A middle-aged British man named John Hudson wants to convince you that Shakespeare was actually not a middle-aged British man named Shakespeare, but a black Jewish woman named Amelia Bassano. He has spent the past five years compiling a huge body of research—enough, he hopes, to prove that Bassano wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. This spring, his work is finally coming to a head: He’s shopping an 800-page book to various publishers and spearheading a new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that takes its cues from his theory.
Hudson has a mild stutter and a rumpled, fatherly air. According to his press materials, he is “a cognitive scientist specializing in complex literary and organizational analysis.” He explains vaguely: “My background is very . . . eclectic. I come from a background of doing very long-term strategic thinking about extremely complicated things.” Among these, he says, are global warming, sociolinguistics, telecommunications, and the Gospel of Matthew, which he spent several years analyzing from a structuralist standpoint. After the dotcom bust, Hudson decided to abandon his career and pursue a degree at the Shakespeare Institute in Birmingham, England.
It was there that he first began to detect what he says are hidden Jewish elements in the plays and embarked upon a search for an author who might have put them there. This is nothing new—for as long as Shakespeare has been celebrated, his identity has been in doubt—but Amelia Bassano might be the unlikeliest candidate ever proposed. She was one of the first female poets in England but is best known because of a now discredited theory that she was Shakespeare’s muse, the Dark Lady referred to in his sonnets. It is not widely believed that she was black; still, Hudson thinks she was the Dark Lady as well as the author of the sonnets. Why would she write the sonnets to herself? “Well, why would she not write the sonnets to herself?” he counters with a puzzled stare.
Hudson bases much of his theory on references in Shakespeare’s works to music and Hebrew words that he could not have been familiar with; Bassano, on the other hand, came from a family of musicians and had Jewish roots. But the most incontrovertible piece of evidence, according to Hudson, is the fact that each time a dying swan—perhaps a metaphor for the poet—appears in Shakespeare’s work, there is a character present who bears a name associated with Bassano. “The probability that these signatures are not a coincidence is 99.999999999999999999 percent,” he declares. “Eighteen decimal places.”
Also noncoincidental, he thinks, are the parallels he detects between Titania and Oberon’s feud in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Jewish-Roman war of the first century. Thus, his staging of the play (subtitled A Comic Jewish Satire) transforms the usual fey fairy ballet into a Semitic war of the worlds. He sees the whole thing as an allegory, with every character representing a different Judeo-Christian figure. Titania and Oberon are Titus Caesar and Yahweh, respectively. Bottom, the weaver with the head of an ass, is Jesus Christ. Shakespeare’s Midsummer ends with three weddings and revelry all around. Hudson’s Midsummer ends with the Apocalypse.
In order to make his allegory clear, Hudson had to condense the original, cutting some scenes and magnifying others until they take on far more import than in the original. For example: “Where Titania has the fairies cut off the limbs of the bees, the Maccabees, we bring the bees onstage, and we have their limbs cut off, and then they’re lying dead all over the floor. They have big limbs, and their limbs are taken out, and they’re hung up on the bower.” He says this as if transforming bees into the Jewish rebels known as Maccabees were the most natural thing in the world.
At 7:30 one Sunday evening, Hudson’s company, the Dark Lady Players, gathers in a dance studio near Penn Station to begin rehearsal. The room is tiny, decorated with nothing but a royal-purple velvet curtain and an old broom that reads, “Dark Lady Players: Do Not Touch.” Nobody seems to be wearing shoes. The actors are all youngish and female—the only man in the company (he plays Titania, of course) is absent tonight—and they are all dressed alike, in T-shirts and loose athletic pants. They begin with a few minutes of grunting and swaying to prepare themselves for the intense physicality that lies ahead. Tonight they will focus on a “meta-scene” near the end of the play in which the Duke of Athens chooses entertainment to view on his wedding night. In Shakespeare’s Midsummer, the Duke simply reads through a list of amusingly bad titles (“The battle of the Centaurs, to be sung by an Athenian eunuch”) before deciding upon one. In Hudson’s Midsummer, each of these stinkers is actually acted out, in accordance with his theory that they represent an allegory against alcohol. He has added lines to this effect, as well as stage directions like “Enter Philostrate, resembling an overeager game show host.”
Mahayana Landowne, the production’s director, has a deep, flat voice and a wicked eye for detail. She spends an hour fine-tuning the scene, pointing out awkward moments and inflections, trying to define and refine the bits that are not usually staged. What’s the best way for rioting Bacchanals to rip apart a paper effigy of a Thracian singer? And how precisely should an actress playing “a man who died from drink” fall down after glug-glugging an entire bottle of wine? Hudson sits to the side, watching intently and chuckling in delight.
As soon as the last performance of A Comic Jewish Satire is over, he must head back to Birmingham to start his thesis, which he is hoping to write on—you guessed it—A Midsummer Night’s Dream. If his advisors agree, that is. Somewhat predictably, Hudson has been having some trouble getting his proposal accepted (or even examined) by more mainstream scholars. He is frustrated by the fact that not a single English professor at Columbia has been willing to talk to him. “They’ll just tell you it’s rubbish,” he predicts. “That’s what always happens with new industry models.”
Alan Stewart, a professor of 16th-century literature at Columbia, is quick to declare that the theory “has no validity whatsoever,” but he admits to being tickled by Hudson’s choice of Amelia Bassano. “He’s picked somebody who is quite interesting in her own right, and who deserves a lot more time, so in a sort of strange sense I’m glad. But this is just incredibly marginal.”
Try telling that to the Dark Lady Players. The entire production is surrounded by an aura of evangelism. “It may very well be the next big idea,” the play’s publicity materials breathlessly affirm. “If it’s right, this is going to be very important,” says Hudson. “It just makes so much sense,” says Jenny Greeman, an assistant director. “I hope it’s entertaining as well as groundbreaking.”
Landowne is more measured. “I think it’s going to be unlike any Midsummer I’ve ever seen.”
But does she believe it? “I believe that one can do what one wants with Shakespeare,” she says, deftly deflecting the question. “I don’t hold all of John’s ideas, but I want to open the door to possibility. I don’t know if it’s true, but I’m interested in a world that could believe it.”
Midsummer Night’s Dream; A Comic Jewish Satire runs March 28 through April 1 at Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex, 312 West 36th Street, 212-868-4444