Shakespeare and the Musicians from Venice

By Rowse, A. L. | Contemporary Review, January 1996 | Go to article overview

Shakespeare and the Musicians from Venice


Rowse, A. L., Contemporary Review


Henry VIII was keen to compete with the splendour of Renaissance Courts abroad in the arts, and in music. Hence in the 1530s he recruited six musicians and instrument makers of the Bassano family, almost certainly Jewish, from Venice. They were given quarters in the dissolved Charterhouse, with its convenient separated cells: a nice illustration of the transition to a more secular culture.

The Bassanos proliferated over the next three generations, with some thirteen leading figures among the musicians at Court. At the beginning of Elizabeth I's reign they were joined by several Laniers, Huguenots from France, no less important and fascinating to study.

Two scholars, D. Lasocki and R. Prior have done a splendid work of genealogical and musical research in clarifying the remarkable Bassano family and its contribution to our Renaissance culture. We now need a parallel volume to illuminate the Laniers, who continue more prolifically in the USA. Sidney Lanier, musician and poet, was one, Tennessee (Thomas Lanier) Williams another.

Roger Prior, who first spotted the crucial significance of Emilia Bassano Lanier's Poems in the Bodleian Library, contributes important chapters on her and the literary side. John Buxton also knew her work, but did not realise what he had in his hand. He was like Robinson Ellis, who was excoriated by the greatest of Latin scholars, A. E. Housman, for never realising that the Bodleian's manuscript of Catullus, which Ellis was editing, was the best early text of the poet in existence. He was second-rate, and Housman - who had the perceptions of genius - was scathing. He laid down that very few people had the capacity for textual criticism, and the great majority were incapable of following it.

Much the same is true of historical criticism, in the exact sense, though the field of view is broader. acute perception and sound judgement are equally indispensable. Buxton, who was a good conventional scholar, fell down because be refused to recognise the solving of each problem of Shakespeare's Sonnets. This led to the identification of Emilia Bassano, young Mrs. Lanier, well-known mistress of the Patron of Shakespeare's Company, as the dark, promiscuous, dominating, questionable young lady with whom the dramatist of the Company was helplessly infatuated. She was indeed an exceptional, rather alien, personality as everything discovered about her since has confirmed.

The authors say that others may have been aware that the Bassanos were Jews. Shakespeare, for example, would certainly have known the family, and it is striking that the only Jews in his plays are Venetian, not Portuguese as we might expect, and that they are closely connected with a character called Bassanio'. The English indeed often wrote of them as Bassany, or Bassani. All this throws a flood of light on the real background of The Merchant of Venice, as against empty conjectures in vacuo. It is obvious that Shakespeare knew what he was writing about in the Jewish theme of the play. he was familiar with it, he was close to it and them.

Then why has this not been realised before, to bring the play into the light of day and show how closely it related - as in the case of so many Elizabethan plays, not only Shakespeare's - to events, issues, themes, persons at the time? It is owing - as Housman would have said - to the incapacity of ordinary conventional minds. He was indeed scathing: he wrote that they carried `pumpkins on their shoulders, and pudding in their heads instead of brains'. A man of double genius, as both scholar and poet, he could afford to describe them as such.

Mr. Prior had already thrown new light on the difficult problem of the text of Pericles and the novel which George Wilkins made out of the successful play. He now tells us, `Shakespeare could hardly have helped meeting Emilia Bassano, since they both belonged to the same small group of professional Court entertainers. …

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