"Mystery Man"

By Gavin McNett

By Salon Staff

Published March 7, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Read the story.

Thank god the Marlovians are derailing the Oxfordians as the illusory author of Shakespeare's works.

Unlike the 17th Earl of Oxford, who conveniently didn't write anything that could be compared to Shakespeare, Mr. Marlowe left plenty, including the well-known "Doctor Faustus." Even someone with an tin ear can quickly hear the vast difference in style between the two authors: Shakespeare's soaring trumpet to Marlowe's thumping trombone. If it's quantitative proof you want, a computer analysis can easily show that word choice, sentence length and a whole host of stylistic choices are significantly different for the two authors.

As for the purported "reasons" constantly trotted out as to why Shakespeare couldn't have written his plays, see David Bevington's calm and cogent rejoinder to PBS's "The Shakespeare Mystery" or read A.L. Rouse's "Shakespeare: A Biography."

Sometimes, folks, all the experts are simply right.

-- Bradley Beachy

The theme underlying many of the points supporting the theory of Marlowe authorship as presented in this article, that this "land-owning" "rustic" couldn't have penned the works, and moreover failed in being "flamboyant," "homosexual" or "shadowy" enough, rests unsurely on an odd sort of classism. Keats, remember, was not the most educated, well-traveled, or high-born poet of his day but is better remembered today than his "betters."

-- Patrick Nace

Gavin McNett really ought to read more before spouting off on Shakespeare. As soon as I read the tired old cliché about the supposedly flimsy "paper trail" about Shakespeare, I knew McNett's knowledge of Shakespeare scholarship was at least 75 years out of date. But that's not surprising; the anti-Stratfordians keep recycling the same old canards, no matter what new research turns up. That's their story, and they're sticking to it.

However, readers who want to get the most reliable information on the authorship controversy, backed up with exhaustive documentation, can check out Shakespeareauthorship.com.

-- Michael McGunnigle

I don't know why you publish such idiotic claptrap as Gavin McNett's facile, semi-educated account of the "theory" that Christopher Marlowe, who died in 1593, wrote all the plays of William Shakespeare, who continued to write for many years afterward. At the heart of McNett's argument (putting aside his facile, semi-educated account of MK Ultra, which somehow proves that Marlowe was Shakespeare) is rank classism: The idea that Shakespeare couldn't have written those wonderful plays because he was not a member of the nobility and was, in fact, a commoner. Shame on McNett for perpetuating such condescending garbage, and shame on Salon for publishing it.

-- Tom Breen

The most interesting thing about all the Shakespeare-wasn't-Shakespeare theories is that whoever is put forward as the real Will always seems to have written better under the pseudonym than under his own name. That goes for Bacon, de Vere and Marlowe.

We don't need to go searching obscure and probably imaginary Italian archives for clues to the identity of the author of Shakespeare's plays. All we have to do is read the plays of Marlowe and Shakespeare. I'm willing to believe that Marlowe wrote all of Shakespeare's plays if we accept as a corollary that he didn't write any of his own.

And Gavin McNett is wrong, Richard Greene's is not "the most lavish" mention of Shakespeare by one of his contemporaries. The most lavish is a poem called "To the Memory of my Beloved the Author William Shakespeare." It was written by Ben Jonson, a pretty good playwright in his own right, who probably would have sat still to see a fraud called a better playwright than himself. Jonson seems to have believed Shakespeare was Shakespeare, and since he was there and the Marlovians weren't, I think I'll take his word for it.

-- Dave Reilly

I have to wonder if Mr. McNett ever read a play by Marlowe. In addition, I have to wonder if he has indeed read Marlowe, if he has read the early plays of Shakespeare. If he has done both, I have to then wonder if he has a tin ear for dramatic style.

Marlowe's plays are quite unlike Shakespeare's, in just about every regard: Marlowe's language, plot, character and themes are all distinctly different from those found in Shakespeare. And we're not talking about minor differences, such as could be found in a writer playing with a new style. We're talking major differences -- the kinds that exist between writers with vastly different points of view, vastly different experiences, vastly different interests. We're talking about the kind of differences that exist between O'Neill and Williams, or Mamet and Shepard.

And the theory that Marlowe was Shakespeare doesn't hold up when you look at the chronological line of plays. There were at least four plays by Shakespeare that appeared before Marlowe's death, some in the same years that new plays by Marlowe appeared. Why would Marlowe use a different name when he felt comfortable enough to present plays under his own name?

Any good Shakespearean scholar can tell you that Shakespeare's plays are intimately tied to the Burbage company. When those actors changed, so too did the characters. Would Marlowe have had the time (and the interest!), running around half of Europe, to know or care that Will Kemp had left and Robert Armin come in? Would anybody but a fellow actor, schooled and versed in the art of playing, care?

The notion that Shakespeare, this country bumpkin, this bourgeoisie fool, could not have written the plays that appeared under his name, is an old one. It is rooted, for the most part, in arrogance and ignorance: the arrogance that a seemingly ordinary man could not be a great playwright, and the ignorance of those far removed from the boards. No doubt, 500 years from now, someone will write that Einstein -- a simple teacher and patent clerk -- could not have been the genius behind relativity; it had to be someone with an aristocratic title, like Lord Rutherford, or perhaps Max Planck, who came from a family of professors. But not Einstein!

-- Patrick Schmitt

The Marlovian theory holds great appeal due in part, as the author notes, to the bankruptcy of the traditional biography. But there is a crucial problem with Marlowe's "candidacy" (among many) apart from the "death" issue. Roger Stritmatter, one of the chief "Oxfordians," adherents to the 17th Earl of Oxford as the true author, featured recently in the Feb. 17 issue of the N.Y. Times essay on this topic, spent 10 years examining Devere's Geneva Bible (one of Shakespeare's preferred Biblical sources) and compared Devere's annotations with Shakespeare's biblical references in the canon.

The problem for Marlowe is that in "preferred " Biblical verses, those used four or more times, which provide some insight into what Stritmatter calls the "stylistic finger print", or underlying core theological philosophy of an author, Marlowe and Shakespeare have virtually no overlap (about three in 100). Even in the book of Matthew, heavily cited by both authors, there is only one preferred verse used in common. The same phenomenon occurs with Bacon. Devere's annotated passages clustered thematically match up at a much higher (near 40 percent) rate.

I also did some digging on a favorite expression of Shakespeare's, "murder" used in the figurative. (Macbeth doth murder sleep). This type of expression constitutes about 8 percent of Shakespeare's use of the word "murder." The OED attributes first usage of this expression to Shakespeare in "Venus and Adonis" in 1593. But Devere first uses it much earlier in the preface to a work that is cited as a very important source for "Hamlet" and the "to be or not to be" speech, Cardanus Comforte. Devere says that to not publish the translation (which he paid for) would be tantamount to "murdering your philosophy (the same) and committing it to the waste bottoms of my chest"). This is an extremely sophisticated usage 20 years before Shakespeare. Devere was 23.

For more on this issue go to Shakespearefellowship.org.

-- Ken Kaplan

Typical of those duped into Marlovian authorship theories, Mr. McNett finds a few dots that suggest that Marlowe was working for a nefarious arm of Elizabeth's government, and, without connecting said dots, extrapolates them into a suggestion that he wrote Shakespeare's plays. Buttressed by the shady details of Marlowe's life, as well as testimonials from any famous person who ever noted the paucity of facts of Shakespeare's life (and if you think Shakespeare's life-records are sparse, try researching the likes of John Webster or John Ford), and a line or two from actors who believe Shakespeare was a front (and why is it that we treat actors like dimwits most of the time, but like Oxford Dons when they have an opinion about Shakespeare?), authorship theories are created. Of course, no scholar who ever spent their life working with Shakespeare's texts has ever questioned his authorship.

I've not seen the movie, but if the evidence presented there is anything like McNett's article, the holes in this Marlovian theory are easily pokeable. Some points of clarification:

1. We do have a paper trail that discusses Shakespeare as a poet and playwright. I would suggest Mr. McNett spend some time with volume II of E.K. Chambers' masterful "William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems." For example, in 1598, Francis Meres lists all of Shakespeare's known plays, and calls him "melifluous and hony-tongued." He also mentions Marlowe, noting that "for his Epicurisme and Atheisme [he] had a tragical death." This would suggest that they were, indeed, different people. Note, too, contemporaries like Thomas Heywood, John Webster, Ben Jonson, William Camden mention that Shakespeare was a writer.

2. As tons of Shakespeareans will point out: Shakespeare's signatures are in standard secretary hand, and they present no evidence that he was illiterate; there's no record of him attending the village school because there's no record of anyone attending the village school; there's no evidence that his daughters were illiterate, and even if they were, it would say nothing about Shakespeare's own literacy; that Shakespeare wrote his epitaph is based an tradition -- he may not have written it at all. Many Elizabethan plays -- not just Shakespeare's -- were set in Italy (or Spain); it was a vogue that says nothing of Shakespeare's travels.

3. Not mentioned in the article: The coroner's inquisition into Marlowe's death has survived. Sixteen men attested to having witnessed Marlowe's body "lying dead and slain" (Hotson's translation of the Latin inquest). Indeed, it's easy for Marlovians to wave this off as some sort of hoax, but no one can produce any evidence that it is. It is difficult to believe that Marlowe was able to play dead -- with a knife in his head, no less -- for 16 people and the coroner.

4. Charles Nicholl is described in the article as suggesting that Marlowe's murder was an assassination. Indeed, Nicholl's book "The Reckoning" is essential reading for anyone interested in Marlowe, and his claims never overreach the evidence he presents. It seems that many of the film's arguments about Marlowe's life as a spy come from Nicholl. Nicholl is not, however, a Marlovian, which is something that can be inferred by Mr. McNett's article. While he believes Marlowe was assassinated (an interesting, not implausible but not entirely convincing scenario), he does not believe he wrote the plays of Shakespeare.

Finally, Shakespeare has not "been a problem for centuries." Recent Anti-Stratfordian theories tend to come from political conservatives who think that postmodern academics have made Shakespeare inaccessible for a modern audience. Anti-Stratfordian theories generally parody orthodox scholarship by attributing the works to a mysterious, Romantic figure, intentionally using shoddy evidence that would never be accepted by the academics they despise. Such attributions "free" Shakespeare from those pesky literary theorists who believe the author is dead anyway.

In any case, even my brief survey above illustrates that there are more holes in the theory of Marlowe's authorship than there are for Shakespeare's.

-- Fran Connor

The one point the writer doesn't address in his article is whether there is any similarity between the works attributed to Shakespeare and those attributed to Marlowe. There isn't. I'm not a professional critic, writer or poet, but as a reader of verse I sense instantly that Marlowe's formal, classical style is very different from Shakespeare's densely allusive poetry, filled as it is with intricate puns and conceits. I suppose Shakespeare may not have written the plays (any or all) attributed to him. But I can't see how they could have been written by Marlowe, unless he deliberately altered his voice when he wrote under Shakespeare's name.

Surely this aspect of the question -- the stylistic differences between the two men's writing -- deserves some mention in an article like this. Or do people not care, as long as they get to question the canon?

-- L. Legault

Well, it looks like Salon has joined the New York Times Arts & Leisure section in surprisingly abandoning journalistic and scholarly standards in embracing the sexy story of a Shakespeare authorship "conspiracy." How disappointing. I wonder what would happen if Gavin McNett actually sat down and interviewed one of those boring experts who has actually studied the Shakespeare biography and the Elizabethan period. (Other than those so-called "researchers" who only go looking for holes to punch in the story.) So many of the so-called "problems" McNett surveys in building the "anti-Stratfordian" case are so easily explained and are not considered problems at all by anyone with an objective sense of the period and of the nature of playwriting.

-- Garrett Eisler

Gavin McNett is sophomoric in the original sense of the word -- someone with enough preliminary knowledge to make a fool of himself. Mr. McNett should know better than to get suckered by Marlovians who told him there is no mention of Warwickshire in the entire Shakespeare canon. Anyone who has seen the "Taming of the Shrew" -- and I assume the journalist assigned to this story by Salon has -- would know that the author makes all sorts of references to Shakespeare's own county.

Walk four miles straight out the front door of Shakespeare's birthplace and you will be in Wincot -- the site of a fat ale-wife's tavern referred to in the play.

Give me a break. The reason an authorship controversy is a matter of public discourse is because journalists who cover the story are insufficiently familiar with both the historical record and the works of Shakespeare himself.

-- Joe Martin

I admit I'm skeptical. I think Lee Harvey Oswald worked alone, the earth is round and that anime is hardly edgy at all. And I'm not convinced that Marlowe wrote Shakespeare. "Titus Andronicus," "The Comedy of Errors," the Henry VI trilogy and "Richard III" are all believed to have been written before Marlowe's "death." Why would he want to disown these plays? Even if he had a good reason to disown them, if he did all the deeds attributed to him in this movie, he barely had time for sleeping! Gavin McNett's review of "Mystery Man" asserts that as well as writing Shakespeare, Marlowe may have found time to translate Cervantes and contribute to the King James Bible, as though only the involvement of someone of Marlowe's greatness could explain their excellence. The Bible committee, in particular, had no need for added genius with the examples of Tyndale's, Coverdale's and Luther's Bibles for assistance.

I am with Dickens. We know next to nothing about Shakespeare the man. But we don't need to: His work makes us rediscover ourselves. We don't need to believe that the man who created English literature was also a spy. The first achievement is enough.

-- Robert de Graaf

One of the most pitiful things about the "Shakespeare was somebody else" movement is how far they'll go to give credit to someone else. Marlowe was dead? Must have been a plot. Bacon's style was entirely different? Just proves his genius. These people sound like the clowns who averred that Thomas Pynchon was a group of writers working under a pseudonym. There's no mystery here, save the mystery of why some people can't leave well enough alone.

-- Alex Krislov

Gavin McNett never confronts the biggest problem with the Marlovians' theory: Compared with the works we attribute to Shakespeare, "Doctor Faustus" is just not a very good play. To say it was written by the same hand that wrote Shakespeare's plays is like saying Luciano Pavarotti was the real voice of Milli Vanilli. Alternately, it's difficult to imagine that a man as egotistical as Marlowe would have put his name on someone else's shoddy work, even to perpetrate the massive fraud McNett proposes.

Internally, McNett's arguments, and those he cites, seem pretty weak. The gloss on the Shakespeare plaque is dubious at best. For example, look closely at his editorial insertions in the passage (itself a gloss) ending, "[W]ith whom his [the real poet's] quick [living] nature died." " How on earth does he support the idea that "his" means "the real poet's?" The word "his" doesn't even appear in the original verse. There are several big leaps here.

Also, McNett quotes a bunch of passages which he claims show support for famous, smart, or contemporary writers doubting Shakespeare's authorship, but almost none of them seem to actually imply that doubt. The quote from Robert Greene, for example, definitely accuses Shakespeare of being a bad writer of blank verse, and also a thief of ideas -- but doesn't go anywhere near suggesting that someone else wrote his plays. I don't see how calling him an errand boy is related to calling him a pseudonym.

In places, one almost wonders if McNett has actually read Shakespeare. He refers to "a rustic boob named "Falstaff" (as in, Shake-spear)." Falstaff was one of Shakespeare's greatest, smartest, most lovable characters; his death is one of the saddest moments in the plays. If Falstaff's name is indeed a play on Shakespeare's, it is a powerful argument against the Marlovian theory.

McNett is right, however, that the trite inscription on Shakespeare's tombstone is suspicious. I would definitely be skeptical that the tombstone was written by Shakespeare.

-- Andrew Ayers

Salon Staff

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