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WEB EXCLUSIVE A Bard in the Hand? An interview with Michael Rubbo
photo of rubbo Michael Rubbo had never given much thought to the question of who wrote the works of William Shakespeare until one evening in 1997 in his native Australia, when the British writer Tony Schaffer handed him a copy of Calvin Hoffman's The Man Who Was 'Shakespeare', and said, "Read this." Rubbo did, and five years later the result was the documentary film "Much Ado About Something," in which Rubbo explores Hoffman's idea that "William Shakespeare" was really Christopher Marlowe, the 16th-century English poet, playwright, and spy.

Here, in a Web-exclusive interview, Rubbo tells FRONTLINE why he decided to make the film, what he's learned along the way, and why he feels the authorship question must not be surrendered to the Stratfordians and those who would dismiss it as the province of conspiracy theorists. "It's always, 'shoot the messenger,'" Rubbo says. "And disparaging people's motives."

Rubbo, a former executive producer for documentaries at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and documentary film director at the National Film Board of Canada, has directed more than 40 documentaries in a career spanning three decades. (For more about Rubbo and "Much Ado About Something," see his official site for the film.) He spoke with FRONTLINE's Wen Stephenson on Dec. 9, 2002.

Tell me how the film got made, and why. You spent five years of your life making this film? That must have been quite a journey.

Well, on and off for five years. But some time around 1997, I was up in far northern Queensland with my family visiting a famous Australian actress named Diane Cilento, who I remembered for the sexy role she played in Tom Jones, amongst other things. She was married to Tony Schaffer, the English writer, who sadly has since died. We were invited to dinner and this topic of authorship came up somehow, and Tony just launched into this business of Shakespeare not being Shakespeare.

I don't know if I had ever heard this theory that Shakespeare might not have been the true author. If I had heard it, it didn't particularly resonate with me. But I suppose Schaffer had an impact, being a British writer and a very imposing guy, he spoke with great authority -- it wasn't quite like meeting Henry James, but it was meeting somebody of some weight, you know, from the world of books and scholarship. I don't remember how much he told me on the spot there, but he took me up into his library and handed me this battered book by Calvin Hoffman, long out of print, called The Man Who Was "Shakespeare," and said, "Read this and you'll know the whole story." And I thought he was lending me the book, but he wasn't. It was something I would have to find for myself if I was interested enough to do so.

[Those who say it doesn't matter] don't want to deal with this tricky question. They don't want, perhaps, to be disloyal to a myth. Their attitude is, 'A bard in the hand is worth two in the bush, and thanks very much.'

My interest was indeed piqued. But at the time I was the executive producer of documentaries at the ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corporation], and so I didn't have much time to go find old books, but it must have stayed in my mind. Later, I did find the book in a secondhand bookshop, a battered paperback, and I read it. And just like the Marlowe scholar Dolly Walker-Wraight, and Peter Farey, both of whom are in the film, and all the others, I found it a fantastic read and a terrific yarn. Although I didn't think it was particularly scholarly. I noticed immediately it had no index, for example.

I had the impression that Calvin was a fairly flamboyant, perhaps somewhat flaky character, who dabbled in many things -- he was a bit of a playwright, he was a bit of a critic, he was a bit of this and that. There weren't any biographical notes on him, as I remember. I've since pieced together a little bit of his story, but he remains quite shadowy.

Anyway, I thought the book was a terrific read, and that it would make a wonderful documentary. I was very surprised that nobody had done it. I don't know at what point I saw FRONTLINE's "The Shakespeare Mystery."

And that was specifically about the case for the Earl of Oxford. It didn't deal with Marlowe at all.

Yeah. In fact, I remember now that the present Earl of Oxford was traveling around the States -- and I must have been more interested than I'm saying, because I remember driving down to Vermont (I was living in Montreal at the time), where the Earl was giving a talk in a little country church, and some 50 or 60 country people were gathered. Here was this very proper young Brit with a very plumy accent, giving a well prepared talk -- he'd obviously done it hundreds of times before -- on the road proselytizing for his long-gone relative. I drove quite a long way to hear that man. So, that means that I must have seen the PBS documentary. And it's weird that I've totally suppressed that day, because that must have predated the meeting with Tony Schaffer.

