I’m not convinced that Emilia Bassano or anyone else was the true author of Shakespeare’s plays. But I’m absolutely certain that women had a hand in the writing of many plays performed in his theater. Recent scholarship has demonstrated that women were actively and visibly engaged in the business of the professional theater companies that burgeoned during the Elizabethan period. Aristocratic and royal women were among their patrons, and women lower on the social scale were involved in their day-to-day business. Women supplied costumes for theatrical productions, lent money to the players, and owned shares in the companies. They stood at the entrances of playhouses to collect admission fees. Women also constituted a sizable portion of the playgoers—perhaps more than half—and on a few occasions, they even appeared onstage. (There are contemporary references to French actresses and female Italian acrobats, and Mary Frith—a figure in the London underworld, also known as Moll Cutpurse—delivered a notorious performance at the Fortune Theatre in 1612.) The female audience came from all ranks of society, ranging from royalty to common criminals. Perhaps the greatest number came from London’s middling class.
We know the names of medieval and Renaissance Englishwomen who wrote a variety of plays, ranging from liturgical drama to aristocratic and royal entertainments. The absence of women from the list of known commercial playwrights in Shakespeare’s England does not mean that no Englishwomen had a hand in writing for the public stage—only that their names may be difficult or impossible to retrieve. That is in part because most of the plays we have from the first commercial theaters came down to us without the names of their authors. The assumption that every one of the unnamed authors was a man is simply that—an assumption.