shakespeare's conspirator

Did a Jewish woman of color write many of Shakespeare's plays?

Did she embed clues in the scripts pointing to her identity and authorship?

Explore the Shakespeare Authorship Question and the Evidence Pointing to Emilia Bassano Lanyer 


Emilia Bassano’s young heart bubbled with jubilation. Her head swelled with pride. Her foot tapped beneath a long gray skirt to the lively galliard melody flowing from her recorder. Radiantly attired English nobility danced before her eyes and Queen Elizabeth smiled from her throne in an elegant crimson and gold gown with white ruffles. Emilia hoped to impress them all. She watched their expressions as she played and tried reading their lips as they whispered to one another. Did they see her as a budding virtuoso? Since celebrating her seventh birthday three months earlier, fantastical dreams of what she could become swam in her head. 

Emilia glanced in awe at her father standing beside her in the ornate banquet hall of Whitehall Palace. His fingers whisked up and down the chanter of his piva. Vibrant notes streamed from the small bagpipe. Their strains blended seamlessly.

Emilia was born in London to a richly brown-toned father from Venice and an English mother. Her paternal family traced its heritage to Morocco. In England, they practiced Judaism secretly. Today she was playing at the court for the first time. Some thought of her as a prodigy. Were it not for that, she wondered, would she be an outcast? Would they accept her at all?

Emilia knew the merriment in her father’s amber eyes reflected his natural happiness and admiration for her abilities. Her heart’s desire was to be worthy of his praise. 

Court musicians behind them complemented their play. Emilia felt their buoyant spirit. As the beat quickened, she glanced again at her father wearing a black velvet vest that fit snugly around his belly. How different he seemed from the day before when he coughed uncontrollably in his bed and while composing at his worktable. She had worried then that he was terribly ill. Happiness now welled inside her, thankful that he had recovered and regained his natural vigor.

Without warning his eyes rolled back. The piva slipped from his hands and dropped to the floor with a sharp primal crash. Emilia’s joy turned to dread as she watched her father collapse. His baldhead struck the stone floor. Stunned silence overtook the music and cheer.

Emilia fell to her knees and cradled his head in her honey-hued arms. “Papa, are you all right? Papa, open your eyes, please wake up!” Tears flowed unbidden and rolled down her smooth cheeks. “Papa, it’s me, Emilia. Look at me. Open your eyes. Tell me you’re fine.”

She gazed up and saw a ring of noble heads staring down at her father. The circle parted as the Queen stepped forward. Emilia brushed back her coiled black hair.

“Get Doctor Lopez. Tell him to rush,” the Queen commanded. “Pray he can revive Baptista.”

Emilia leaned over her father as a puddle of blood oozed from under his head. She lifted his hand. It had lost some warmth. She pleaded, “Papa, please, show me you’re alive. Squeeze my fingers. Flutter your eyelids. Do anything.”

She kissed his forehead. It too felt colder than normal to her lips. She lifted his head to her chest. He showed no reaction. His blood stained her dress. His was limp. Emilia rested his head gently back on the hard floor and cried over his still body, knowing that he died in her arms and that he knew she loved him deeply.

Doctor Lopez hurried over, panting from his run. His black doublet expanded and contracted with his heavy breaths. He checked Baptista’s pulse. He pressed his ear to his chest. He shook his head. “I’m afraid he’s gone. He’s traveling to the angels.” 

Lady Susan Bertie, the Countess of Kent, knelt beside Emilia. Susan’s yellow beaded gown draped from her knees. She wrapped her arm around Emilia’s shoulders. “Emilia, your father was among the finest men I knew. I will miss him dearly. There is nothing more to do for him. I, too, am heartbroken. Come with me. I’ll take you home.”

As Lady Susan rose to her feet, Emilia pressed her eyes into the countess’ waist and sobbed into her silky gown. After taking two steps toward the banquet hall doorway Emilia stopped and turned. “Wait, I forgot my recorder.”

Emilia hurried back, trembling from head to toe. She grabbed her recorder, slipped it into its cloth pouch and stuffed it into her leather satchel. Her eyes landed on her father’s piva beside his still body. She picked it up with her shaking hands and held it to her heart. She clutched Lady Susan’s arm with her other hand, noticing the wet spots left by her tears. Together they walked down a corridor to the front of Whitehall Palace. Once there, they boarded Lady Susan’s carriage.

