It is a great comfort, to my way of thinking,” Charles Dickens wrote in 1847, “that so little is known concerning the poet. The life of Shakespeare is a fine mystery and I tremble every day lest something should turn up.”
“Is it not strange,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in his journals, “that the transcendent men, Homer, Plato, Shakespeare, confessedly unrivalled, should have questions of identity and of genuineness raised respecting their writings?”
Strange, indeed. And not everyone has taken comfort, as Dickens did, from the paucity of information about the life and literary career of William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, considered by many the greatest writer in the English, or any, language. Henry James, the great American novelist, confessed, “I’m haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practised on a patient world.”
In “Much Ado About Something,” Australian filmmaker and veteran FRONTLINE producer Michael Rubbo plunges gamely into the longrunning debate over the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, picking up the trail of Christopher Marlowe — the 16th-century English playwright, poet, and spy who some believe was the author. Born in 1564, the same year as Shakespeare, Marlowe was at the height of his literary career in 1593 — having authored such plays as Tamburlaine, Doctor Faustus, and The Jew of Malta — when he was apparently killed in a “brawl” over a tavern bill. But Marlowe’s death, on closer examination, is cloaked in mystery, and some “Marlovians” insist that the playwright lived to write another day — under the name of Shakespeare.
Rubbo takes viewers across England and to Italy, the setting of some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, in his quest to unravel the puzzle. Along the way he seeks out some of Britain’s most respected Shakespearean scholars — including Prof. Jonathan Bate, author of The Genius of Shakespeare (1997); Prof. Andrew Gurr, director of research at Shakespeare’s Globe theater in London; and Prof. Stanley Wells, general editor of the Oxford edition of Shakespeare — and talks to a number of prominent Marlovians, including the late Dolly Walker-Wraight (who died in March 2002, shortly after the film’s completion) and various amateur scholars who have built a case for Kit (as Marlowe was also known).
Rubbo, intrigued by the mystery and the arguments for Marlowe, ultimately finds that there is insufficient evidence, on either side, to support a conclusive answer to this tantalizing authorship question. As the actor Mark Rylance, artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe theater, tells Rubbo, “The only rational response at the moment is to say that it has to be an open question, at least. It really has to be an open question, on the evidence.” What we’re left with, as in so many historical mysteries, is speculation. And yet, admits Rylance, “Whoever it is … it would take a lot to convince me now that it was the Stratford man by himself.”
· · Related Features:
· Quiz: Are Thou Learned?
Ten true-or-false questions to test your knowledge of the Shakespeare authorship debate.
· Debating Points
Michael Rubbo responds to six commonly asked questions about the Stratford man’s claim to authorship.
· Marlowe: What (Little) We Know
A brief look at what’s known about the life of Christopher Marlowe, and the competing theories of how, why — or whether — Marlowe died in 1593.
· The Reckoning Revisited
Michael Rubbo responds to Charles Nicholl’s revised edition of The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe.
· The Authorship Question
Christopher Marlowe, of course, is not the first candidate to be put forward as the “true author” of Shakespeare’s works. The “Authorship Question,” as it has come to be known, dates at least as far back as 1857, when Delia Bacon, an American woman, published a book arguing that Sir Francis Bacon, the great Elizabethan philosopher, was the author. (Delia was no relation to Sir Francis, although it seems she became confused on that matter late in her life and was committed to an asylum near Stratford after trying to open Shakespeare’s tomb.)
Mark Twain was another, perhaps saner, proponent of Bacon, and his book Is Shakespeare Dead? may be one of the most entertaining, if not the most convincing, of contributions on the subject. (The full text of the book is available online here.) Like other Baconians, Twain felt that literature of such great learning and wisdom could not possibly have been written by a two-bit actor with a provincial grammar school education at best, about whose life almost nothing has come down to us. The plays are full of philosophy and reveal considerable knowledge of the law; Bacon was not only a philosopher but the greatest legal mind of the age. Twain concludes that he cannot say for certain who wrote the plays, but says that he is “quite composedly and contentedly sure that Shakespeare didn’t,” and “strongly suspects that Bacon did.”
