was so alienated from the world in which he found himself that he was able to bring a hawk's eye view to the world stage about which he wrote.  And who would be more alienated than a poor, highly educated dark-skinned woman living at court (for a while) white man's world?  

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