Monday, October 27, 2008

Another MSC Exclusive: Mike Rubbo, writer & director of Much Ado About Something, on Blumenfeld's The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection

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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Monday, October 20, 2008

MSC Exclusive: A question for Mike Rubbo, writer & director of Much Ado About Something

We caught up with Mike Rubbo, the veteran Australian filmmaker who wrote and directed the 2002 PBS/Frontline documentary Much Ado About Something, which explores the theory that Christopher Marlowe actually wrote the plays and sonnets attributed to Shakespeare.

Regarding Mike and the film, Elvis Mitchell of the New York Times praises: "Much Ado About Something is a film of ideas--well, notions, anyway--that are bound to stimulate discussion, an aspect long missing from documentary [. . .] Mr. Rubbo is an old-fashioned rabble-rouser, and he knows a good story when he finds it. And he's got one in this case, with its adherents to a cause and their whipsaw articulation of thoughts."

Mike was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1938. After studying anthropology at Sydney University, he attended Stanford University on Fulbright and Ford scholarships to study filmmaking. At that time, he was the only Australian to win both prestigious scholarships.

He graduated from Stanford in the mid 1960's with an MA, and he has developed a busy and highly respected career as a filmmaker and teacher.

For 25 years he worked at the National Film Board of Canada where he directed over 40 documentaries, including the influential Waiting for Fidel (available on Netflix). Mike also wrote and directed Vincent and Me, which received a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Children's Special. He has been a visiting lecturer at NYU, UCLA, Stanford, Univ. of Florida, Harvard, and the Australian Film, Television and Radio School.

We're truly honored that Mike shared some thoughts with us.

Q: Mike, the DVD version of your beautiful and provocative 2002 documentary Much Ado About Something has just been released in the US. A few years have elapsed since its original release and certainly you've had time to reflect upon Marlovian theory. Care to share your thoughts on the Shakespeare authorship matter today in 2008?

Mike Rubbo: Of course, I'm very happy that PBS has finally got around to putting my film on DVD. But even more exciting is the recent release of two books which take the case for Marlowe considerably further than I was able to do on the screen.

These are Sam Blumenfeld's The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection and Daryl Pinksen's Marlowe's Ghost.

Both are excellent and together I'd say they pretty much clinch the case for Marlowe as the hidden hand behind the Bard. Naturally, I'm particularly pleased with the Pinksen book because he was inspired to write it after seeing my film.

In Much Ado About Something, I did not see myself as an advocate for the Marlowe theory so much as a filmmaker on a journey of discovery. I was just as interested in the wonderful characters attracted to the Marlowe cause, John Baker and Dolly Walker Wraight, for example, as I was in the case to be made for Marlowe.

The two authors take a different tack. They have cleared the decks as it were and get right down to the challenge of proving their case. Of course, it's still something that must be done with circumstantial evidence since no one has yet found proof positive that Marlowe lived after May 30, 1593.

Where are they strongest? Sam Blumenfeld combs the plays of the First Folio and finds clue after clue to Marlowe as their author. Some clues are intentionally placed, others are there because they reflect Marlowe's tastes and obsessions with Ovid, for example, and the Dido and Hero/Leander myths.

In my film I touch on just one such clue, the unschooled William character in As You Like It, taken by all as a send-up of Shakespeare. Blumenfeld's discoveries were a revelation for me as he turned up clue after clue, though strangely passing over what seems the most evident one, the country bumpkin William, mentioned above.

Blumenfeld is also very good at situating Marlowe, both boy and man, in the Elizabethan world of religious tensions, plots and powerful personalities. He brings in, as no else has done, the importance of the Countess of Pembroke and the intellectual circle she created around her including, Blumenfeld argues, Kit Marlowe.

You get the feeling from this book that the character and placement of Marlowe in his times that Blumenfeld achieves is like a gun fixing on a target, one which shoots this amazing man into the writer's seat, vacated by an improbable Shakespeare.