Thus is a pattern established, whereby the Stratford man’s qualifications to be the author are questioned — and found sorely lacking by the so-called “unorthodox” or “anti-Stratfordians” — and the case for an alternative author is made. John Michell, in his book Who Wrote Shakespeare?, has surveyed the field of candidates and their advocates. “It’s a great mystery,” he tells Rubbo at the outset of “Much Ado About Something,” standing in front of an entire bookcase on the subject in his London flat. “It’s a delightful mystery, too, because it takes you into very beautiful territory, the 16th-century mind.”
Michell is quick to add that there are still plenty of people, known as Stratfordians, who cannot accept any author but William Shakespeare of Stratford. “They’re believers, too,” Michell stresses. “Because of all the candidates, possibly Shakespeare, the man from Stratford, is the weakest.”
How can that be? Consider the questions anti-Stratfordians ask, and which Stratfordians cannot seem to answer to everyone’s satisfaction. Aside from the question of his iffy education, why is there so little concrete evidence that the Stratford man was even a writer? We have no manuscripts, no letters, not even a record that he was ever paid to write. Why did his death go virtually unremarked, when it was typical for the famous writers of the day to be publicly mourned and eulogized? How could a country lad, who never travelled (that we know) outside of England, have written so vividly of Italian cities and life? These are just a few of the questions raised by anti-Stratfordians. (See Michael Rubbo’s responses to standard Stratfordian answers to some of these puzzling questions.)
The most popular candidate in our own time is undoubtedly Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. In 1989, FRONTLINE’s “The Shakespeare Mystery” examined the case made by de Vere’s devotees, known as Oxfordians. The thrust of the Oxford case is that the plays of Shakespeare reveal an aristocratic sensibility, an intimate familiarity with the life and manners of the court, and a level of education and worldly experience that would seem beyond a barely educated commoner. Oxford was a poet and playwright himself, but as an aristocrat he could not sully his name by writing for the public stage, and so wrote under a pseudonym, the theory goes, allowing the actor from Stratford to play the part of author. (FRONTLINE’s website for “The Shakespeare Mystery” contains a collection of readings on the Stratford-Oxford debate.)
The fact that Oxford died in 1604, before such masterpieces as MacBeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Tempest are generally accepted to have been written, has never been conclusively explained by Oxfordians. But a recent doctoral dissertation, successfully defended at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, examining uncanny correspondences between de Vere’s copy of the Geneva Bible and Biblical references in Shakespeare’s plays, has added new fuel to the Oxfordian fire.
· The Case for Marlowe
So what got Michael Rubbo interested in the case for Christopher Marlowe? As he tells the actor Mark Rylance, “I read Calvin Hoffman’s book and I was shocked. Profoundly shocked.” Rylance, sitting on the stage of the Globe as Rubbo interviews him, nods knowingly.
Calvin Hoffman’s book, a kind of underground classic, is The Murder of the Man Who Was “Shakespeare,” published in the United States in 1955 and now long out of print. (Read Hoffman’s introduction to the book.) Hoffman — a Broadway press agent, amateur historian, and sometime writer who died in the late 1980s — spent 30 years trying to prove that Marlowe was in fact the author of Shakespeare’s works.
Hoffman’s theory, which is credited with launching the modern case for Marlowe, rests on his belief that Marlowe — known by historians to have been a spy in Elizabeth I’s secret service — did not die in 1593 in Deptford, on the banks of the Thames, but faked his own death and fled England to escape the notorious Star Chamber, Protestant England’s equivalent of the Inquisition. (Marlowe was said to espouse “atheistic” views, a serious charge in those days.) Hoffman believed Marlowe fled to Italy, where his artistic development accelerated amidst the late Italian Renaissance. Indeed, it was in Italy, some Marlovians say, that Marlowe wrote his masterpieces, which he then sent back to his patron in England, Sir Thomas Walsingham, cousin of Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spy master. After having the works recopied in another hand, Walsingham then passed the plays on to a convenient front man — the actor William Shakespeare — who brought them to the stage. In 1984 he obtained permission to open the Walsingham tomb in a small church in Kent, hoping to find a box of play scripts that would prove his case. He found nothing, but continued to defend his theory.
