Sam Blumenfeld and I have something in common. We both became fascinated with the Marlowe theory through reading Calvin Hoffman's book, The Murder of the Man Who Was "Shakespeare."
In Sam's case, he was editor of a publishing house which reprinted Hoffman's book. In my case, I was handed the Hoffman "hand grenade" on a tropic night in far north Queensland by the British author Tony Shaffer (Sleuth, The Wicker Man), who intoned, "Read this and you'll know the truth."
Read it I did and, while I was not sure about Hoffman's racy theory that Marlowe was the hidden hand, the real writer behind a bumbling petty businessman called Shakespeare, I was certainly fascinated enough to spend four years of my life researching and making my documentary on this very same theory and its adherents. This became Much Ado About Something.
This film project was a delightful journey because, as John Michell says in the film, the authorship question takes you back into such an interesting territory: the Elizabethan age. It forces you to become an expert too, if you are ever to voice your looming doubts about the Bard in public.
This is, of course, a real gem of a conspiracy theory and there are those of us by nature who love this sort of thing. I've concluded that a good conspiracy theory has to be improbable enough that few believe it, but plausible enough on investigation to stand up to assault. In this case, this conspiracy theory required that the Coroner's report of Marlowe's death in a stabbing incident on May 30, 1593, be untrue.
So, defend the theory to skeptics, that's the test. The best theory will cut a swathe through doubt and confusion and be a joy in the hand of the believer. I think the "Marlowe as hidden hand" theory Calvin Hoffman put forward, and which got both myself and Blumenfeld so intrigued, is just such a one.
My film, made six years ago, continues to find fascinated audiences, while much more recently, Sam Blumenfeld has written a book, The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection, which takes the theory much further than either I or Calvin Hoffman.
So much progress has been made in bringing into the open the doubts about Shakespeare himself that Blumenfeld does not choose to spend too much time on unseating the Bard. The facts that Shakespeare never presented himself as a writer, that he apparently owned no books, had illiterate daughters, and was far more interested in property and crop yields than in his published works--all of that is now so well known that the author's seat is already semi-vacant.
For Marlowe to fill the throne, though, he has to survive that knife fight in Deptford. Since no concrete evidence for him being alive after that day has yet emerged, no firm sightings in Europe, no signed writing clearly postdated 1593, proof has still to be circumstantial and commonsensical.
Blumenfeld does an excellent job of setting out who Marlowe is. His family origins, the milieu in which he grows up, the cobbler's family in bustling Canterbury--all this is well drawn. We find that Canterbury is home to the refugee Huguenots and bears the scars of recent religious conflicts which have almost torn England apart as Elizabeth settles into the throne.
In this context, we meet a very smart boy, the cobbler's son, who's soon spotted by the talent scouts of his day. He's given scholarships which take him first to the King's School and then onto Cambridge to study for the Church. It's fascinating to follow Blumenfeld through the evidence and find how Marlowe develops other lives, that he becomes a spy for his queen against her Catholic enemies; and a free thinker, linked to the mysterious School of Night. He soon acquires powerful friends and gains as well an aristocratic patron, Tom Walshingham, the same age as himself.
Blumenfeld then shows us how Marlowe blooms as a writer. Fed on the classics at both school and university, obsessed with Ovid, he becomes, even before leaving university, a published poet and playwright with plays ready for the stage, soon to be instant hits. We find him, too, embroiled in the risky intellectual issues of the day, maybe playing with atheism. He's making dangerous enemies, most notable Archbishop Whitgift, Elizabeth's crusader against faith deviants, her "little black husband" as she called him.
All of this is known. It is the depth and richness of Blumenfeld's treatment which is new. Marlowe comes across as so solid that, not only does one want him to survive that day in May, 1593 (he's only 29 at that point), but we understand why others would be plotting his safety, as well. He is in real danger, accused of atheism and suspected of writing seditions pamphlets, with the Whitgift inquisition team, fuelled by informers, closing in. He faces torture, perhaps death, unless he can get away. Blumenfeld details what's at stake and the people around Marlowe one could expect to either help or harm him.
In my film, having never seen Marlowe's play performed, I was somewhat dismissive of the work, believing what a prominent Stratfordian here in Australia said, namely that you'd have to have "a tin ear" to imagine that Marlowe's plays were the equal of Shakespeare's to the point where the two could be the same person.
Blumenfeld takes us through those plays from Dido: Queen of Carthage to Edward II, revealing not only their mighty language, but the subtlety of plots and depth of ideas on the human condition, all of which indeed position Marlowe to be not only "the book in which Shakespeare went to school," but as we prefer, the man who in hiding kept on writing under the name of "Shakespeare."
The latter part of Blumenfeld's book is effective in the way it combs the plays of the First Folio, those called Shakespeare's, to see whether the theory stacks up in terms of clues as to the real author in hiding. It is quite astonishing how many links to Marlowe Blumenfeld finds as he works through the canon, play by play. Some are clues embedded by a frustrated Marlowe who, as the years pass from his supposed death, is more and more frustrated to see his frontman, Shakespeare, lauded by the ignorant.
In getting the help of his friends to escape under the cover of a false killing, an immediate fix for a situation of great danger in which Marlowe found himself, is achieved. But Marlowe made a Faustian bargain. In the rush to that solution, little thought was given, one guesses, as to how long the exile would have to last. The slur on his name no doubt came as a surprise, as well. He, who'd been used to such plaudits for his plays, had been called the "Muses darling," was now reviled and there was, it seemed, no end to it. His only salve was to snipe at Shakespeare, his frontman, from the shadows. That is one type of clue: Marlowe in anger.
Then there are the even more frequent clues in the plays that are unconscious. Again and again, Marlowe's favorite themes--his classical obsessions, the mentions of Ovid, of the Dido story and the Hero and Leander myth--appear in what is supposedly Shakespeare with no explanation as to why they are there.
There is much more in the book which has pulled me back into the credibility of this theory and its delights. I've gone onto other things in my life, and it was not till reading Blumenfeld and another book by Daryl Pinksen, Marlowe's Ghost, that I've come back as it were.
We believe Shakespeare is Shakespeare essentially because people put his name on plays--first on a few individual copies, folios, and then on the collected works, the First Folio. Blumenfeld finds the publisher Edward Blount is woven into publishing events linking Marlowe and Shakespeare in such a way as to suspect he was a key player in the setting up and maintaining of the Shakespeare front. This is new as far as I know, and he may be right in thinking that it's one of the most important scholarly connections he's making.
I have the feeling that the delightful theory is going places. I suspect that Charles Nicholl, who has made the most exhaustive investigation of the fatal day at Deptford, the day of Marlowe's supposed death, may take it further. To date, Nicholl mysteriously refuses to investigate the idea that Marlowe might have been saved, a theory quite as good as any on which he spends so much time in his book, The Reckoning.
Nicholl is a fantastic investigator, and his fair appraisal of the "Marlowe lived" theory would do much to decide things one way or another.
Nicholl is already half way along this path in that it was he who decided that the Coroner's report was a cover-up of a conspiracy. It is, thus, not such a big step for him to investigate whether it was a conspiracy to save, rather than kill, Marlowe. I'm hoping Charles Nicholl will read Blumenfeld and Pinksen and then take up the challenge.
Mike Rubbo, October 2008
© Mike Rubbo, October 2008
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