But in my mind, it was the Tony Schaffer encounter that pushed me to do something. But being an executive producer, I wasn't in the business to make films myself, so I actually tried to pass the Hoffman idea off to several other filmmakers who came by looking for work, and one of them actually took it up and supposedly did some research on it. But it never went anywhere.

So, it just languished until I in fact left that job and wondered what I would do next with my life The Shakespeare-fakespeare story was the most compelling prospect. But how to proceed? The new digital cameras had just arrived, and I decided I could master one of those, reinvent myself as a cameraman, soundman, and so on, and go off to England and do the film. I prided myself on having no lights and no tripod, and I just went off to do it. My wife, Katerina Korolkevich was my main helper, acting as assistant director. Daughter Ellen, then about 7, was in tow too.

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You had made a lot of documentaries before. Was this your first time with the small camera?

It actually wasn't. In leaving the ABC, my wife and I did a one-hour documentary about violin making, called The Little Box Sings. Katerina researched it, and I went off and shot it. It was very charming, and actually took us to Italy, as well. So that was my first entry into that world of shooting, myself, and that was just before this.

Let's go back to Calvin Hoffman. You say he's shadowy. What exactly do we know about him? He's such a central figure in your film.

He doesn't seem to have left any family. He was married to a woman named Rose, who he dearly loved. They traveled everywhere together, were very devoted. I don't know that she was as passionate about Marlowe as he was.

When did he die?

I think about 1988. But I got something of a picture of him from the people at The King's School, because he was there very often. He used The King's School in Canterbury, England, as his base.

And that's the school Christopher Marlowe attended, the grammar school?

Yes. It is still a grammar school today. And Calvin somehow formed a relationship with The King's School, and of course ultimately ended up leaving his money to them to be administered as a prize.

I did meet a man there, Paul Pollak, the librarian -- he's now retired -- and he painted a picture of the obsessive Calvin. But he thought that Calvin was very genuine: his love of Shakespeare, that is. Calvin could quote reams of the Bard. You would find him at odd moments sitting down, just reading the sonnets to himself. Paul said it wasn't just the hunt, the exposé and the toppling of Shakespeare that interested Calvin; he really, really was a genuine lover of the work. But Paul said Calvin was very difficult. In fact, there were stories he wouldn't tell me about Calvin, that would have made Calvin sound rather flaky. But anyway, the school agreed to administer the Hoffman bequest and award the prize, but that became a great embarrassment to them, I think.

Tell me about the prize.

It's the Calvin and Rose Hoffman Prize, and it has two aspects to it. It is an annual essay competition, which is, according to the terms of the will, to be awarded to anybody whose essay furthers Calvin's theory. In fact, it has never been awarded to such an essay, not until my film shared the prize last year.

And how much is it worth?

About $10,000 U.S. So it's quite a well endowed prize. Most of the people in the film on the Marlowe side have entered it, some again and again -- people like John Baker and Dolly and Peter Farey -- and they have never won. In recent years they've become very angry about this, because they feel that the school is not following the terms of the will.

Being somewhat embarrassed by the whole business, The Kings School had handed the administration of the prize over to the Shakespeare believers, the Stratfordians -- people like Stanley Wells have been involved in adjudicating it, I believe -- and they give it to their side, so that Jonathan Bate has won the prize. Charles Nicholl has also won the prize. In his book, The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe, Nicholl devotes a mere three scathing lines to the Hoffman theory. You could not get anyone who less deserves the prize, I suspect, in the eyes of Hoffman -- if he were still around to see what's happened -- than Nicholl.

You can find out about all this from Dave More, who has a Marlowe newsletter in the States.

In the film you mention that there's a much bigger sum of money that's for the second part of the prize.

