A new documentary revives an old controversy: Was actor and landowner William Shakespeare merely a front man for Christopher Marlowe, the flamboyant gay genius and shadowy Elizabethan spy?
If you look hard enough, it’s possible to find a group of ardent souls, somewhere, who still believe almost any weird idea that might ever have held currency. The Flat Earth Society, for instance, is still very much in business, with headquarters both in America and what they’d hesitate to call the Southern Hemisphere, in Australia. There are groups of people, after all this time, who still think Japanese anime is edgy and avant-garde, and others still devoted to proving that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. Perhaps you know some of these people, or are one of them. For my part, I believe the Shakespeare-authorship thing. I think Christopher Marlowe might’ve written all the Bard’s works instead, and it was Michael Rubbo’s new video documentary, “Much Ado About Something,” which just completed a two-week run at Film Forum in New York and should appear somewhere near you soon, that smashed my paradigm.
The film is about the so-called Marlovians, the folks who say that Marlowe was the guy, as opposed to Francis Bacon or Edward de Vere, et al. Or, for that matter, the rustic actor named William Shakespeare who commonly holds the laurels. Rubbo is an Australian filmmaker best known for the 1974 Castro documentary “Waiting for Fidel.” He started out wanting to document the Marlovian apostasy because of all the interesting characters involved (they might as well have been flat-earthers instead). He entered intrigued, but as a skeptic — and was swayed.
Indeed, something odd seems to be ado, Shakespeare-wise: Mark Rylance, the somewhat dashing, hat-affecting artistic director of the Globe Theatre, speaks lavishly on-camera on how he thinks it was really Marlowe. Jonathan Bate, probably Britain’s leading orthodox Shakespeare scholar, appears all postmodern-unflappable in the film but helped award it a major prize and blurbs it in the press.
But back to my paradigm. Pre-Rubbo, I used to think the same as most semi-educated people about the Shakespeare-authorship controversy: that everyone knows the guy wrote his own stuff and we can totally prove it and it isn’t really a controversy at all but part of a common urge to find conspiracies all over the place. There are lots of people out there, for instance, who believe in a secret government conspiracy to create hypnotically programmed killers, like in “The Manchurian Candidate.” Of course, that actually happened — it was called MK Ultra and was, fortunately, unsuccessful, otherwise there might’ve been a rash of assassinations by lone, deranged gunmen beginning in the early ’60s — and there’s the rub: “Conspiracy theory” is a scare term, but real conspiracies happen all the time, especially wherever you find spies and government dirty-tricks bureaus. If they’re doing their jobs right, it’s sometimes very hard to tell where facts leave off and the conspiracy-nut surmise begins.
Rubbo’s film shows that Her Majesty’s Secret Service (the original, Elizabeth I version) might have been involved in the Shakespeare thing up to their Elizabethan ruffs. While “Much Ado About Something” begins by showing the Marlovians as harmless eccentrics, mostly of the English Miss Marple and Colonel Mustard variety, it also shows them as holding that rarest of patents in the conspiracy-buff field — an idea that keeps looking more compelling the further you get into it.
So, Marlowe. The film shows us a man who was the most eminent playwright and the finest writer in English of his day. A young guy, handsome; we have his portrait. He’s the guy, as even the orthodox scholars say, who would have been Shakespeare, if not for having been killed, in May 1593, at age 29, in a sudden brawl at a rooming house. Marlowe was an authentic genius, a polymath, and it turns out, an apostate freethinker with a warrant on his head from the church, and an upcoming date with the torture chamber. And according to the evidence the film shows, he was a highly ranked secret agent for the queen, sent on missions overseas to stir up trouble and dig up information.
His patron, Francis Walsingham, was certainly one of Elizabeth’s spooks, and Cambridge, Marlowe’s university, was a recruiting ground for young agents. A letter to the regents at his college shows that the queen had taken a keen interest in keeping Marlowe out of trouble. The college thought he’d gone to France to cavort with Catholics, a bad thing indeed in those days. The palace demurred on France, but vouched for Marlowe’s valuable service there to the crown.
But trouble struck. Church authorities got a line on Marlowe through an informer, and accused him of atheism, homosexuality and a number of other problematic things (mostly true, it seems). Marlowe scholar Charles Nicholl tells the camera that he believes the brawl, which happened a week after the warrant was served, was actually an assassination meant to keep Marlowe from spilling crown secrets. He was in the rooming house for eight hours, alone with three other men. One was a spy for the queen en route to deliver a diplomatic packet to London; another, Ingram Frizer, was employed by Marlowe’s own patron, Walsingham; and the third was a sort of Elizabethan Ratso Rizzo type. The official story, reenacted in the film, is that they argued about the “ley” (the bill for the food and booze), whereupon Marlowe grabbed Frizer’s dagger and struck him on the head with it from behind. Frizer turned, disarmed Marlowe and backhanded him with the same dagger, whose blade caught him in the right eye. And exeunt. But more on that anon.