 “We will tell your mother together,” Lady Susan said as they sat on benches across from each other. Emilia peered into Lady Susan’s almond-shaped eyes. The sun shimmering through the carriage window illuminated her pale egg-shaped face and dark red hair. The countess’ delicate lips turned downward as she pulled an envelope from her embroidered pouch. “Your father handed this to me before the festivities.”

She broke the seal and stared at the note. Her face turned crimson.

“What is it?”

“It’s a letter recounting the agreement your father reached with my mother, Duchess Katherine Willoughby, in the event of his death. He must have had a premonition.”

“A premonition? Did he expect to die?”

“He must have felt weak. The timing is uncanny.”

Emilia rubbed her eyes, still in disbelief. “What does it say?”

Lady Susan blinked as her eyes met Emilia’s. Her chin dropped and shook slightly as if she was nervous or didn’t know how to explain. “He has directed my mother and I to be your guardians, and you our ward, upon his death. He has entrusted us to raise and educate you as we deem fit. To do so, we must remove you from your mother’s care.”

Emilia stared back. “But this can’t be. My mother and sister are my family. They know me. They love me. I hardly know you and I’ve never met the duchess.”

Lady Susan reached across and took Emilia’s hands in hers. “I know this is unsettling. It’s what your father thought was best. Your mother, as good a person as she is, cannot read or write. She cannot teach you what your father wanted you to learn or help you become what he desired for your life. My mother and I can, and we will.”

“But…but Lady Susan, I am not like you. I’m not an aristocrat. I’m common. I’m tawny. I don’t belong with your kind.”

Lady Susan rubbed Emilia’s hands and stared into her eyes. “Your birth and your color matter not to me. And the way you played today was anything but common. You must trust me.”

Emilia’s mother and older sister Angela were hunched cooking at the fireplace when Emilia opened the wooden door. She staggered in with her father’s piva clutched against her chest. Steam, carrying the aroma of salted cod, rose from a black kettle suspended over the hearth. Upon seeing Lady Susan in her great finery, Emilia’s mother, Margaret, wiped her hands on her frayed apron and twisted strands of her limp brown hair. Angela retreated behind her.

“Mama, this is Lady Susan Bertie. She brought me home,” Emilia announced though her tears.

Margaret’s mouth hung open in confusion. She looked from Lady Susan, back to Emilia, and then again at the countess. “That’s very kind of you. But why are you here? Where is my husband?”

Emilia dropped her satchel and rushed into her mother’s arms. “Mama, papa is dead. He died before my eyes while playing his piva.”

“Dead? He had only a cough. Nothing more.”

“He can’t be, he’s my papa too,” said Angela as she clung to her mother’s arm.

Lady Susan replied, “It was sudden. He buckled to the floor, cracked his head, and died instantly. Doctor Rodrigo Lopez attended to him but there was nothing he could do.”

Margaret kissed her daughter’s head before letting her go. Her hands swept to her eyes. Her chest heaved.

Lady Susan placed her hands on Emilia’s thin shoulders. “Mistress Bassano, I must read a letter your husband gave me today. I don’t believe he expected to die so soon but this letter includes instructions to be followed upon his death.”

Emilia flung herself at her mother, hugging her waist, not daring to let go. She shrieked, twisting her neck to look back at Lady Susan, “She wants to take me away. It’s all in papa’s letter. I don’t want to go.”

Emilia’s heart thumped as Lady Susan unfolded the note and began to read. She felt her mother’s distress growing with every word. When Lady Susan finished, Emilia turned and glared at her. Lady Susan’s hands fell to her sides and the letter dangled from her fingertips. Emilia wanted to grab it and tear it in pieces, but knew nothing would change.

Margaret screamed, “No! No! This can’t be true. He did not say a word about it to me.”

“Emilia, don’t leave me,” Angela pleaded. “Say it’s not true.”

“I am so sorry and sad for you, but it is true” said Lady Susan. “I can show you Baptista’s signature. I’m sure the palace will return his body soon so you may prepare it for burial. I must take Emilia with me tonight.

Emilia glared again at Lady Susan. “Tonight? No, you shan’t! I need time to say goodbye.”

