Much Ado About Something
home
a fine mystery
a bard in the hand?
what's at stake?
discussion

From The Murder of the Man Who Was Shakespeareby Calvin Hoffman
Calvin Hoffman, a Broadway press agent and sometime writer, published The Murder of the Man Who Was "Shakespeare" in 1955. The book, now long out of print, has been very influential in Marlovian circles. Michael Rubbo, producer/director of "Much Ado About Something," credits it with launching him on the trail of Christopher Marlowe and the Shakespeare authorship mystery. The excerpt here is Hoffman's introduction to the book.

WHEN I FIRST BEGAN my researches -- more than nineteen years ago -- into the problem of Shakespeare authorship, I had no wish to add my contribution to a literary recreation which, over the years, had acquired a slightly bar-sinister cast. For many, many years theories on whether or not Shakespeare wrote the plays that bear his name have issued thick and fast from the brains of diverse literary authorities, each of whom brought forth his own special candidate. However, all were united in their disunity by a certain conviction that something was wrong with the premise that William Shakespeare was the author of the Works attributed to him.

Before I began my investigation, which finally led to the publication of this book, I was convinced -- like most other people -- that William Shakespeare was the author of the most magnificent English dramatic prose ever written, and certainly the most magnificent poetry.

Nineteen years later my feelings toward the qualities of this writing have not changed; they are magnificent.

Only, William Shakespeare of Stratford on Avon never wrote the plays and poems.

For almost two decades I pursued a literary will-o'-the-wisp that gave me no rest. My investigations took me to England, France, Denmark, and Germany. I roamed through graveyards, I crawled into dusty tombs, I shivered in the dampness of veritable archives, and in the musty atmosphere of libraries whose book-lined shelves had remained undisturbed for cen-turies.

Across my mind's eye there still unreels the endless procession of ancient houses, decaying churches, and old universities which I patiently investigated as an unofficial detective in a murder mystery that rivals any Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ever wrote. I uncovered a real-life literary "thriller," complete with murder, brawls, duels, and normal and abnormal sexuality. A violent, crimson-colored pattern unfolded itself, with England as the background and the splendidly barbaric Elizabethan era as the setting.

As the clues came thick and fast, I found the load of my inquiry often too heavy to bear. I earnestly prayed that sufficient reason might be found to abandon my search, since it gradually consumed most of my thinking hours, to the sacrifice of more worldly rewards.

The deeper I entangled myself in the evidence at hand, the more carefully I examined the few facts, the welter of conjecture that moldily surrounded the life of William Shakespeare, the more I became convinced, almost against my will, that my search could never be dismissed or ignored as just another unorthodox theory.

Finally, there grew to dominate my days and dreams an imposture unbelievable in magnitude. History had rarely recorded its like. Here was a masquerade that created heartbreak, doomed its protagonist to eternal anonymity, while strait-jacketing him into everlasting silence.

That the life of the man responsible for the greatest poetry and the greatest dramatic prose and verse in the history of the English language should have been deliberately shrouded in anonymity during the most creative years of his life, that he might have been fated so to remain forever is nightmarish to contemplate.

Certainly no character the author envisioned on paper ever matched the depth of his own tragedy. If ever a hell was created for a writer, it was this. Here was a man of surpassing genius, rich with words and overflowing with creative fervor, doomed to live his life watching another gain the plaudits, the rewards, and the fame that rightfully belonged to him. And all he could do was to continue to write and to suffer in silence.

Stifled by a suffocating gag, his soul galled with disappointment, he must have departed life an embittered, lacerated man.

And yet, while living under this weight of spiritual and mental hell, he never ceased to write. A torrent of exquisite poetry, sublime plays, and unmatched ideas endlessly poured from his pen.

There are certain people who have often commented upon the wasteful voyagings made in tracking down the genuine author of the plays and poems known as William Shakespeare's. They care not, they say, who wrote them. The kernel of their arguments is that the subject of authorship is not of the slightest importance.

In the last analysis, these same individuals assert that the glorious plays and poems exist for the world to enjoy. "What difference does it make who wrote them?" they ask.

They are entitled to their point. But it does not delve to the core of the matter. To understand Shakespeare, and what he has written, it is not sufficient merely to read him. Here is a writer who not only requires our gravest attention but, as is the case with all extraordinary artists, commands our deepest reverence. It is not enough to use one's head to read Shakespeare. One must also offer one's heart. He brooks no half-love. No page browsers can woo him successfully. And if, in all earnestness, you grow to love and reverence his works you cannot assume an attitude of indifference toward the Man himself -- toward the suffering soul who haunts, now invisibly, the length and breadth of the Works.

The personality of the author of the plays and poems known as Shakespeare's is inescapably linked to the creations themselves. The bond is so tight, the weld so joined and perfect, that it is nonsense to believe one can, at the same time, admire merely what has been written and ignore the author.