Daryl Pinksen covers some of the same ground but is more the lawyer arguing his case. He does, for instance, a great job of showing how orthodox scholars have again and again situated Marlowe as Shakespeare's precursor, even seeing Shakespeare as schooling himself in Marlowe and his mighty line, blank verse. Scholars have twinned the two to such a degree that they must have been close. Yet there is of course no evidence they ever met, ever spoke of each other, and so it becomes quite easy to take the next step to thinking we are dealing with just one author.

Both Pinksen and Blumenfeld score effectively with the way the name Shakespeare appears almost magically just days after Marlowe's supposed death, an appearance timed with a clear intent, it seems.

When my film came out, a common critique was that the plays of Marlowe were so crude compared to those of Shakespeare, that you'd have to have a tin ear to imagine Marlowe could have written Shakespeare.

It's hard for the average person to have an opinion on this because the opportunities for seeing Marlowe's plays are so rare. Blumenfeld does a great job in revealing the quality and subtlety of Marlowe's plays, very much the equal of those attributed to Shakespeare, especially the early ones.

Pinksen also does good work in showing what twisted pretzels scholars have made of themselves, trying to explain why the sonnets, which are clearly autobiographical, don't fit anything that we know of Shakespeare's life.

Indeed, as you read the sonnets for the life they reveal, you can't ever imagine them coming from the pen of the petty businessman who was Shakespeare as we know him. On the other hand, everything large and grand about Marlowe, coupled with the lonely life he would have had in exile, goes with the tone and content of the sonnets.

Daryl Pinksen is also useful for those who wonder how such a secret could stay hidden for so long. He compares Marlowe's situation with that of the Hollywood writers who were blacklisted during the McCarthy era. They also had to use fronts to get their work on the screen.

Pinksen points out that the many successful frontings for blacklisted authors in the McCarthy years were never exposed, even in an age of newspapers and investigative reporters. How much easier could such a secret have been kept in Elizabethan England with none of those tools of discovery.

At the end of the day, both books make their case equally on good research and commonsense grounds. This works just as well for a literary mystery as it does with a jury in a courtroom. I'm delighted my film still plays a part in this pursuit of a commonsense understanding of the authorship question and hope that people will pair its viewing with these two excellent books.

© The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection, October 2008

Click here for Mike Rubbo's 8-minute YouTube clip on the Marlowe-as-Shakespeare theory.

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Jarmusch Swinton

On Marlowe in exile: a question for Samuel Blumenfeld, author of The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection

Q: Sam, where did Marlowe go after the events at Deptford and his alleged "murder"?

Sam: John Baker has speculated that Marlowe may have gone to Scotland on a mission for Lord Burghley and son. But I believe that he went to Italy, which he had visited as a page with Philip Sidney. So he was familiar with the country. Also, so many of the plays take place in Italy that one can assume that they were written there while in exile: The Taming of the Shrew, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, Othello.

A new book, Shakespeare in Venice, by Shaul Bassi, a lecturer at Venice University, and Alberto Toso Fei, asserts that Shakespeare had to have been in Italy in order to write his Italian plays. But, as we know, Shakespeare of Stratford never traveled abroad. So the plays had to be written by someone who did travel abroad: Christopher Marlowe.

The London Times Online reviewed the book. It stated:

"Mr Bassi and Mr Toso Fei accept that the frequent references in The Merchant of Venice to the Rialto Bridge--the nerve center of Venetian commerce and gossip--did not prove that Shakespeare had seen it, since its fame as a 'marvel of engineering' had spread to London.

"On the other hand, it was striking that he had given the name 'Gobbo' to Shylock’s servant, a reference to the carved figure of a hunchback (Il Gobbo di Rialto) on the bridge, a feature well known in Venice but not beyond it. Shakespeare had also used local words such as gondola, as in Act 2, scene 8 of The Merchant, when Salarino remarks: 'But there the duke was given to understand that in a gondola were seen together Lorenzo and his amorous Jessica.'

