In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, from left, Kirsta Peterson (Bottom), Monica Cortez (Bee), and Megan McGrath and Amanda Bruton (Soldiers).
February 28, 2008
John Hudson is a man with a mission. Seven years ago, the 54-year-old social theorist embarked on a literary adventure, following a long-nursed hunch about Shakespeare’s true identity.
Hudson had spent most of his adult life grappling with complex questions that straddled the fields of social theory and cognitive science, creating high-level strategic redesign for the energy, telecommunications, Internet, and public sectors.
“Most of my work involved helping media companies rethink their industries,” says Hudson. “Now I’ve moved on to rethinking the Shakespearean industry.” With his life and plays comprising a billion-dollar global industry, says Hudson, the Bard has managed to secure a sublime place in literary history as well as an omnipresence in pop culture and media. “But, like all industries, it rests on certain assumptions,” says Hudson. It is these very assumptions — primarily about who the author of the plays really was — that Hudson set about to reinvent.
Hudson had an uneasy feeling that there was more beneath the plays’ surface than was brought to light by scholars and historians. His search began in earnest after he enrolled in a postgraduate program at the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham — in Stratford-upon-Avon, naturally — where he spent four years delving into the texts.
He gradually devised the latest approach to Shakespearean authorship, the Amelia Bassano Theory — recently recognized by the Shakespearean Authorship Trust as one of the top eight authorship theories.
The figure of Amelia Bassano Lanyer had turned up before in Shakespearean scholarship. In 1973, celebrated historian A.L. Rowse identified her as the actual “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s famed sonnets. Bassano — known as the first woman in England to have published a book of original poetry (Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, 1611), which has been interpreted as an early feminist critique of the Christian Gospels — was part of a family of Italian court musicians of Moroccan/Semitic ancestry who lived as clandestine Jews.
Hudson explains that the unusual circumstances of Amelia’s upbringing accounted for her extraordinary education and literary sensitivity. By age seven, she was adopted by the Countess of Kent, who provided her with a well-rounded education, including studies in Greek, Latin, and the Bible. By 13, she became mistress to Lord Henry Hunsdon, the man in charge of the English theater and patron of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men — the company that performed Shakespeare’s works.
The plays certainly suggest that their author had access to scholarly training as well as exposure to certain specific environments — all of which coincide with Amelia’s biography. The 2,000 musical references, for example, were her birthright; the hundreds of references to plants, law, military life, and falconry could likely be the result of her involvement with Hunsdon. Other subject matter in the plays echoes her childhood experiences.
But most important, Hudson discovered her key “literary signatures” — in which Amelia left her name spread across various plays. Her married name Lanier — meaning falcon in French — is spread across the two different versions of The Taming of the Shrew. It is in the form of the central figure who is tamed like a falcon, together with her name Emila; her father’s name, Baptista, and her husband’s name, Alphonso. An Emillius and a Bassianus appear in Titus Andronicus as well. But the most important “signatures” are those created after her husband’s death, between 1622-23, when her full maiden name — Aemilia Johnson Willough(by) Bassanio — was spread across three Shakespearean plays, associated in each case with the standard image of the Renaissance poet. Such a circumstance had little chance of being a mere coincidence. “She so badly wanted us to notice them,” says Hudson, “but nobody ever did.”
The next step for Hudson was to bring his case to the theater-going public. The first play he selected as a vehicle for his theory was A Midsummer Night’s Dream; with its staging he intended to present the allegorical plot revealing the key subtextual layers indicative of Bassano’s Jewish authorship. The challenge was to find the right people to do the job and convince them that he was on to something revolutionary.
Hudson is British, married to an American, and the couple often shuttles between London and New York. It was there, in the fall of 2006, that he set out to put together a theater group that had both the dramatic training and mental muscle to actualize his theories. After a few months, Hudson had on board Mahayana Landowne, a Yale Drama School-educated director. Next he enrolled in a “Shakespeare Boot Camp” workshop at the New Perspectives Theatre Company, where he befriended Jenny Greeman, an experienced actress and theater educator who was to become his assistant director. “I found his theory compelling,” said Greeman, “and the figure of Amelia Bassano is absolutely fascinating…. She is someone who needs to be spoken about much more. I am thoroughly ready to believe that she could have written these plays….”