Shakespeare has been a problem for centuries. The film begins at Poet’s Corner, at Westminster Abbey, scanning the memorial stones and reciting misgivings that the interred poets expressed about whether the man from Stratford really wrote all those works. “It is a great comfort,” Charles Dickens said, “that so little is known concerning the poet. The life of William Shakespeare is a fine mystery and I tremble every day lest something should turn up.” Thomas Hardy, also buried there, was similarly nonplussed. Coleridge wasn’t too bullish on it all either.
Nor for that matter were Mark Twain, Henry James, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Sigmund Freud and a host of other prominent doubters. Much of this was due to the Bacon-wrote-Shakespeare vogue that began as early as 1785, but something seems to have been ado even during Shakespeare’s lifetime. “There is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers,” the poet Robert Greene wrote in a broadside published in 1592, “That with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde [a steal from two plays, one by Marlowe, and one later published as Shakespeare's], supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and beeing an absolute Johannes fac totum [read: errand boy, Stepin Fetchit], is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey.” Hmm.
“Much Ado About Something” covers the obvious holes in the pro-Shakespeare thesis: We have no paper trail of Shakespeare as a playwright or poet, no correspondence, manuscripts, personal library or ephemera. We have numerous notices of him as an actor and as a bourgeois landowner, but only a few mentions in lists of contemporary poets (Greene’s is by far the most lavish). Most except Greene’s are merely title-page evidence, where it’s mentioned that such-and-such a play was published under such a name.
There are six extant Shakespeare signatures from banal documents, all crabbed and variant, as though he had difficulty writing his name. There’s no record of his having attended the village school, or of his having donated a penny to it in his wealthy middle age, although, as the film shows, he lived literally across the street. His daughters were, it seems, illiterate, in sharp contrast to the practice among educated Elizabethans (and in the ethics on display in the Shakespearean plays). We do know that William Shakespeare composed the oft-quoted inscription on his tombstone:
Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To digg the dust encloased heare:
Blese be ye man yt spares thes stones,
And curst be he yt moves my bones.
It really kind of stinks.
Of course there’s more: Many of the plots of the dramas were borrowed from sources in French or Italian, where there was no English translation and William S. couldn’t read the original. Q: Why do so many of the plays display knowledge of locations in Marlowe’s home district of Kent, and never of Warwickshire, where Stratford is (Marlowe’s sister’s tavern even turns up in “Henry IV”)? Why are many set in Italy, and why do so many feature exiles as characters? Where are all the early works? Why do the sonnets refer to disgrace and a stain on one’s name, when William S. was apparently jollying it up in Stratford and, later, London the whole time?
The Marlovians believe the fatal brawl was a setup, all right, but in a different way. They believe that Marlowe was not really killed. Research has shown that the fateful rooming house was a kind of safe house, owned by a woman with connections to the queen’s personal escort. It was also right next to the river — the contemporary equivalent of having a meeting at the airport. After the incident, the case was taken over by the crown, whereupon the queen rapidly pardoned everyone involved and directed that all further inquiries be set under her own jurisdiction.
The avowed killer, Frizer, who was employed by Marlowe’s own spymaster and patron, kept his job. Another man in that same circle of Royal Secret Service men who was stationed at Dover, on the south coast of England, transported a group of agents to France the next day. He subsequently returned to London via Cambridge, Marlowe’s hometown. To the Marlovians, all this suggests that their man was sent off in exile, first to France, then to Spain and finally to Italy, where he lived out the bulk of his years before (possibly) returning home. They think Marlowe used the actor Shakespeare as a front man, so he could keep publishing in England. They believe this was more or less an open secret at the time.
It might seem too Elvis-lives to be true. But an epic poem in the Marlovian style, first registered to “anonymous” in the Stationer’s Register, was re-registered 13 days after this hypothetical flight would have taken place, in the name of William Shakespeare — the first time that name had ever appeared there. The title page carried a two-line quotation from Ovid, whom Marlowe himself had translated into English. The verse in question concludes:
The living, not the dead can envy bite,
For after death all men receive their right.
Then though death rakes my bones in funeral fire,
I’ll live, and as he pulls me down mount higher.
Many readers and scholars have wondered how Shakespeare got an inside view of court intrigues in Scotland (“Hamlet” and “Macbeth” are based on actual people and events there, including the court of James VI). And how he knew about life and politics in Italy (consider those Italian plays: “Romeo and Juliet,” “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” “The Merchant of Venice,” etc.). There’s also a longstanding problem with Miguel de Cervantes’ “Don Quixote,” and how it was translated into its masterful English edition. The Marlovians see a single hand behind these apparently unrelated literary conundrums, and further suggest that Marlowe was among the 47 translators who rendered the King James Bible into such remarkable English.
