I don’t believe that Emilia Bassano wrote the plays of Shakespeare. I don’t think Elizabeth Winkler does either. Emilia Bassano is, however, a very interesting, too-little-considered person, robustly present in the cultural world of Shakespeare’s England and intimately tied to the court. So for that reminder alone, Winkler’s recent essay, “Was Shakespeare a Woman?” is of value.
Could Bassano have known Shakespeare? Certainly. Indeed, she has been proposed as the “dark lady” of Shakespeare sonnets, but that remains unproved, though not impossible. “Not impossible,” however, is a low bar. Could she have written the plays of Shakespeare? Winkler is curious, and she points to knowledge and experiences that Bassano had but that could seem unlikely for Shakespeare, and flirts with the idea that Shakespeare functioned as Bassano’s beard. That seems to me to be awfully close to impossible. But could Bassano have collaborated in some way with Shakespeare? I don’t think it is true, but why not?
To paraphrase the title of one of the many responses Winkler’s article elicited, Shakespeare wasn’t a Jewish woman and he was a genius. But the idea that no one else had a hand, or a voice, in any of his plays has to be wrong. Plays are by their very nature collaborative, dependent not merely on a playwright’s talent but on the abilities of various theater artists and technicians to put the play onstage. Authorship is only one, though admittedly the main one, of the conditions of play-making.
In the absence of any authorial manuscripts of a complete play, we know Shakespeare’s plays only in textual forms that preserve others’ agency: actors’ interpolations and cuts, scribal misreadings or guesses, typographical errors or inventions—some of which necessarily have become part of what we think of as “Shakespeare.” And more substantive modes of collaboration are evident in his plays. The Two Noble Kinsmen says on its title page that it was written by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare, a contemporary claim no one has seriously doubted. But even without such a clear attribution, the same could be said about Henry VIII; no one with an ear can fail to hear two discrete voices in the text, one Shakespeare’s and the other, almost certainly, Fletcher’s.
Of course, these are late and relatively minor plays, so perhaps little is at stake in this observation. Still, the one dramatic document that is often said to be in Shakespeare’s own handwriting—the text of a play called Sir Thomas More that was begun in the early 1590s—exists in a manuscript with six distinct hands. One hundred forty-seven lines of this manuscript, by the so-called “Hand D,” have often been claimed to be Shakespeare’s, which, if it is true, would show that Shakespeare also collaborated with other playwrights earlier in his career. What’s more, recent scholars have argued that the three parts of Henry VI, as well as Titus Andronicus, show the then-young Shakespeare working with more experienced playwrights such as Thomas Kyd, George Peele, and even Christopher Marlowe—an exact contemporary whose plays written before his untimely death seem undeniably better than anything Shakespeare had written at that time.
So, early and late in his career, Shakespeare worked with other playwrights. In the middle, other playwrights seem to have worked with him, or at least worked on his scripts. The playwright Thomas Middleton had a hand in Macbeth, probably in Timon of Athens, and likely in both Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well.
No doubt there are other collaborations in the Shakespeare canon. That’s the way plays were composed. The plays of the Elizabethan theater were not written like Lord Byron’s poems or Virginia Woolf’s novels in a room of his or her own. They were more like our movie or TV scripts, which might combine several ideas from a writers’ room or get reworked by one or more “script doctors.” In the account book of the theater manager Philip Henslowe—the most important surviving document testifying to how plays were written in Shakespeare’s time—nearly two-thirds of the plays mentioned are in some sense collaborative. A team of playwrights might have completed a script by writing one act each, as was the case for a play Henslowe commissioned in 1602 from Anthony Munday, Michael Drayton, John Webster, Thomas Dekker, and Middleton. And old plays were regularly updated, as when Henslowe paid two playwrights, Samuel Bird and William Rowley, for “additions” to Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.
Readers happily call the astounding body of plays that the world reveres not just Shakespeare’s, but actually Shakespeare. That should not, however, keep us from thinking about Shakespeare’s collaborators. He was a pro, working in the professional conditions of the theater that he has come to represent. Was Emilia Bassano among those who worked with him? I doubt it. But—although this, as I have said, is setting a very low bar—it is not impossible.