Samuel Butler affirmed the truth of this when he stated: "A great portrait is always more a portrait of the painter, than of the painted."

What manner of man was it who painted titanic word pictures couched in sublimest sorrow and beauty? The man who wrote:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Who was this man? The question is important. The answer is strange, and wonderful.

Tracking down the identity of our author is not only necessary, but mandatory. It is a command I have not dared disobey.

"What difference does it make who wrote the plays?" There is, I believe, no question of "difference." Rather, there is a question of better understanding one of the unusual minds of the world.

The results of my work are not those of which I had dreamed. They are simply, and often incredibly, the truth.

If there is in the story I have to tell a touch of the academic grandeur inherent in any literary effort which, no matter how fleetingly, touches upon the life and the writings of the man we know as Shakespeare, there is also, as a dramatic counter-balance, an unfolding of the weirdest cloak-and-dagger tale ever conceived.

Crime, guilt, fraud, and exile; hate, deceit, murder, and despair. All these luridities have woven themselves into a shroud that, until today, hid the identity of the world's most renowned writer.

That the most eulogized author of the past half-millennium should have been forced to live his high-noon hours a pariah in his native land; that when he should have been enjoying the fruits of his prodigious labors he was, instead, living in perpetual exile; walking forbidden coasts in silence and in fear; perhaps slipping his completed manuscripts under a bolted door; running forever like a thief in the night. All these truths introduce into the story the element of irony. There are, and were indeed, "more things in heaven and earth ... than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Disbelief that William Shakespeare wrote the plays and poems attributed to him was inevitable. The wonder is that the awakening came so late. More than two hundred fifty years rolled by before a skeptic's voice was raised.

One hundred years ago the first doubts began to make themselves heard. The meager record of Shakespeare's literary life; the lack of any personal reputation among his literary contemporaries; the bankrupt evidence of any formally acquired education which (considering the time in which he wrote) he must have had to write as he did; his emergence with incredible suddenness as a writer in his thirtieth year -- oddly late for a poet of the Elizabethan era to have first flowered; the prosaic events of his unrecorded literary life, which are all we definitely know about him -- these and many other reasons were stirring the first yeast of doubt in the minds of thinking men.

The first dissenters favored Francis Bacon as the author of the Shakespeare plays and poems. Following the Baconians, candidates were brought forth. The Earls of Oxford, Rutland, Southampton, and Derby were among the perennials. The contention was that only those born into the nobility or associated with it could have written the noble thoughts and described the aristocratic characters in the plays.

Though the choices offered are symptomatic of an ability to renounce Shakespeare in general rather than a thoughtful selection of the right candidate, I applaud these "doubters" nevertheless. They have managed to unshackle themselves from the handcuffs of a declining tradition. They form part of the crusade to win for the rightful author his merited due.

But the brave and articulate individuals who have in books or pamphlets championed other men as author of the plays and poems are not alone in rejecting William Shakespeare as author. An impressive array of unbelievers -- none of whom has necessarily written a book on the subject or presented a candidate for the authorship -- have made known their sentiments. All meet in the belief that Shakespeare just cannot be accepted as the author of the works credited to him.

Such men as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Lord Palmerston, Walt Whitman, Sir George Greenwood, Mark Twain, Prince Bismarck, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sigmund Freud, John Bright, Henry James, Lord Broughton, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lord Penzance, John Greenleaf Whittier, Dr. W. H. Furness; and Charles Dickens, who declared: "The life of William Shakespeare is a fine mystery, and I tremble every day lest something should turn up."

What is the significance of these doubts? The stature of the members of the Shakespeare revolutionaries speaks for itself. They cannot be dismissed as "clowns" or "cranks" or "crackpots." Scholars, students, critics, and commentators have contributed to the Shakespeare study -- and are numbered among the unbelievers. Even though their theories as to who wrote Shakespeare's plays appear untenable, yet their unified disavowal of Shakespeare's authorship -- the major premise behind all their conclusions -- cannot be lightly disregarded. These men are not irresponsible eccentrics. But, then, who did write the plays, and the poems?

To begin with, a successful candidate must fulfill certain conditions. Before superimposing on Shakespeare's image the image of another -- a nameless one -- and then identifying that superimposition, certain qualities must be found, examined, and proved. The supporters of the faceless candidate must be able to produce reasons relentless and inevitable, or else join the ranks of Francis Bacon, Oxfordites, and other contenders. Until such a nominee is presented, capable of passing the most stringent critical tests known to logic and literature, denial of Shakespeare's authorship, while intriguing, stimulating, and often conclusive, does not deserve acceptance. A god cannot fall unless another god arises.

