Jan. 2, 2002
"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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
· 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
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.
· · Related Readings:
· From The Murder of the Man Who Was 'Shakespeare'
Calvin Hoffman's introduction to his book, The Murder of the Man Who Was "Shakespeare" (first published in 1955 and long since out of print), credited with launching the modern case for Christopher Marlowe.
· What's the Question?
Diana Price, in this excerpt from Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography: New Evidence of an Authorship Problem (2001), challenges the traditional scholarship supporting the man from Stratford as the author of the plays and poems.
· Scenes from the Birth of a Myth and the Death of a Dramatist
Jonathan Bate, in this essay reprinted from Shakespeare's Face (2002), argues the case for the man from Stratford and offers an explanation for why the authorship question has proven so irresistible for nearly two hundred years.
· FRONTLINE's "The Shakespeare Mystery"
This FRONTLINE documentary originally aired in 1989 (the companion website was produced in 1996). It examines the evidence behind the argument that the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, authored the plays of Shakespeare. The site offers a collection of related readings, with transcripts from three debates on the issue, including a moot-court presentation adjudicated by three justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.
See this site's Readings & Links page for more on Shakespeare, Marlowe, and the authorship question.
For more about Michael Rubbo and the making of "Much Ado About Something," see his official site for the film.