Who really wielded the pen?

Fervent few believe Shakespeare wasn't author of his plays

January 02, 2003|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

Five years ago, Australian filmmaker Michael Rubbo fell in love with the rabid, often bruising debate over who "really" wrote the works of Shakespeare. A friend gave him a dog-eared copy of The Man Who Was Shakespeare, an out-of-print work by American author Calvin Hoffman, which laid out a theory as bracing as it was bizarre. In Hoffman's view, Christopher Marlowe - a real-life playwright and contemporary of the Bard's - faked his own death in 1593, fled to Italy and spent the rest of his life perpetrating the greatest literary hoax of all time.

The theory has gained little traction in academic circles. Even Shakespeare skeptics find it eccentric. But that doesn't bother Rubbo. He's tickled anyone believes it at all.

Do they ever. PBS, feting the 20th anniversary of its Frontline series, airs the end result tonight: Much Ado About Something, a 90-minute BBC documentary that shows off a rogues' gallery of goofballs who would rather go the way of Shakespeare's melancholy Dane than give up their widely spurned hypothesis.

"It's all supposition," says Rubbo, a sometime painter who calls this film "a detective story" and "a road movie into the 16th century." "But [it's] lively stuff."

It is that - just like the "authorship" debate in general, which has taken many turns over the centuries. According to Gail Paster, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, the majority of traditional scholars - she guesses 95 percent - still side with the playwright skeptics refer to as "Stratford Man," while more doubters favor Edward deVere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, and Sir Francis Bacon than do Marlowe.

"He was killed in [that] tavern brawl in 1593," she says. "There was a coroner's inquest. The evidence is credible. There's little reason to take Marlowe's candidacy seriously."

Tell that to the true believers in Rubbo's film. Ties askew, eyes darting, hair at times a mess, they stake out a position which - like many of the characters we know as Shakespeare's - seems all the more plausible for its lack of concern with social niceties. A British bookseller, an 81-year-old dowager, a Seattle minister in a T-shirt and a former consultant for British Airways line up to interpret each detail of Marlowe's life - not to mention passages from the plays - as affirmation of "the biggest literary cover-up in history."

Truth be told, the Marlowe biography is shadowy enough to encourage them. Marlowe, the son of a Canterbury shoemaker, displayed a precocious enough intellect at a young age to attract the eye of a patron, Thomas Walsingham, who supported his enrollment at Cambridge. By the time the flamboyantly gay Marlowe left six years later, he had fashioned a masterwork, Tamburlaine, Part I, one of the most frequently performed plays in the Elizabethan theater, and established himself as a talent to be reckoned with.

He had also, some say, embarked on a life of intrigue.

Queen Elizabeth's government may have recruited Marlowe as a secret agent while he was at Cambridge. He did spend months on end in France and Holland, some say to spy on the queen's Catholic opposition. Arrested in the latter country on charges of counterfeiting coins - a capital offense at the time - he was extradited to England. There he was freed, after what Marlovians argue was an incarceration of suspicious brevity.

Indeed, Marlowe spent so much time abroad that Cambridge planned not to grant him a diploma. Only intervention by high government officials - sudden and still unexplained - effected his graduation.

The intrigue helps justify the cornerstone of Hoffman's theory: that Marlowe faked his own death at 29, then escaped the country. He was, they say, the target of an investigation by the Star Chamber, the infamous board of inquisitors in Elizabethan England that sought out religious dissenters and condemned them to torture. Where Paster sees an open-and-shut case, Rubbo's crew sees a "death" and resurrection.

Why, they ask, if a man as celebrated as Marlowe was killed and buried at St. Nicholas Church in Deptford, is there no marked grave? Why would officials have interred him in the anonymous "plague pit?" In his documentary, Rubbo has Shakespearean actors dramatize what might have happened in the tavern that day - including Marlowe's escape down a nearby river, which, Hoffmaniacs say, began his escape to Mantua, Italy, the very town in which Romeo seeks refuge in the most famous romance in history.

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