In the following pages I present for your consideration a poet-dramatist whose genius, education, known literary output, and accomplishments prove to my mind that it was impossible for anyone else to have written the works attributed to William Shakespeare.

For one of the first times the name of this poet-dramatist is put forth in the pages of a book as the author of Shakespeare's works.* Seventeen years of effort and research have buttressed, and made secure, this writer's claim to title. I present the name confidently. For, once the pieces of the literary puzzle have been put together and the complete picture studied with critical eye, it is almost with a sense of anticlimax that Christopher Marlowe, duelist, scapegrace, genius, and poet, stands gloriously accused.

In the winter of 1936 I traveled to the south shore of eastern Long Island, where, in the quiet, I hoped to finish some writing. At first everything went well. For two weeks I wrote confidently, and without cease. Then one morning I awoke feeling that the spell had been broken. I couldn't get on with my work. There is nothing on earth more unhappy than a writer who cannot write. Every morning I sat down in front of a miserably blank sheet of paper and lit my first cigarette. Two hours later there were fifteen cigarettes in the ashtray to the right of my typewriter and the paper was still blank.

After three days of this mocking misery I finally went to the local library, where I borrowed books of most Elizabethan dramatists available. I carried home with me the works of Kyd, Greene, Lyly, Marlowe, and Jonson. I concluded that if I couldn't write I might as well read.

For more than a month I did little else. And of all the Elizabethan plays, I came to know and like those of Christopher Marlowe the best. At all times there seemed to hang over his works an atmosphere of deja-vu -- a nagging, compelling memory that disturbed me as I reread Tamburlaine, Dr. Faustus, and The Jew of Malta.

I began to jot down phrases, expressions, and lines from Marlowe, and similar phrases, expressions, and lines I recalled from Shakespeare. Placed side by side, these quotes formed the first clue to what was to develop into a gigantic literary jigsaw puzzle, which would occupy me for many years to come.

Later I checked my memory of Shakespeare's quotations with the text of his plays. I found they squared with those of Marlowe's. An example:

Marlowe's Tamburlaine:
Holla, ye pampered Jades of Asia.
What, can ye draw but twenty miles a day....

Shakespeare's Henry IV (Part II):
And hollow pampered jades of Asia,
Which cannot go but thirty miles a day.

Marlowe's Dr. Faustus (conjuring Helen of Troy):
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?

Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida (referring to Helen of Troy):
... She is a pearl,
Whose price hath launched above a thousand ships.

After a while I realized that what I had done was to extract stylistic similarities, known as parallelisms, from the works of the two authors. The number of these parallelisms grew, and my interest grew along with them. I reread most of the Shakespeare plays. With renewed vigor I found myself startled by the astonishing affinity that Shakespeare had for Marlowe, and Marlowe for Shakespeare. Not only was this affinity one of style, but every facet, every nuance of the dramatic and creative mechanisms in their works seemed incredibly harmonious. Both dramatists created the same emotional, intellectual situations for their characters; more often than not, they were psychologically identical.

It seemed as though versification, vocabulary, imagery, and allusion stemmed from the same psychic root.

Of course, the two poets were contemporaries. Perhaps, I thought, I was overeager; and what I had begun to read between the lines of my Oxford Shakespeare was the result of my own imagination. I reread Kyd, Greene, and Peele, scrupulously setting their lines against Shakespeare's as I had previously done with Marlowe. Quite unconsciously, I was performing a literary "control" experiment.

The results were unexpected. Shakespeare's whole style and treatment differed radically from that of these other playwrights; so did Marlowe's. I found that Marlowe and Shakespeare stylistically agreed with each other in the same inverse proportion as they disagreed with their dramatic contemporaries.

I reread the works of both dramatists. Marlowe's Edward II,, Hero and Leander, Dido, Queen of Carthage, and Shakespeare's Timon of Athens, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Cymbeline engaged me. Thematically, the works were poles apart. Yet the medley disclosed further evidence of a literary relationship between Marlowe and Shakespeare so close, so united that it seemed to me to be almost a blood relationship.

I began to draw parallelisms again. After a while I had collected an enormous number. And it was time for me to leave Long Island.

During all this time my knowledge of the lives of Shakespeare and Marlowe amounted to no more, and no less, than that of the average, reasonably informed person. I accepted the usual academic and textual pronouncements literally.

William Shakespeare died a respectable Stratford on Avon death at the age of 52.

Christopher Marlowe, by contrast, died in a tavern brawl at Deptford at the age of 29 -- when he was stabbed, murdered in a quarrel over either a wench or an ale bill.

These were statements found in books. I had never questioned them in any way.