Yes, half the capital is to be awarded to anyone who can prove conclusively that Marlowe was actually Shakespeare. But I think the terms of it are so strict that, according to John Hunt, the bookseller in the film, it'll never be awarded. I mean, it wouldn't be enough to find evidence of Marlowe alive in Italy writing some of the plays. I think you would have to find he wrote every play and every piece of poetry attributed to Shakespeare. Although it may be that The King's School would just be glad to get rid of it and might grab at an opportunity.

There has been talk, in fact, of actually breaking the terms of the will and using the money for a library -- a Marlowe library, or some other sort of Marlowe-related thing. And there was even talk while Dolly was in her last years as to how this library would somehow acknowledge her, which is interesting, because she, of course, was closely identified with the Marlowe false-death theory -- the very theory that's not had a fair go from the prize. Lots of strange politics going on there that I don't really understand.

But anyway, it was suggested to me that I put the film in, and I co-won it with Prof. Michael Hattaway, who wrote a traditional article on an aspect of Marlowe's work.

Where do you place yourself on the authorship question? We have a pretty good sense of where you stood when you started the film -- you were curious. But where do you stand now?

Well, I feel in my gut that Shakespeare was not the author. I don't think the proof against him is conclusive, but he just doesn't feel and smell like the author to me. He's not satisfying. There does seem to be a need to have somebody who's intellectually and emotionally satisfying. And the more I find out about him, the more he fails to come to the party. He just doesn't perform as one expects a great author should. This man who often writes about our theatricality, about how we strut and fret on the stage of life -- yet he has no strut, no fret himself. He seems to stand in the wings of life as a gray ghost.

Of course, the record gets lost, and he may have done things that haven't come down to us. Yet one feels that something would have pushed its way through if he really was the fantastic intellect that he must have been to have written those plays. Except for Ben Jonson, no one important talks about him, no one that is of his level, of his circle. Indeed, he has no circle of friends, and never takes any part in the intellectual life of his times, never writes letters, poems of praise or criticism, as was so common at the time. I mean it's fascinating.

Jonathan Bate, for example, builds up a whole complex relationship between Shakespeare and Marlowe. He sees Shakespeare owing Marlowe such a debt in terms of craft and inspiration. This was picked up by the film Shakespeare in Love, in which we see Shakespeare utterly mortified by Marlowe's death, in part because there's a plot twist whereby he's actually responsible for Marlowe's death in that film. Nonetheless, you would think there was a truth there. And one would expect that when Marlowe dies in 1593, if he did die then, that Shakespeare would acknowledge this debt in some way. But Shakespeare is silent. He says nothing about his mentor. But then, it's in character, for Shakespeare never says anything about anybody. No one is worth thanking or grieving over in Shakespeare's view.

The Stratfordians say Shakespeare paid homage to Marlowe in As You Like It with the famous "dead shepherd" line, a quote from Marlowe. But this is eight years later, and hardly counts as grief or thanks. For all these reasons, and many others, Shakespeare is deeply unsatisfying and deeply implausible. Marlowe is not the perfect replacement, but he fits quite well -- as long as he's not dead in 1593.

So you do think that Marlowe is the most satisfying?

Yeah. Apart from the fact of his early death, there's a sort of flow through with Marlowe. It begins with his childhood, with his being chosen to be educated on scholarships. We also find him steeped in history as a child -- this was priceless, they didn't teach history in the schools of the day. In Canterbury, he's surrounded by English history, the graves of the greats are in Canterbury Cathedral. So he gets an excellent education both in school and out.

Same thing at university. He's not only a scholar, he's recruited as a spy for his queen, so he knows the world, he knows politics; he hobnobs with the upper classes, the elite at Cambridge. As a result, he's perfectly placed as a middleman, looking up and looking down, and with the talent -- he has the talent. Shakespeare is only looking up, and the Earl of Oxford is only looking down, as I see it.

Another thing: the schoolboy. One senses from references in the plays that the writer was once a schoolboy. The Earl of Oxford was no schoolboy. He never went to school with a shining face, dawdling as he went. He was never catechized for his Latin by a Welsh teacher. Shakespeare could have been a schoolboy, of course, though we lack the records.