“I’m sorry. It’s best to do this quickly. Delaying will cause more pain. You need not to take anything. My mother and I will provide all you need.”

“But I do! I have my writing and my music sheets. I can’t leave them behind.”

Emilia grabbed her satchel and ran toward the tiny bedchamber she shared with Angela, tears streaming from her red-rimmed eyes.

When she reached her father’s worktable she stopped midstride, almost losing her balance. Scattered over the surface were his music compositions. Parts of a manuscript he’d written were organized in neat stacks. Curious, and knowing that neither her mother nor her sister could read, Emilia stuffed the papers into her satchel. She then swept his music sheets in her arms and slid them toward her. She felt something heavier underneath slide along the surface with them. She lifted the top layer of the heap and saw a pouch tied shut with a rough cord. A white ribbon was knotted to the cord with her name scrawled on it, piquing her curiosity. I’ll see what’s inside later.

Emilia pressed all of it to her chest and hurried to the bedroom. She grabbed the journal she had started, her poetry and stories, and music for a song she had written with the intention of showing her father. Her satchel was not big enough for all of it. She pulled a larger one from under her bed and emptied everything into it, only holding back her father’s piva. Then Emilia crammed in two dresses and a pair of shoes. When she turned to leave, Angela rushed in carrying a rag doll.

Angela shoved the doll into Emilia’s arms, “Take this. I wanted to give it to you on your birthday but didn’t finish it in time. Keep it on your bed. Remember me each night we’re not together.”

Emilia hugged the doll in her arms. “I will. It will always be special for me.”

Emilia looked over Angela’s shoulder and saw Lady Susan hovering in the doorway.

Emilia tucked the doll into the leather bag, slung the strap over her shoulder, and clutched the piva against her chest. Lady Susan followed her as she returned to the salon where her mother waited.

Emilia licked away salty tears that had rolled onto her soft quivering lips. She wrapped her arms around her mother’s waist. “Mama, you will always be my mama. I don’t want to go, but it’s papa’s last wish. I should honor it.”

Margaret pulled her daughter tightly against her. Emilia felt deep sobs welling inside her mother’s chest that seemed to mirror her own. After a few moments, Emilia leaned away and stepped gently back. She placed the piva into her mother’s hands. “This, mama, is the last thing papa touched.” Emilia sniffed back more tears. Her voice cracked. “It…it… holds papa’s last breath. I’d like you to keep it. When you are ready, allow me to treasure it for all my days as a lasting memory of him.”

Lady Susan touched Emilia’s elbow. “It’s getting late. We must go.”

Emilia pleaded, “Can’t I stay until my father’s funeral? That’s all I ask.”

Lady Susan’s expression softened and her voice became more compassionate. “I’ll arrange for you to attend the burial. You can say more goodbyes at the cemetery. Come with me now.”

Emilia didn’t move. Her shoes felt moored to the plank floor. After a few seconds, Lady Susan tugged Emilia toward her and stepped toward the door.

Margaret grabbed Emilia’s other arm, “No! No! You must not leave. Don’t take her away. Emilia, please don’t. I cannot bear two tragedies, two losses in a few short moments—my husband and my youngest daughter.”

Margaret pulled harder. Emilia shook herself loose from Lady Susan. She dropped her large satchel and beat her small fists into Susan’s chest. “Let me stay, please!” she screamed hysterically. “This is where I want to be.”

 Lady Susan grasped Emilia’s flailing arms. “You can return for visits. We must abide by your father’s last wish. Lady Katherine and I promised to fulfill it. We will not renege. He ordained what he believed is best for you.”

Emilia gulped deep sobbing breaths. She wiped her eyes. She hugged her mother one last time. She turned to face Lady Susan who lifted the strap of the leather bag for Emilia to take.

“Come with me,” Lady Susan said in a near whisper. “Everything will be all right.”

Margaret lunged for Emilia’s wrist but her grip slipped as the younger woman encircled Emilia’s waist with her arm and pulled her away. Crossing the threshold Emilia looked back to see her mother weeping into her hands and her sister staring, her mouth agape, in a look of horror.

Copyright © 2020,  Steven D. Weitzenkorn. All rights reserved.


London, April 10, 1576