As Hoffman relates at the outset of his book, he first began to suspect that Marlowe was the author when he noticed striking similarities between Marlowe’s works and those attributed to Shakespeare. After comparing Shakespeare’s and Marlowe’s works, Hoffman claimed to have uncovered hundreds of “parallelisms”: lines and passages from Marlowe’s plays and poems that are echoed, if not quoted verbatim, in Shakespeare’s.
For example, Marlowe’s play Tamburlaine contains the lines, “Holla, ye pampered jades of Asia./ What, can ye draw but twenty miles a day?” Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II has it thus: “And hollow pampered jades of Asia,/ which cannot go but thirty miles a day.” Hoffman painstakingly compiled 30 pages of such parallelisms (Watch a video excerpt from “Much Ado About Something,” in which two actors trade lines of Marlowe and Shakespeare.)
Shakespeare’s supporters, however, dismiss such similarities as proof only that the Bard borrowed rather liberally from his contemporaries. As Jonathan Bate tells Rubbo, “What Hoffman noticed is that there are lots of phrases and ideas in Shakespeare’s plays that are derived from Marlowe. But I think we now see that Shakespeare was snapping up lines and ideas from all sorts of different sources, and it’s not remotely surprising that he should have borrowed a lot, stolen, indeed, from the greatest dramatist of his youth.”
Stratfordians also point out differences in the two playwrights’ styles. “Marlowe is more conspicuous as an innovator,” says Prof. Andrew Gurr. “He was really radical. Shakespeare was much more slow moving in terms of his innovation.” And Bate contends that Marlowe was deficient in some aspects of playwriting in which Shakespeare excelled. “[Marlowe] wasn’t able to write for women, and he wasn’t able to write comedy,” he says. “Shakespeare did those things consummately.”
Marlovians, however, attribute these differences to the natural maturation that would have occurred in Marlowe’s writing had he fled England and continued his career in Italy. “Think of Picasso — think of his Blue Period and what he painted before [that],” says Marlovian Dolly Walker-Wraight. “You would not think it was the same painter, would you?”
In the documentary, Michael Rubbo offers this variation on the Marlowe theory: “Imagine that we hear two voices in the plays. One’s the high voice; this is Marlowe. The other voice, the lower voice, that’s Shakespeare. So they become writing partners, with Marlowe providing the learning and the great themes. And Shakespeare [providing] the heart and soul of Merry England.”
What Marlovians are missing, Shakespeare supporters say, is solid proof that Marlowe lived beyond that day in Deptford in 1593. “There is no evidence whatsoever that Marlowe wasn’t murdered,” says Charles Nicholl, author of The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe. “And there’s a lot of evidence that he was killed.” Nicholl’s account of how and why Marlowe died has recently been revised. In a newly published edition of The Reckoning, he abandons his theory that Marlowe was caught in a factional fight between the powerful Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Ralegh, now favoring an explanation in which Thomas Drury, another figure of the Elizabethan spy world, set Marlowe up. (Michael Rubbo reacts to Nicholl’s new theory here on FRONTLINE’s website. For another take on Marlowe’s death, see “The Killing of Christopher Marlowe,” by Prof. David Riggs of Stanford University.)
· Myth and Mother’s Milk
“The English take in Shakespeare with their mother’s milk,” says Susan Hunt, the Stratfordian wife of Canterbury bookseller John Hunt, a Marlovian interviewed by Rubbo. “We love him.” But is it the man they love, or the immortal words of the plays and poems?
The late Walker-Wraight had no reservations about knocking the Stratford man off his literary pedestal. “Our culture thrives on myths,” Wraight concluded in her book, The Story that the Sonnets Tell. “It is entirely appropriate that the man we have revered for 400 years … should have been, in essence, a myth.” But to Walker-Wraight, it was all-important that the myth be dispelled, and that the true author, Christopher Marlowe, be given his rightful and long-overdue recognition.
Still, there is yet another way of looking at the question. As Harvard University’s Marjorie Garber suggests, in a Web-exclusive FRONTLINE forum on what’s at stake in the authorship question, if we learn too much about who “Shakespeare” really was, we risk losing something central to our culture. “In order to keep the ideal of Shakespeare,” Garber says, “as the playwright beyond play writing — the author beyond authorship, the poet who knows us all — we need, in a way, not to know him.”
Like Dickens, it seems, there are those who prefer the mystery, whether they tremble or not.