Maybe that seems to wrap everything up far too neatly. But hold on: Diplomatic records place a man named Marlowe in Scotland several years before the fatal brawl, engaged as a tutor (and double agent, in the queen’s service) in the court of James VI. And what’s this? Christopher Marlowe actually reappears in the diplomatic records, postmortem. He was in Valladolid, Spain, in 1599 — at the same time Cervantes was, and just a few years before the initial publication of “Don Quixote.”
The “Quixote” translation — which, in fairness, did not appear until 1612 — was long attributed to a Thomas Shelton, brother-in-law of the spymaster Walsingham (hmm). Except there was no such person as Thomas Shelton; it was a nom-de-plume. In 1602, a communiqué from Valladolid says that Christopher Marlowe is planning to return to England the following year, a full decade after the supposed death of the famous writer by the same name. And there we pick him up again, in prison records, with his bills charged to Robert Cecil, another member of that same Cambridge spy ring. That same year, James VI of Scotland becomes James I of England — and Marlowe’s not in jail anymore. Somehow the King James Bible appears, translated by the 47 mystery men. And that’s about where the research tapers off.
Well, except for the papers of Washington Irving, he of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” who once served as an American diplomatic attaché to Italy, and who alludes in his papers to a 17th century document about an English poet named Marlowe, exiled and under the patronage of the Gonzaga family. The Marlovians say that there are still unresearched archives in Italy that might hold crucial evidence. In his film, Rubbo interviews the most likely such Italian librarian, who says that in all the decades she’s been there, nobody has yet come around asking to look at the Gonzaga family papers.
The weirdest bit, however, is something that the film mentions but doesn’t explore fully. Peter Farey, a British Marlovian with a sort of hobbyish civil-servant aspect, gets lots of screen time in the film. Among other things, Farey says he has decoded the famously obtuse inscription on the Shakespeare plaque in the Stratford chapel, placed there to commemorate the First Folio, which was published after Shakepeare’s death. It reads:
Stay Passenger, why goest thov by so fast,
read if thov canst whom enviovs Death hath plast
with in this monvment Shakspeare: with whome
qvick natvre dide: whose name, doth deck ys Tombe,
Far more, then cost: Sieh all, yt He hath writt
Leaves living art, bvt page, to serve his witt
Farey’s interpretation is more literal than many. Allowing for the peculiarities of Elizabethan punctuation and diction, he interprets it thus: “Read if you can whom envious death has placed within this monument to Shakespeare: with whom his [the real poet's] quick [living] nature died.”
That part seems pretty straightforward. When Shakespeare died, so died the living envoy of the real poet; so died his front man. But why would anyone, or anything, be placed there? It’s just a plaque.
“Whose name doth deck this tomb, far more, then cost?”
As for the second part, the only name on Shakespeare’s tomb (which is outside, in the yard) is that of Jesus Christ. Christ, far more, then cost — cost, such as the aforementioned “ley” presented by the innkeeper on that fateful night. Christ-far more-ley. Which is creepily close to the way Christopher Marlowe signed his name Christofer Morley) “Sieh all” is, Farey says, a common Elizabethan cipher: Nobody spelled “seeth” like that, especially on a plaque for a poet. Any literate Elizabethan, Farey claims, could have interpreted this as “he is,” in reverse, or, in the parlance of the time, returned. He is, returned, with the word, “all”: “He is returned with all that he hath writ.”
As for the last line, we scarcely need to ask who Farey thinks is the “page,” now gone, who served forth Marlowe’s wit. That would be the rustic actor Shakespeare, a mere “Johannes fac totum.” There is a bust of Shakespeare above the plaque (famously derided by Mark Twain as looking like a bladder). It shows the man with a quill and a piece of paper, writing on a pillow. It was renovated in the 18th century; early engravings show that the Bard of Avon was once effigied holding a sack of grain, like many another wealthy provincial landowner. Both the bust and the man, Farey would say, are but a figurehead. And what’s this about someone, presumably Marlowe, having “returned with all he hath writ”? What might be “placed” in the floor beneath the plaque? Nobody has ever thought to look. Hmm.
There’s more to the case as well: Funny references in the plays, Marlowe’s own motto woven into texts, a rustic boob named “Falstaff” (as in, Shake-spear) — stuff like that. But the question remains: Does it matter who wrote Shakespeare? As the scholar Touchstone (get it? It’s another, ruder pun) says to a rustic boob in “As You Like It,” “When a man’s verses cannot be understood, nor a man’s good wit seconded with the forward child Understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.”
A little room, perhaps, by the riverside on May 30, 1593. If you don’t “tremble,” as Dickens did, at the prospect of finding out some uncomfortable things about the Western canon, you can’t help wondering what would happen if scholars ignored the injunction on Shakespeare’s gravestone and started digging that dust and moving those bones.
Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon. More Gavin McNett.
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