The last night before my departure I spent tossing restlessly from side to side. It was one of those euphemistically named "white" nights, which are, in reality, black as pitch; a foretaste of hell, for any tense or nervous person who is liable to brood progressively about loss of rest. Instead of black sheep, I counted parallelisms. And around three o'clock in the morning, with the waves of the ocean moaning outside my window, I began to brood over Marlowe's death. And sometime during that quiet period I asked myself a question: "Was the report of Marlowe's assassination true?"

I don't know quite why, but I felt intuitively that somehow it was not. A small doubt persisted. It was to grow with boom-food rapidity during the months and the years to follow. I determined to seek confirmation of Marlowe's murder; solid, incontrovertible evidence that he had truly died as reported.

That was the beginning of a nineteen-year search for the needle of truth in a haystack of literary conjecture that had been piling up for centuries. And at the end of that time I was ready to prove, beyond any reasonable doubt, that every single play and poem we have been led to believe was written by William Shakespeare had been written by Christopher Marlowe -- a poet-dramatist who had outlived his own death, in a most "strange and marvellous fashion."

Let me emphasize here that it was not by first denying Shakespeare that my theory came into being. It was the growing conviction that no one but Christopher Marlowe could have written the works of Shakespeare.

In spite of doubts, in spite of feeling that I was tilting at the windmills of established authority, I could not help but think that the poet who had written:

I ... hold there is no sin but ignorance.
(The Jew of Malta)

had written:

I say there is no darkness but ignorance.
(Twelfth Night)

That the poet who wrote:

Weep not for Mortimer
That scorns the world, and, as a traveller
Goes to discover countries yet unknown.
(Edward II)

had also written:

The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns.
(Hamlet)

These were but two of a multitude of similar parallelisms. There were other reasons, too. One of them came from Sir Edmund Kerchever Chambers, a knowledgeable Shakespeare authority. Thus, Sir Edmund, in his biography of William Shakespeare:

The percipience of style is a very real quality. It had its origin in the same natural feeling for the value of words and the rise and fall of rhythm, which is the starting point of literary expression itself; it may be trained, half unconsciously, through reading and reflection and comparison, into a valuable instrument of criticism. A quasi-intuitive sense is developed.

And further:

A writer forms his own rhetorical habits in the building of lines and the linking of line to line, in the use of exclamation, antithesis, iteration and cumulation; in the balance of noun against noun and verb against verb. A writer has his own small mannerisms of locution, his recurrent catch-phrases.... These are the most characteristic because they become unconscious and are often, at first sight, unnoticeable.... Naturally each writer has his individual range of thought, of dramatic situations, of imagery, of allusion, or vocabulary.

Sir Edmund confirmed the value of my work -- the weeding out of parallelisms between the works of Marlowe and Shakespeare on the basis of "the starting point of literary expression itself."

But no matter how I might be cheered by this helping hand (unconscious or otherwise) of authority, there were other factors to consider. Marlowe's homicide at the age of 29 -- a matter of historical record -- had cut him off at an age when he could not possibly have written the bulk of the Shakespeare Canon.

And yet -- and yet -- it must be Marlowe!

· Note:

A) It was not until at least 12 years had elapsed in my research that I learned of the following:

In 1895, W. G. Zeigler, in a cinematic "thriller," fictionalized the tale of Marlowe's "murder" by reversing, of all things, the documented facts. Instead of Francis Frazer (Ingram Frizer) slaying Marlowe, Frazer, in turn, is stabbed to death by Christopher Marlowe, after he, Frazer, discovers Marlowe trysting with his faithless wife in the bedroom of his home.

Ziegler's scenario-novel then imagines Marlowe having been slain, in 1598, by the dramatist Ben Jonson!

The whole tale is compounded of the purest fiction and fantasy.

B) In 1923, one Archie Webster, in a terse six-page magazine piece, believed that Marlowe had written the Sonnets.

C) In 1931, Gilbert Slater, in his "Seven Shakespeares," advanced a theory that not one, but seven writers wrote the works of Shakespeare. These were: Francis Bacon, The Earl of Oxford, Sir Walter Raleigh, The Earl of Derby, Christopher Marlowe, Lady Pembroke, and the Earl of Rutland.

Slater laid greatest emphasis for authorship on Oxford. Marlowe, he felt, was employed by the other six to merely supply the technique of play construction for them.

Excerpted from The Murder of the Man Who Was "Shakespeare" (New York: Julian Messner, 1955), by Calvin Hoffman. pp. vii-xix. Copyright 1955 by Calvin Hoffman.


home · a fine mystery · a bard in the hand? · what's at stake?
related report: FRONTLINE's the shakespeare mystery · poll: who cares? · quiz · readings & links
join the discussion · teacher's guide · tapes & transcripts · press · credits
privacy · FRONTLINE · wgbh · pbsi

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

Much Ado About Something [home] FRONTLINE
SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

Solitary NationApril 22nd

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS