FactCheck Social Media

‘Amelia Bassano’ did not write Shakespeare’s plays

2020-09-28 16:22:19

The Statement

A post widely shared on social media claims that William Shakespeare’s plays are the work of Amelia Bassano, a black woman who purportedly died unpublished and in poverty.

The post reads, “Amelia Bassano is the lady who wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays. Because she was black they would not publish her work. She died in poverty because she never received a dime for her work. Shakespeare was illiterate and could barely write his own name.”

The post includes a painting of a black woman and a partly-visible portrait of Shakespeare with a header which reads, “That’s crazy! I never knew! Smh!”

A September 18 version of the post had been viewed more than 16,000 times and attracted more than 90 shares at the time of writing. Other examples of the post can be seen here, here and here.

A Facebook post
 A Facebook post claims William Shakespeare’s plays are in fact the work of Amelia Bassano. 

The Analysis

The Facebook post makes a number of false claims, including that Shakespeare’s plays were written by “Amelia Bassano”, a black woman who died unpublished and in poverty. It also claims that Shakespeare was illiterate.

The authorship of Shakespeare’s plays has long been the subject of debate, but University of Melbourne associate professor of Shakespeare David McKinnis puts this down to “conspiracy theories”.

“There is no evidence whatsoever that anyone other than Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare,” he told AAP Factcheck in an email.

“Shakespeare demonstrably read widely and had a grammar school education, which in many regards would exceed today’s tertiary education standards.”

Dr McKinnis also provided background on Aemelia Bassano, who was also known as Emilia Lanier.

“Emilia Lanier (bap. 1569, d. 1645; daughter of Baptista Bassano, an Italian Jew from Venice) was a real person and a poet, and was a favourite of Elizabeth I, mistress of Henry Carey (the Lord Chamberlain who patronised Shakespeare’s company), and married Captain Alphonso Lanier in 1592.”

Regarding the claim that Bassano wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays, Dr McKinnis told AAP FactCheck: “The idea that she was known to all these people and that some elaborate conspiracy of virtually everyone of significance in London in the 17th century would ‘cover-up’ her supposed authorship of Shakespeare’s plays is ridiculous.”

Bassano was also a published author in her own right.

“Her Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611) was the first book of original poetry – religious verse – published by a woman in England in the seventeenth century. So ‘they would not publish her work’ is pure nonsense,” Dr McKinnis said.

The image used in the post is not Aemelia Bassano but a painting by Paolo Veronese with the title: Portrait of a Moorish woman.

It is difficult to verify whether Bassano was black. A 2009 paper published in The Oxfordian describes “the dark-skinned Bassanos, some of whom were described in contemporary records as ‘black’ and who may have been of Moroccan as well as Jewish ancestry”.

Dr McKinnis said while some sources, including the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, refer to Bassano’s “racial colouring”, that doesn’t necessarily mean she was black.

“I imagine it more likely that a Venetian family would have a Mediterranean complexion,” he said.

“A Nicholas Hilliard portrait has sometimes been suggested to depict Lanier but the identification isn’t definite by any means.”

He also disputed the post’s claim that being black would have prevented Bassano from having her work published.

“Being black does not guarantee that a writer wouldn’t be published: the great Roman playwright Terence was born in Carthage (hence ‘Terence the African’) and was black; his works were frequently republished during Shakespeare’s lifetime, his greatness widely acknowledged, and Shakespeare himself used Terence as a source on occasion.”

The Facebook post has previously been debunked here and here.

A portrait of William Shakespeare/
 An expert told AAP FactCheck there’s no evidence that anyone other than Shakespeare wrote his works. 

The Verdict

Based on the evidence, AAP FactCheck found the claims in this post to be false. A Shakespeare expert told AAP FactCheck the playwright was not illiterate and rejected the claim that anyone else authored his plays.

There is also no evidence Aemelia Bassano was unpublished because she was black. Her poem, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, was one of the first known books of original poetry by an English woman to be published.

False – The primary claims in this Facebook post are inaccurate.

* AAP FactCheck is accredited by the Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network, which promotes best practice through a stringent and transparent Code of Principles. https://aap.com.au/