Hundreds of other points could be made favoring Marlowe. I summarize it by saying that, really, there's a sense of fit, for me, that is very satisfying.

And then also, the whole business of Marlowe's death is, to me, so improbable not only in the details, but that someone so valuable, on whom so much has been invested by so many people, could be allowed to die in some sort of mysterious mess. Charles Nicholl tries hard to explain it in terms of faction fights. But he's not convincing, and needs, in my view, to warp what we know to make his case. He gives this brilliant man, Marlowe, no role in the affair, makes him quite passive when the reality must have been otherwise, given the dire straits Marlowe was in.

Nicholl plays down the key links between the players in the drama, the fact that servants of Marlowe's patron are there, and are presumably acting in his interests above all others. Then there is the coroner's report, the official story which is full of contradictions --

The official story?

Yeah, once you sort through all of that, and you conclude that there's a good chance that Marlowe did survive that day at Deptford, then you have to ask yourself, "Well, survive where, and to do what?" Because he would have survived with help. I mean, powerful people were helping him. So, his way was obviously paved to somewhere safe, and it would be expected, I think, given his propensities and his talent, that he would sing for his supper and he would write, would he not? A man like that, with such an output so early, doesn't just stop dead -- well, he could, of course, but it's not so likely that he would just stop dead. There is that trajectory, that flight path, the rocket curves but does not suddenly change course, does it? So then what happened to that new work? Was it all lost?

Perhaps, but unlikely. Well, okay, where are these works? Were they all just confined to overseas performance or appreciation? Possibly. But Marlowe had his public in England. Even if his name must die, he wants to connect with that public. He wants to explore anew his country's story He's very interested in its history, in its character, and so on. Some of this he can transpose to Italian settings, some not.

Logistics? A delivery system is not impossible. The spy system of which he was a part had efficient couriers. So then you look at this strange coincidence of "Shakespeare," the name, appearing virtually the day that Marlowe disappears, and you think, "Mmm, yeah. All fits."

We keep coming back to the fact that so much is speculative. That's what the authorship mystery, the authorship question -- whoever your candidate may be -- always comes back to, isn't it? And it makes me wonder if what is at stake in all of this, and what gets people going, is that it's really about history, and how we understand it, how we make sense of the past. What do you think is at stake in all of this? Why do people get so passionate about it?

When I give my talks, I say to people that history is a mansion with a million rooms, and you should choose your own room to explore. Because by having some little place in history that you want to explore, you will be empowered. You'll get tremendous enjoyment, it will inform your present life and actually help you make sense of the future. I mean, it is great fun, very empowering. But you should make sure it's a room with the door locked, hard to explore, and that not too many grave robbers have been there before you.

What's empowering? The historical inquiry, the quest?

The quest. One must do a great deal of study, of reading. As the knowledge is gained, as one becomes capable of holding up an argument, this becomes more and more satisfying. This is where the feeling of empowerment comes from.

Then, there is the speculation game. So little has come down to us about the lives of these people that we must construct them anew, we must speculate. It is almost like becoming a dramatist except that you must use the facts as known. If not, you are cheating and will be caught out.

So now, with care and caution, I have constructed this character of Marlowe, who in my mind is plausible and who fits quite well the facts, and flows right through to do the work of Shakespeare. Shakespeare, on the other hand, as he is given to us and as I can imagine him, seems very implausible.

But specifically, whether it was Marlowe, whether it was Oxford -- whoever it might have been -- how do you answer the question of why it matters?

I find that question very strange. I mean, I don't know why anybody would ask that. Of course it matters.

It's self-evident that it matters?

Yes, because in the sense that we ourselves have any creativity at all, we must be interested in the creative process. We must want to know about creative people. We must want to know how they did things. That's why! Not to want to know would somehow deny our own attempts at creativity.