Translating Hudson’s esoteric theory into concepts and then into practice involved hours of improvisation between actors, directors, and dramaturge (Hudson’s official title). “I was happy to adopt a hands-off management style when it came to staging the plays and leave it to those who truly understood the physicality of the theater,” he said. Yet, when it came to selecting actors for his new troupe, The Dark Lady Players, he made a point of meeting extensively with each actor to ensure that they were willing to think about the plays allegorically and took a proactive role at the dramatic workshops.
Lila Dupree, who played Theseus, feels that the DLP achieved a group dynamic unlike any she had experienced before. “It is definitely a struggle at times to condense things so that they will be visually clear and clean. With something this high-concept, you risk alienating the audience, so a lot of our process involves finding ways to break down that fourth wall, so to speak.”
Dupree is one of about 15 actors in the troupe, representing an eclectic ‘melting pot’ of theatrical backgrounds. What they all share is Shakespearean training buttressed by a voracious appetite for intellectually rigorous work.
The DLP is now testing its version of As You Like It in workshops. Also in the pipeline is Hudson’s biography of Amelia Bassano, as well as a documentary film deal. With all the exciting attention on the horizon, the troupe feels wholly committed to its mission of presenting new and thought-provoking interpretations of Shakespeare’s (or Bassano’s) plays. “We’ve learned a lot from our experience with Midsummer,” says Dupree, “and with As You Like It, we are ready to take it to the next level.”
To order a DVD of the Dark Lady Players’ Midsummer Night’s Dream, e-mail Dark Lady Players.
Daniela Amini is a New York-based freelance writer specializing in theater, opera, dance, and local news.
In staging Midsummer Night’s Dream, John Hudson’s objective was, first and foremost, to reveal the play as a Jewish satire rife with pointed references to Christian idolatry. In other words, “comedy as revenge.”
John Hudson carried out a literary adventure and brought it to the stage.
In his findings, each character is revealed to have a connection with a character in religious allegory, i.e., a “double” in the Roman/Christian world. Stanford University professor Patricia Parker had already shown that Puck carries the name of two devils, that Bottom represents Jesus (and, in the course of the play, undergoes a kind of “Passion”), and that Thisbe represents the Church. Hudson completed the puzzle to show that Oberon is the figure of Yahweh (God of the Jews), who is embroiled in the Jewish-Roman war against Titus Caesar (embodied by Titania) over the abduction of the true Jewish Messiah (the Iudean or ‘Indian’ boy); the “flower, love in idleness” (a pun on idolatry), represents the Gospels; and the end of the play is a Jewish apocalypse characterized by the distribution of dew — as in the Zohar.
The Dark Lady Players debuted Midsummer Night’s Dream in March 2007 at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex near Times Square. The staging was never heavy-handed and there were some uproariously funny moments, punctuated by scenes of violent carnage and deep, spiritual pathos. The overall tone was of a promising marriage between strict comedy and strict tragedy.
From the Dark Lady Players’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Comic Jewish Satire, Kirsta Peterson, top, as Bottom/Pyramus and Megan McGrath, left, and Amanda Bruton as soldiers. Photos by Jonathan Slaff, 2007
A series of events will be held in March at ManhattanTheatreSource, 177 MacDougal St., New York, on the discovery that Shakespeare’s plays were written as Jewish religious allegories by England’s only Jewish poet, Amelia Bassano Lanyer.
Monday, March 10, 7:30 p.m.: The Authorship Question
Tuesday, March 11, 7:30 p.m.: The meaning of Midsummer Night’s Dream, a Comic Jewish Satire, which includes a screening.
Sundays, March 16 & 23, 3 p.m.: Workshops combining talks with live extracts performed by the Dark Lady Players from the forthcoming production of the Jewish allegory As You Like It.
A 15-minute interview from a TV documentary being made on the Dark Lady Players and John Hudson’s theories can be seen on-line.
- Comment: firstname.lastname@example.org