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Much Ado About Something



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caption: William Shakespeare, top, is widely considered to be the greatest writer who ever lived--or was he? In "Much Ado About Something," airing Thursday, January 2, at 9 P.M. on PBS (check local listings), FRONTLINE explores anew the centuries-old controversy over whether the literary masterpieces long attributed to Shakespeare were actually written by his contemporary, Christopher Marlowe, bottom.

For electronic images, contact Jenna Lowe at (617) 300-3500 or e-mail jenna_lowe@wgbh.org,
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Photo credit top: CORBIS
Photo credit bottom: Corpus Christi College

Thursday, January 2, at 9pm, 90 minutes

His name is synonymous with great literature. Author of timeless masterpieces like Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and Hamlet, William Shakespeare is widely considered to be the greatest writer who ever lived--or was he?

In "Much Ado About Something," a documentary essay by producer Michael Rubbo, FRONTLINE explores anew the centuries-old controversy over whether the literary masterpieces attributed to Shakespeare were actually written by someone else. The 90-minute documentary airs Thursday, January 2, at 9 P.M. on PBS (check local listings).

"The question of whether William Shakespeare actually wrote the works attributed to him is really a 16th century detective story," says Rubbo, who takes viewers across England and to Italy in his quest to unravel the Shakespeare puzzle. "There are those who consider it to be the biggest literary cover-up in history."

Long the subject of debate among authors--with everyone from Henry James to Mark Twain weighing in on the subject--the Shakespeare question has captivated some of history's greatest thinkers.

"Sigmund Freud joined the debate," notes John Michell, author of Who Wrote Shakespeare? "He believed the Earl of Oxford fitted the character of Shakespeare as he psychologically characterized him."

Edward deVere--the seventeenth Earl of Oxford--has long been suspected by some of being the true genius behind Shakespeare's works. In 1989, in fact, FRONTLINE's "The Shakespeare Mystery" examined the case made by deVere devotees. Sir Francis Bacon has also been mentioned as a candidate for the authorship of Shakespeare's works.

"Much Ado About Something," instead, focuses primarily on another playwright believed by some to be the "real Shakespeare": Christopher Marlowe.

Born the same year as Shakespeare, Marlowe was at the height of his literary career in 1593 when he was supposedly killed in an argument over a tavern bill. Marlowe's death, however, has been clouded in mystery, with some "Marlovians" insisting the playwright lived to write another day--but under the name of Shakespeare.

To Shakespeare's stalwarts, such speculation is just that: speculation.

"To me, the people who think that Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare are either American snobs...or great British eccentrics," says Professor Jonathan Bate, author of The Genius of Shakespeare.

Bate has no doubts that the Bard of Avon authored the works that have earned him a place in literary history. But others aren't so sure. How, critics ask, could a man with little if any formal education write such literary masterpieces? How did he acquire the knowledge of the classics that would have been required to write Troilus and Cressida or Hamlet? And why did the death of the man Ben Jonson called "the soul of the age" pass unnoticed and unmarked?

In "Much Ado About Something," Rubbo finds numerous Shakespeare skeptics--often in surprising places.

"It would take a lot to convince me now that it was the Stratford man [writing] by himself," says Mark Rylance, a Shakespearean actor and artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London. "Someone has to prove to me how he got the learning and experience that went with the possible genius he had."

Author Michell agrees. "Of all the candidates, possibly Shakespeare...is the weakest."

Perhaps the best-known Shakespeare skeptic was the late Calvin Hoffman. "Much Ado About Something" recounts Hoffman's thirty-year crusade to prove that Christopher Marlowe was the true author of Shakespeare's works.

Hoffman believed that Marlowe--a member of Queen Elizabeth I's secret service--faked his own death and fled England to avoid being taken into custody by the notorious "Star Chamber," which one observer in the documentary calls an English Inquisition. Under this theory, Marlowe fled to Italy, where his creativity flourished amid the Italian Renaissance. It was there, some Marlovians say, that Marlowe wrote his masterpieces, which he then sent back to his patron, Sir Thomas Walsingham, in England. After having the works recopied in another hand, Walsingham then passed the plays on to a convenient front man--actor William Shakespeare--who launched them on the stage.

It's a theory fraught with mystery and intrigue. But is there any evidence to support it?

John Baker thinks so. An American Marlovian, Baker believes the proof is contained within the Shakespeare works themselves.

"How many [Shakespeare] plays are set in Italy?" Baker asks. "Or do you realize that they're about exiles? Do you realize they're about false identity...people who are resurrected from the grave?...If you really think about what these plays mean, and you realize they were written by an intellectual exile, an expatriate--bang! Everything makes sense again."

Hoffman also believed Shakespeare's works betray the hand of Christopher Marlowe, but in a far more literal sense. After comparing Shakespeare's plays with Marlowe's works, Hoffman claimed to have uncovered hundreds of what he called "parallelisms": lines and passages from Marlowe's plays that are strangely echoed in Shakespeare's plays.

An example: An early Marlowe play contains the passage "Holla, ye pampered jades of Asia. What, can ye draw but twenty miles a day?" A later Shakespeare work reads "And hollowed pampered jades of Asia, which cannot go but thirty miles a day."

Shakespeare's supporters, however, dismiss such similarities as proof only that the Bard borrowed rather liberally from his contemporaries. They also point out differences in the playwrights' styles.

"Marlowe is more conspicuous as an innovator," says Professor Andy Gurr, director of research at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. "He was really radical...Shakespeare was much more slow moving in terms of his innovation."

Bate, the author, contends 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 as they believe.

"Think of Picasso--think of his Blue Period and what he painted before [that]," says longtime Marlovian Dolly Walker-Wraight, who was interviewed for the documentary prior to her death at age 81 in March 2002. "You would not think it was the same painter, would you?"

What Marlovians are missing, Shakespeare supporters say, is proof. "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."

The documentary concludes that further research will be required in Italy if the Marlowe case is to be advanced and the Shakespeare mystery finally resolved. What's not so certain is whether some people want it to be resolved.

"The English take in Shakespeare with their mother's milk," says Susan Hunt, who steadfastly believes in Shakespeare despite her husband's preference for Marlowe. "We love him."

The late Walker-Wraight, however, had no such reservations about toppling Shakespeare from 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."

Following the broadcast, visit FRONTLINE's Web site at www.pbs.org/frontline for extended coverage of this story, including:

  • An interview with Michael Rubbo about what led him to the Shakespeare/Marlowe mystery;
  • A noted Elizabethan scholar's perspective on why Marlowe matters as a poet and playwright--regardless of whether he wrote Shakespeare's works;
  • Extended comments from experts in the film, and others, about why "who wrote Shakespeare" is important to them--or why it isn't;
  • Related readings and links on Shakespeare, Marlowe, Elizabethan England, and the larger authorship controversy.

"Much Ado About Something" is A Helpful Eye and Chili Films Production in Association with WGBH/FRONTLINE and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The producers are Michael Rubbo and Penelope McDonald. The writer, narrator and director is Michael Rubbo.

FRONTLINE is produced by WGBH Boston and is broadcast nationwide on PBS.

Funding for FRONTLINE is provided through the support of PBS viewers. Additional funding for "Much Ado About Something" is provided by the Australian Film Finance Corporation and the Australian Film Commission.

FRONTLINE is closed-captioned for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers.

The executive producer for FRONTLINE is David Fanning.

Press contacts:
Erin Martin Kane [erin_martin_kane@wgbh.org]
Chris Kelly [chris_kelly@wgbh.org]
(617) 300-3500

FRONTLINE XXI/January 2003

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