So I cannot understand it when people say it doesn't matter. I think that's a pure cop-out. They don't want to deal with this tricky question. They don't want, perhaps, to be disloyal to a myth. Their attitude is, "A bard in the hand is worth two in the bush, and thanks very much."

How do you respond when they say that all this controversy over the authorship is a distraction from the plays and the poems?

Not at all. It feeds back into an understanding of the plays and the works. Take the case of As You Like It. There is a scene between Touchstone and a character called William which actors normally gloss over because they don't know what the text means. Touchstone takes William's hand and says, "Are thou learned?", and William says, "No sir." Touchstone continues, "Then, learn this from me: To have is to have. For it is a figure of rhetoric that drink being poured out a cup into a glass, by filling the one, does empty the other."

As I said, actors rush over the lines because they have no idea what they mean. But of course, for Marlovians it means that Touchstone is telling William that he's not the one, and that he's been emptied into by somebody else. So that's just one tiny example.

Then in Measure for Measure, there is the theme of false death, and you have this line, "Death is the great disguiser," when the duke is talking about switching heads to save Claudio, a Marlowe stand-in perhaps. This seems very close to what might have happened at Deptford. Then, on a more general level, you have the themes of exile which occur so frequently in the plays. Now, to some extent these can be attributed to the original source stories, but exile does seems to be an obsession of the Author. The Prospero type of situation, for example. Dolly points out how exile and shame figure in the sonnets and she links them to Marlowe's life story. We are always looking for links between an author's life story and the works, and it is a legitimate search.

Then, you have things which don't fit and must be addressed. Marlowe may have been gay and does not write well about women in the plays that we are sure are his. Yet Shakespeare seems to love women and enjoy writing about them. So, it works both positively and negatively.

In other words, it's a fresh way of looking at the plays.

Yeah. And you look at them with fresh interest, you read them through a different eye, and you tease out new meaning. It may be meaning that is relevant to your cause or to your belief, but I don't think it stops there. I think, in fact, you tease out all sorts of meaning and are taken on a real roller-coaster ride, which may end up almost anywhere. Certainly not somewhere safe.

School kids -- who are generally very bored by Shakespeare -- love the authorship controversy. It's partly a sort of revenge thing, I guess. I mean, they've had Shakespeare foisted on them, and so it's rather fun to think that maybe he's a fake. This is like getting back at your teachers, in a way. So, there's a bit of that. But most of the kids I talk to quickly go beyond that and are just fascinated, because they're beginning to ask all these questions about what is creativity, about what do we expect a creative person to be like, and this controversy slots right in.

Do you think that we project our own 20th or 21st-century notion of what a literary genius should be, do we project our own assumptions back on the sixteenth century?

Well, we may. It's often said that we don't know how writers were viewed at that time, that we make too much of authorship now, and that it was not such a big deal then, even for a towering genius. That's only partly true. We can to some extent go back and check. We can see how the great writers praised each other, and what sort of anecdotes were generated about the writing process.

Just as today, great writing did impress people then. Peele, soon after Marlowe's supposed death, talks about him as "the muses' darling" with great affection. And when Spencer died, his fellow writers stood around his grave dropping quill pens into the open hole in the floor of Westminster Abbey as a touching way of saying goodbye to him. Ben Jonson had a gang of acolytes called "Ben's Boys," who followed him around in his later years, revering their idol.

And it's against such anecdotes as these that Shakespeare doesn't cut it. They show the sort of praise that was given, and prove that the news does come down to us. Shakespeare, comparatively, does very poorly.

Nor did he think much of himself as a writer, since he insists on being buried as "Gent" and not a playwright. Not surprising since being a playwright was not a high-status thing to do. But to be a poet, to be a sonneteer, was something quite special, as Spencer's reputation shows. Sonnets had a great vogue. They were the poems of love and they had great status. And so Shakespeare could have claimed status as a poet and yet he does not. It is all part of this failure to perform as one might expect. Perhaps there is an explanation, but in the meantime he continues to be a genuine puzzle and not just a function of our modern obsession with fame.

