We caught up with Alex Jack, whose 2005 two-volume edition of Hamlet celebrates William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe as co-authors of the world's most famous play. Howard Zinn, author of the bestselling A People's History of the United States, hails Alex Jack's Hamlet as "remarkable" and "enormously impressive as a detective work in literature." Professor Jack has authored or edited more than 35 books on food and health, history, science, and the arts, including The Cancer-Prevention Diet (with Michio Kushi), The Mozart Effect (with Don Campbell), and Vegetarian Bride of Frankenstein. He is a macrobiotic teacher and counselor and divides his time between his home in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts and teaching in Europe. We're honored that he's taking the time with us.
Q: Professor, as we approach May 30, the anniversary of the alleged death of Christopher Marlowe, speak to us about what you think happened on that day in Deptford.
Alex: According to the history books, Marlowe died in a barroom brawl and after an official inquest was buried in an anonymous grave in the local churchyard. Case closed. In my view, the Elizabethan secret service, headed by the Cecils and Walsinghams, was unequalled in what today we would call clandestine ops. Its plots to frame and execute Mary Queen of Scots (several years before the May 30, 1593 affair) and Dr. Lopez, the Jewish physician to the Queen (a year later), testify to their ruthlessness and proficiency. Not only did they succeed in fooling their contemporaries, but also historians argue over their respective guilt to this day because of the murky intelligence trails left behind.
As recent scholarship shows, the “tavern” where Marlowe reputedly died was almost certainly a “safe house” used by the Cecils who were related to its proprietor, Madame Bull. Her establishment may also have been connected with Anthony Marlowe, the powerful head of the Muscovy Company, whose global trading operations were centered in Deptford, London’s port. Scholars are divided over whether Kit and Anthony were related. The Cecils were major investors in the Muscovy Company, and Anthony was connected with the London theater, so it’s likely there was some relationship, even if the two men shared only a common surname. But a possible connection between the two, while intriguing, is not essential to what transpired. In any event, the three men who were with Marlowe at the time of his death at the inn were all involved with the Cecils or Walsinghams in past or present intelligence activities. Though exonerated by the inquest, Ingram Frizer, Marlowe’s assailant, long continued to work for Marlowe’s friend and patron, Thomas Walsingham, after the deed.
Of course, ten days earlier, Marlowe had been arrested in connection with a heresy investigation. Though he was released on bail, he was clearly being set up as an example by Archbishop Whitgift and his cronies as part of a witch hunt against Separatists and freethinkers. The Cecils, notable enemies of Whitgift in the highest councils of state and Marlowe’s superiors in the secret service, evidently helped him disappear. They faked his death and put him, so to speak, in the Elizabethan witness protection program. As I speculate in my book, I don’t think they saved him for literary or artistic reasons per se, as they were not above sacrificing anyone for realpolitik. But Marlowe’s poetic genius, especially in the early history plays (later attributed to Shakespeare), were patriotic to the core and helped establish what today we would call the England brand. He was indispensable to the future of the Realm.
Just how the sting came down in Deptford is open to debate. It is not clear whether Marlowe was present, and it doesn’t really matter. My hunch is that he was, but “spirited” away when the corpse, probably of just executed Separatist clergyman John Penry, was substituted for his own (as alluded to later in Measure for Measure). Whether Queen Elizabeth was privy to the rescue before or after is also an open question. I tend to think she wasn’t, though other Marlovians feel she was. Archbishop Whitgift almost certainly was kept in the dark.
Marlowe’s escape route is also uncertain. Most probably he went across the Channel and through France and the Low Countries (possibly with the help of Poley, one of the three men he dined with on that fateful night, and who was a fellow spy and colleague) where he was an experienced intelligence operative. However, as I mention in my book, by coincidence or design, there was a vessel of the Muscovy Company that sailed from Deptford on June 1 for Scotland and thence the Baltics in which Kit could have fled north, completely erasing any probable southern trail in the event that the Archbishop and his allies on the Privy Council (who were essentially in charge of internal security in the country) got wind of the deception and launched their own dragnet to apprehend him, as they had for other religious fugitives.
In any event, what’s not in dispute is that about two weeks later the first book printed under Shakespeare’s name - the poem Venus and Adonis - comes out. The poem is in the style, meter, and characteristic mythological bent of Marlowe’s work Hero and Leander, that appeared earlier in the year. Kit’s literary fingerprints are all over the poem! The work was already in production and had been registered (and ironically approved by the Archbishop, who doubled as the chief censor) during the height of the Separatist controversy earlier in the spring. Subsequently, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the other sublime Italianate plays come out, at first anonymously and eventually some under Shakespeare’s name. So it’s pretty clear Marlowe went to Italy and the Continent for most of this period, up until about 1600, sending back manuscripts, probably via the Cecils’ network, through Walsingham’s own channels, or mutual friends and travelers.
Meanwhile, actor Will Shakespeare played his role as the loyal frontman and was handsomely rewarded with lavish payments and a coat of arms and kept the secret until his death. I profoundly disagree with anti-Stratfordians who put down Will as a country bumpkin akin to the “upstart crow,” the allusion in Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit that more than anything else confused scholars for the next four hundred years about Shakespeare’s timeline in London and early writing career. The reference to “Shake-scene” clearly points to Alleyn, the great actor, not Shakespeare, and is the entire crux or foundation for the modern Shakespeare literary-industrial complex, an unholy alliance of scholars (especially heads of English departments), theatre festivals, textbook publishers, and British politicians and hoteliers who have turned Stratford into a tourist Mecca.
In my view, Will Shakespeare deserves the Academy Award for best supporting actor of all time. On this basis, I cast him as co-author of Hamlet and the other plays and was roundly denounced by most of my fellow Marlovians! How could I sully the heavenly genius, “the darling of the Muses,” by giving equal billing to the dolt from Stratford? Will was certainly not a dolt for keeping quiet for thirty years when the Archbishop and Church of England would have probably given him the keys to Lambeth Palace and half its treasure for turning in Kit, or putting him to the rack if they suspected skullduggery at the Globe. (Of course, Will may not have known who the real identify of the playwright was, but regardless he kept mum about his own role!) So in my book, Will is every bit as noble as Marlowe, the lead actor in this drama, and both deserve to be sung to their heavenly literary and dramatic rest by angels from on high.
© The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection, May 2009
Copies of the 400th anniversary edition of Hamlet by Marlowe and Shakespeare, with annotation and commentary by Alex Jack, are available for $35 postpaid from Amberwaves, PO Box 487, Becket MA 01223.
Alex’s web site is shakespeareandmarlowe.com, and he could be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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