There are no verified paintings or images of Amelia Bassano, including the ones on this website, so nobody today can be knows with certainty she looked like. The image most frequently thought to be her is a miniature by Nicholas Hilliard in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, displayed nearby.
Until the 1970s, the portrait was of simply thought to be of an unknown woman. Some thought it might be of Mary Sidney, the Countess of Pembroke. George Bernard Shaw believed the woman could be Mary Fitton, a maid of honor to Queen Elizabeth I. Some speculate that Mary Fitton is the “Dark Lady” referred to in Shakespeare’s sonnets. Other scholars believe Amelia Bassano is the “Dark Lady.”
The woman in the miniature could also be Luce Morgan, the "Abbess of Clerkenwell" who was considered a “black prostitute.” Still others believe it is a picture of Marie Mountjoy, with whom Shakespeare had an affair while living with her and her husband, Christopher. The image may or be not be Amelia Bassano, although Amelia is one of a number of brown-hued women who may have posed for it.
Dr. Peter Matthews, who has extensively researched the Bassano family and “forensically analyzed” Shakespeare’s plays, believes is it almost certain that Amelia wrote many of them. (His books and articles are listed on the Bibliography page.) Matthews theorizes, based on information he has uncovered and by making connections between various discoveries, that the Bassanos could have been black Hebrews. He suggests they may originally be descended from the “blackish” Shulamite. (Shunem was a biblical village, where the Philistines settled prior to fighting the Israelite King Saul, whose army led by David. Egyptian pharaohs also conquered the village. Today it is called Salum. It’s in northern Israel, not far from Nazareth.)
While Bassano ancestors (but not with that surname) may have lived in Shunem, at some point the family migrated to Morocco and lived there for perhaps centuries. They may have intermarried with Africans and become part of the Berber Jewish community. Berber Jews had both light and dark complexions. When members of the Bassano family (including Amelia’s grandfather) moved to Spain in the 1300s, to the Venetian Republic during the Spanish Inquisition around 1492, and then to England (between 1531 and 1539) they may have been called Blackamoors, a disparaging term for black Muslims. This was probably a misnomer, even though their ancestry can be traced back to Morocco and they were darker-skinned than the native population.
In 1584, Amelia’s first cousin, Arthur (Arturo) Bassano was arrested for a misdemeanor on Creechurch Lane in London near a secret synagogue. In 1585, Arthur’s brother, Mark Anthony Bassano, was arrested for offensive comments to solders departing for Flanders. In court dispositions, John Spencer, the Sheriff of London, referred to Arthur as “a little black man” and to another Bassano brother as "a tall black man." Matthews does not believe this refers to their skin color but John Hudson, another Bassano researcher and scholar, believes it does. Matthews, concludes his research by postulating that the Bassanos were instead “tanned Hebrews”. The only agreement seems to be that they were some shade of light brown.
Amelia’s mother, Margaret Johnson, an Englishwoman was Caucasian.
Supplementing the research and pattern of circumstantial evidence offered on this website and expounded on elsewhere (as in the publications cited on the Bibliography page), are indirect hints and clues that Amelia Bassano or some other person of color penned many of the plays attributed to Shakespeare. No other Elizabethan era playwright portrayed as many dark-skinned characters, some clearly of African descent; although the plays credited to Shakespeare were not the first. The first, and only one I’ve identified, was The Battle of Alcazar written a few years earlier (prior to 1591) by George Peel. The play is set in Morocco and depicts black Moroccans in dramatic roles, including leadership positions.
None of the Shakespearean plays are set in Morocco, but there are several well-developed Moorish characters and other people of color in key roles. Interestingly, none of them are slaves. This is remarkable since the English of the time, in general, viewed blacks unfavorably and possessed condescending attitudes toward them. Although British ships were engaged in the slave trade and began bringing slaves to England in 1555, Africans who settled in England after 1569 were treated as free, even if former slaves elsewhere.
What would incline Shakespeare, who had a limited education and was from a small town (where he had probably never met any people of color) to populate several of his plays with Africans in robust roles? There is nothing in his background or known adult experience to suggest he would be so inclined, or even that he had an awareness of their lives so he could portray them.
Amelia, whose ancestry traces back to Morocco was probably a descendent of Berber Jews, and would be naturally predisposed to depict Moors and other dark- dark-skinned people in important capacities, especially in ways that defied stereotypes. She could draw on her own life experience. A white English playwright would be far less able to do so.
Another curious facet, and somewhat of a side note, is that one of the most frequently played musical pieces accompanying performances of Shakespeare’s plays was “King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid”. It's a ballad about an African king and his love for the beggar Penelophon. Of all the music that could have been chosen, why this one. Many English and European compositions could have been selected and they likely would be music far more familiar to Shakespeare and English musicians. So how did “King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid” get into the mix?
Back to the central question: Was Amelia Bassano Lanier dark-skinned in comparison to the light-skinned English? There is general agreement that she was. How dark and how she actually saw herself is an open question. Was she biracial? Taken as a whole, this constellation of facts, research, and script clues (in the form of major dark-skinned characters in the plays) strongly suggests that she was.
Read further to delve into the many factors that touch on this question and help unravel the mystery of her ethnicity.
Is this Amelia Bassano, Mary Sidney, Mary Fetton or someone else?
Of the six Shakespearean plays with characters of color, four of them portray Moors, which seems more than a coincidence given Amelia’s family history:
Aaron, Tamara’s Moorish lover
Othello, a Moorish military leader, referred to as a Blackamoor
The Merchant of Venice
Prince of Morocco
Antony and Cleopatra
The play includes several Moors. Cleopatra is described as “tawny”.
Two other plays include women of color:
The Taming of the Shrew
Kate (Katherine) the Shrew. She is described as dark skinned, perhaps like Amelia saw herself. Below are the revealing lines:
"Kate like the hazel-twig
Is straight and slender and as brown in hue
As hazel nuts and sweeter than the kernels."
Love’s Labour Lost
Rosaline (one of the women who attended to the Princess of France)
A WOMAN OF COLOR OF NORTH AFRICAN DESCENT
Did a Jewish woman write many of Shakespeare's plays? Was she a woman of color? Did she embed clues in the scripts pointing to her identity and authorship?
Explore the Shakespeare Authorship Question and the Evidence Pointing to Amelia Bassano Lanier
Amelia Bassano’s ancestors emigrated from Morocco in Northern Africa. (See the Jewish Lineage page for the emigration history.) Morocco is now and was then a multi-ethnic and multi-racial country. Therefore, that fact alone does not shed sufficient light on the question of whether Amelia Bassano was a woman of color? However, by combining that fact with many others a pattern emerges pointing in that direction. She was probably biracial with light brown skin, and probably darker than the woman in the image on this page, who may or may not be Amelia Bassano.