I want to step back again and ask you about the authorship question as a cultural phenomenon, and why people become so obsessed with it. The anti-Stratfordians, yourself included, point to the "Shakespeare industry" -- both an academic industry, the academic establishment, and then this whole kind of embarrassing popular tourist shtick.

The kitsch element.

Yeah, the kitsch element around Stratford-upon-Avon. But you also have to admit that the authorship question has spawned a kind of cottage industry of its own, on the anti-Stratford side.

No souvenirs yet that I know of.

No, no. But you never know. I bet the Oxfordians will have them pretty soon. And, you know, Hollywood may be getting in on the act.

Yes. We must get a film pretty soon on this, a feature film. There are many rumored to be in the works, but they never appear.

So I think it's fair to say that the authorship controversy is a kind of cultural phenomenon in its own right, and I wonder if you think it represents something about our moment. Some people would say it represents our obsession with conspiracy theories, or our suspicion of cultural authority -- you know, we want to bring down Shakespeare and the academic establishment. Or maybe it's our obsession with celebrity, and that's why we're more interested in the biography, the life, than we are in the plays.

All those explanations end up as excuses for not taking the authorship question seriously. I mean, whenever the Stratfordians get going, they tend to not review the arguments that are made against Shakespeare, but to question the motives of the attackers. For instance, they claim that the de Vere people believe in the Earl of Oxford not because he's a likely choice, but because they're American snobs and they can't tolerate the idea that these plays could have been written by a lowly commoner like Shakespeare. The Marlovians are similarly dismissed not as people with an interesting argument, but as conspiracy theorists, people generally obsessed by conspiracies.

So it's always "shoot the messenger." What you're saying with your questions is a subtle variant on that, you know, that we have to explain this obsession psychologically. That it's just a phenomenon. That it suits some people's basic needs because of the cultural traditions of today, or where we find ourselves in terms of history.

But I admit that finding a good history mystery is immensely satisfying in its own right. And as Peter Farey says, it probably doesn't really matter how it ever turns out, because it's great fun. I agree to that. But I do think there's real substance to this, and the Stratfordians rarely address the substance. In fact, they continually distort the case or trivialize it.

I don't know if you've seen the new book by Stanley Wells, the Stratfordian who's in my film. It's a very handsome book, almost a coffee-table affair. Beautiful, impressive cover. It looks so authoritative. And yet Wells speaks of the doubters in disparaging terms and makes an important mistake when talking of a man who may well be the first doubter. Why? I guess because he has no respect for such doubts.

Wells talks about the authorship contrivancy -- this "sick obsession," I think he calls it, this "weird obsession." I don't have the book in front of me. Wells talks about this as being a 19th-century phenomenon, and he talks about a certain James Wilmot as launching his doubts in the 1840s. Wilmot was born in 1726. I mean, this is a huge error!

So you're saying he didn't take it seriously enough to even check his facts?

Exactly. I mean, he wants Wilmot to be a 19th-century phenomenon because then he can lump him with Delia Bacon and all the other crazies.

Tell us about Wilmot.

James Wilmot was born in 1726, and lived in Barton-on-the-Heath, the next village to Stratford-Upon-Avon. Evidently he was a Shakespeare scholar and a Shakespeare lover. He was not someone who was in any way wanting to damage the Bard or his reputation or anything like that. Then, sometime around 1780, he was asked by a London bookseller to do a biography of Shakespeare. He is delighted to take on the job and determined to solve a mystery. What had happened to Shakespeare's books? He must have had books, and yet there are none listed in the will. Wilmot speculates, as have many others, that the books might have been in a separate list, and that, since books are valuable, they may still be found, 160 years later.

So, he draws a circle, a 50-mile radius on the map, around Stratford-on-Avon, and decides to walk to every stately home that has a library, searching for the missing books. We don't know what he found in terms of books or papers, but 15 years later or so he's come to the very disturbing conclusion -- one he does not want to come to -- that Shakespeare is not the author, that Francis Bacon is the more likely author.