"In Othello Roderigo tells Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, that she has been 'Transported with no worse nor better guard but with a knave of common hire, a gondolier' (Act 1, scene 1). Shakespeare knew about the Venetian custom of offering pigeons ('a dish of doves') as a gift, and showed rare insight into cosmopolitan Venice’s ethnic and social relations, and its tolerance of foreigners and minorities."

I am sure that one can find in the Italian plays many more references to places and things indicating a personal knowledge obtained by actually being there. But one must not discount the fact that Marlowe apparently did extensive research when writing about foreign places as shown by his intimate knowledge of the island of Malta, which is revealed in The Jew of Malta.

Also, while in Italy Marlowe obviously had a way of getting his manuscripts to Lord Burghley and son (ed. note: see 6/23/08 Cecil post) in England by diplomatic pouch. As a member of the secret service such facilities would have been available to him. We know that Philip Sidney sent letters to England from Italy. Burghley then would have given the manuscripts to Thomas Walsingham who would have used a scribe to rewrite them so that Ed Blount (ed. note: see 6/7/08 Blount post) could bring them to Shakespeare at the Globe in pristine condition without a blot.

In any case, Marlowe’s exile in Italy should be more thoroughly researched in order to prove beyond any doubt that he lived beyond the events in Deptford and continued to write the greatest dramas in the English language.

© The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection, October 2008

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Monday, October 13, 2008

Redux: Evidence points to Marlowe! Excellent 2002 piece on Marlowe theory and Mike Rubbo's Much Ado About Something documentary

Click here to read "Mystery Man" by Gavin McNett.

Originally posted here on 6/26/08. Apropos given the recent release of Much Ado About Something in the U.S. on DVD. You can purchase the critically acclaimed PBS/Frontline film by clicking here.

"Mr. Rubbo is an old-fashioned rabble-rouser, and he knows a good story when he finds it. And he's got one in this case, with its adherents to a cause and their whipsaw articulation of thoughts." Elvis Mitchell, New York Times

" . . . has enough wit, energy and geniality to please not only the fanatical adherents on either side, but also people who know nothing about the subject and think they're not interested." Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle

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Monday, October 6, 2008

Marlowe's Edward II and Historical Tragedy

Here at MSC, we're huge fans of Elizabethan scholar Irving Ribner, and we highly recommend his exceptional “Marlowe's Edward II and the Tudor History Play” (ELH, Vol. 22, No. 4; Dec., 1955). Written in his hallmark lucid and economical style, Professor Ribner explains how Edward II, composed in 1591-1592, "is our first important tragedy based upon the [English] chronicles" which "heralded . . . a new type of historical tragedy." With this play, Ribner argues, "we have, perhaps for the first time in Elizabethan drama, a mature tragedy of character in which a potentially good man comes to destruction because of inherent weaknesses which make him incapable of coping with a crisis which he himself has helped to create." We see in Edward II Marlowe's movement towards "characters who change and develop under the pressure of events," unlike the "classical substantialism" evident in his Tamburlaine. Ribner superbly demonstrates Marlowe's moving away from the Machiavellian-humanistic superman found in Tamburlaine "where there are no limits" to "a more tragic view of life" in Edward II where men "are molded themselves" by the stress which encroaches upon them (see 7/2 Machiavelli post). Also, with Edward II we have the divided-kingdom motif found in Shakespeare's Henry IV and King Lear plus the abandonment of rule, "mak[ing] Edward guilty of two of the greatest sins in the Renaissance catalogue of political crimes." Edward's character further reminds us, writes Ribner, that an absolute monarch must recognize justice and be cognizant of his subjects if he wishes to hold onto absolute rule. The 10-page article, likewise, nicely catalogues Marlowe's deft manipulation of the vast material available on Edward II from English historians Holinshed, et al.

© The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection, October 2008

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