What led him to this? We don't know. He was so upset by his conclusions that he burns all his own papers. And we only know about this because he told various people, and his doubts were then reported in the beginning of the 19th century, in 1805, to the Ipswich Philosophical Society. All of this is, by the way, comes to me not from the Marlovians, but is to be found in Samuel Schoenbaum's book Shakespeare's Lives. He's an arch Stratfordian. So we have to assume that it's fairly accurate.

An interesting addendum to that story is that Diana Price went looking for the report on Wilmot's findings in the British Library. And she found that there were pages missing -- destroyed, perhaps. Isn't that interesting? Did someone actually say, "Well, nobody else is going to follow this trail"?

It's very interesting. In fact, I'm as interested in why the Stratfordians are so passionately Stratfordian as I am in why the anti-Stratfordians are the way they are. I'm not just trying to focus condescendingly on the anti-Stratfordians.

But you see, the Stratfordians are in a very awkward position, because whereas the doubters like myself can enjoy this controversy, amass our arguments, and give it our best shot, the Stratfordians must defend this man, like him or not. They're given him as a construct, and they cannot give an inch. I suspect that people like Jonathan Bate and Stanley Wells have their secret doubts. I have no real hard evidence for this, but look at the body language of those people in the film. It's not just what they say, it's the way they look. And if you read their body language, they are not comfortable. At least that's my reading, and that of many who see the film.

But there's an interesting moment with Dolly, where you could say the same thing. She gets very agitated when you're cross-examining her.

Well, of course, yes. But that's just more proof of what I'm saying. Body language is very significant.

Right. On both sides.

Think of the implications, if Jonathan Bate was moved to say, "Yes, there are some things about Shakespeare that are very, very puzzling and really do cast a doubt" -- he would then be obligated to defend that heretical position in all sorts of scholarly situations. He couldn't just say that and let it pass. He would have to follow through with this very unpopular position and it would be a real pain in the neck. I say this hypothetically, because Jonathan has never given me an indication in conversation of such doubts, and yet he does play with the idea of a novel about the Marlowe theory, and he was on a panel, I gather, which gave the film the Hoffman essay prize.

A scholar named Tucker Brooke reportedly said, "Even if Shakespeare stood up in his grave and said he was not the author, we wouldn't believe him." And that's a very telling line. We couldn't afford to believe him, one might add. It's not the financial aspect of it; it's the intellectual investment, it's the professional investment.

The French are able to switch. I made a film in the '70s called Solzhenitsyn's Children -- which was actually on PBS, by the way -- and it was about the French left, about all the intellectuals who had been rampant Marxists. Then, they read Solzhenitsyn and they all did a 180-degree switch. Not just privately, but very publicly. People like Bernard-Henri Levy, Andre Glucksmann, all staged a public mea culpa. Why? I guess France is like that, more volatile, and also they profited mightily from their change by writing instant best sellers on their new position and becoming the darlings of the press, probably getting more attention than they had ever had as Marxists.

Will the Shakespeare believers ever jump ship? The presence of Mark Rylance, a famous Shakespearean actor in the film, saying he doubts Shakespeare, is significant. It could be seen as ship-jumping especially since he is the artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe theatre in London. Whether his doubts began before or after he got that job, I don't know.

I think it comes across in the film that Shakespeare's defenders may be bored with defending him. Stanley Wells makes a very offhand response to one of my questions. When I ask him, "How do we know Shakespeare's educated?", he says, "Because the plays and the poems show he is." I mean that's a dismissive, circular argument which may show boredom with the whole authorship question, or perhaps just frustration. Audiences can judge for themselves.

Jonathan Bate's a more energetic, a more vigorous defender, I think.

Oh, he is. He is very passionate and eloquent. Everybody who sees the film feels his frustration at the end when he's digging. I mean, that was not planned that way. I didn't say, you know, "Dig now to show your frustration." And look what he does at the end of the thing. He's looking for some way that he can actually meet me halfway. So he says, "It might be a good novel, a good detective story." Is this a legitimate way of exploring the question without in fact getting into any professional danger?

Did you see yourself, in making the film, in a sort of anthropological role? Did you go into this to study these people, on both sides of this debate, and how they think?

No, as with the Solzhenitsyn film, I was interested in character. That film is full of wacky French characters. And it's a rather similar film, because it too is a quest to find out what they believe and why they believe it. So I'm always -- because I studied anthropology, I did an undergraduate degree in anthropology -- I'm very interested in how people behave, their motives etc. And I'm sort of a relativist.

Who's the most memorable of the characters to you?

John Baker.

Who had the most impact on your own thinking about the matter?

Oh, Dolly, I suppose. But Peter Farey is probably the most sober, the most reliable informant on the Marlowe side. He will say, "The signatures seem very suspicious, but on the other hand, Shakespeare might have been ill at the time." You sense that Peter Farey will always very fairly and carefully give the other side to the story. John Baker is also effective in his volatile way. John makes very telling points towards the end.

The trouble with most of the anti-Shakespeare people up till now is that they have been too eager to convince, and of course that is not a good strategy. Because the more you appear to want to convince your audience, the more resistant they will be. So, I was very careful in the film not to be pushing too hard to convince my audience. And therefore Peter Farey is very important, because you think this guy is probably very fair, and in the quiet of his study he looks at both sides of things.

You also tend to give the Stratfordians -- Jonathan Bate, Andy Gurr -- the last word. You'll let them close out a sequence.

Yes, I very often do that. That's intentional. It's strategic too, because I know it's persuasive. It also seemed to be the fair thing to do because I did not have the time to make the full case for Shakespeare. There is a case to make, and the many biographies, readily available, all make it.

Note that the Statfordians, in contrast, never give the other side a good word. I have been much more even handed. This is a very big mistake on their part. I think they inadvertently fuel this debate by not addressing its arguments. They're so impatient. They say, "This is nonsense." And then when they actually do get around to considering it, they're so dismissive. And as I said, they indulge in this "shoot the messenger" business and disparaging people's motives.

What they ought to do is just sit down and say, "Yeah, let's consider this, and we'll give the other side their due and their word -- they're not idiots -- and we'll see." If they were to do that, they may be able to close off the whole thing. But of course I think they simply feel they can't, and that these doubts are unanswerable. If they were answerable, then they would stop shooting the messenger and just get on with the business of answering them, wouldn't they?

I keep coming back to that. To me, these questions are unanswerable. In other words, I'll give you credit -- I've moved halfway, so that I'm now solidly in doubt. I'm sort of like Mark Rylance in the film, saying, "It has to be an open question, at least, on the evidence."

Yes, he's very important for the film's credibility. He makes it a legitimate question, too. Not crazy.

Yeah, but I think that you have to give the literary-academic world a little more credit, because not all professors are these sort of confirmed Stratfordians like Jonathan Bate and Stanley Wells. There are a lot of Marjorie Garbers out there who are willing to live with the doubt and the mystery. Enjoy it, even.

I have not met people like that. I have been travelling with the film and I cannot get the academics to come to my screenings. With one or two exceptions, they will not come. They don't want to engage in debate. Or if they do come -- I've also had public screenings in theaters, and I'm there after every screening to take questions -- they do not identify themselves.

You can't assume that the reason they don't want to debate, or the reason they don't identify themselves, is necessarily that they're staunch Stratfordians. It could be that they don't know what to make of it all, or they don't feel well enough informed to engage in the debate.

It is a problem. To debate the authorship question, you have to study it. And for the Stratfordians this is both dangerous and a waste of time. To give it the time, of course, is to acknowledge that it has some worth. And to what end? What does it get them? The problem for them, and it's a real problem, is that they won't end up with a comfortable new position. Neither Marlowe, nor de Vere, nor Bacon, is going to, in the short term, be proved to be the alternative -- so they just end up in a mental mess. I mean, they have their man. Why mess with it?

I guess I like it messy. We don't know who Homer was, but I still enjoy The Odyssey an awful lot.

I like it messy, too. It's a great mystery.

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