Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Shapiro's Straw Man by Daryl Pinksen

James Shapiro, perhaps wisely, chose to focus his efforts in Contested Will on countering the claims of the Oxfordians, the soft underbelly of Shakespeare skepticism. A ready-made straw man, Oxford was just begging for Shapiro to knock him down. The case for Marlowe, on the other hand, as the possible author of the Shakespeare works, is fundamentally different. Rather than obsessively trawling the plays for supposed biographical linkages to our candidate's life, the case for Marlowe is founded upon stylistic similarities between his work and the works of Shakespeare. That, and an examination of the unusual circumstances that led to the Coroner's Report of Marlowe's "death" in 1593.

While our case is not dependent on finding biographical linkages in the plays, we disagree with Shapiro's assertion that the lack of agreement between the biographical and literary Shakespeare is irrelevant. The Shakespeare writer worshipped the Roman poet Ovid, a poet whose work was filled with self-reflexive autobiography and fervent wishes for literary immortality. Shake-speare's Sonnets likewise appear to be filled with self-reflexive autobiography, and dozens of the sonnets speak of achieving literary immortality. This is exactly what one would expect from a follower of Ovid. Shakespeare skeptics and believers alike all agree that Shakespeare's biography cannot match the content of the sonnets, and we all agree that Shakespeare the man displayed no concern about his plays or poems as a means of achieving literary immortality. This leaves readers with two choices: either question Shakespeare's authorship, as we do, or claim, as Shapiro does, that the autobiographical content in the sonnets and their pre-occupation with literary immortality were mere literary conceits, clever fictions. We do not find this latter claim convincing. It makes little sense that a poet could be heavily indebted to Ovid, yet remain unaffected by Ovid's influence in his own work. It is precisely this sort of rationalization that spawned and continues to fuel Shakespeare skepticism.

Here is why the case for Marlowe is different: Unlike all of the other Shakespeare claimants, what is fundamental to our case is that the arc of Shakespeare scholarship is replete with words like "emulation," "imitation," "absorption," "echoing," and "disciple" when comparing the early Shakespeare works with the works of Christopher Marlowe. Here is a recent example from Robert Logan's 2007 Shakespeare's Marlowe: "Of greater significance than the point at which the sense of emulation emerges as documentable evidence is the firmness with which Marlowe’s influence rooted itself in Shakespeare and developed, for it continued to thrive for 18 years after Marlowe’s death, roughly from 1593-1611, the remainder of Shakespeare’s career." Logan's opinion is not new, or unusual. It reflects a centuries-old consensus of Shakespeare scholarship that Shakespeare learned to write by studying and copying Christopher Marlowe. Some of us ask the question, "What if this is simply Marlowe, continuing to write plays which he could no longer publish in his own name?" This seems like a reasonable enough hypothesis, one worth weighing next to the assumed theory that Shakespeare, a man with a very different background than Marlowe's, chose to launch his career by closely imitating him, to say nothing of his duplication of Marlowe's literary interests and erudition, and then continued to echo him throughout his career.

Marlowe's problem, our problem, is that he was declared dead on June 1, 1593, and never seen alive again. To be clear, for him to have written the works of Shakespeare would require that Marlowe's death had been faked, and that he had lived the rest of his life under a new identity. It's a tall order, but people in Marlowe's shoes - about to face prosecution, torture, and execution - have all wished for the opportunity to escape without fear of pursuit, and some of them do make good on the attempt. Arrested on charges of heresy, with the Baines Note of Marlowe's Blasphemies just delivered to the Privy Council, and another accused seditious writer named John Penry abruptly executed, Marlowe's mind would unquestionably have been occupied with finding a way out. Unlike other accused heretics, Marlowe had the connections to make an escape a reality. If his options were to either stick around and wait for the axe to fall, or to use his talents, connections, and resources to vanish and start a new life under a new identity, the choice seems obvious. The Coroner's Report itself is routinely regarded as an implausible telling of what really happened. Shapiro's cohorts say the dissembling covered up a murder. We say that the most rational explanation is that it provided a cover for Marlowe to escape prosecution.

Shapiro casually tars all Shakespeare doubters with the same brush, implying that the Marlowe case, like the Oxfordian and Baconian ones, is dependent on reading Marlowe's life out of the plays. This is simply false. The case for Marlowe is different. It is based on comparisons of Marlowe's work to the Shakespeare plays and poems. One can hardly blame Shapiro for characterizing the debate in this way, but it is misleading. If there are legitimate grounds for doubting Shakespeare, and we believe there are, there is one, and only one writer with the proven ability to write verse at a Shakespearean level. That writer is Christopher Marlowe.

Daryl Pinksen 

© Daryl Pinksen, 2010   Emmerich Shakespeare Anonymous Rylance

Daryl Pinksen, a regular MSC contributor, is the author of Marlowe's Ghost, Grand Prize Winner of the 17th Annual Writer's Digest International Self-Published Book Awards.

Click here for "The Case Against Oxford as Shakespeare," a compilation of some of this blog's articles on the Oxford theory.

Click here for the blog's home page and recent content. Who Wrote Shakespeare's Plays?


SebastianHGZ9 said...

Someone needs to tell Shapiro that Marlowe is not buried at Westminster Abbey. (see his interview at macleans)

It's obvious Shapiro hasn't really examined Marlowe's death. Pretty embarrassing blunder.

Gallant said...

I just read Shapiro's interview referred to by Sebastian. Pretty careless on Shapiro's part.

Kudos to Mr. Pinksen on his success--and his well-written post.

Ros Barber said...

Someone also needs to tell Mr Shapiro that Calvin Hoffman didn't open the grave of Sir Francis Walsingham but rather his cousin Thomas. We (one or two of us at the IMSS) are planning to draw his attention to these signifiers of sloppy scholarship shortly.

It is clear that Mr Shapiro is not even slighly acquainted with the Marlovian argument, but nevertheless feels qualified to dismiss it.

Rado Klose said...

I know two published poets. It is the interweaving of life and experience that is given expression in their work and is at the heart of it. Mr Shapiro is to be pitied. For him the sonnets can only be imaginings "conceits" and their real emotional landscape must remain invisible to him.

Anonymous said...


Cresenza87 said...

A nice defense of the Marlowe position, and like Rado, I pity Shapiro.

Daryl Pinksen said...

What is troubling about Shapiro's observation that, "[Shakespeare] had scant interest in publishing his plays, and left his name off the title pages of his bestselling narrative poems" is the intense interest shown to literary immortality, along with the importance that the poet's name be echoed for eternity, in Shake-speare's Sonnets. Was the poet just pretending to care? To what end?

Making Shapiro's observation even more curious, the very first work printed in Shakespeare's name, Venus and Adonis, is embossed with a Latin inscription from Ovid. The couplet cited is from Elegy XV, and specifically concerns the poet's triumph over death through literary immortality:

Let base-conceited wits admire vile things,
Fair Phoebus lead me to the Muses’ springs.
About my head be quivering myrtle wound,
And in sad lovers’ heads let me be found.
The living, not the dead, can envy bite,
For after death all men receive their right:
Then though death rakes my bones in funeral fire,
I’ll live, and as he pulls me down, mount higher.
(Ovid, Elegy XV, Elegies, Book I, translation by Christopher Marlowe, c. 1585)

If Shakespeare only viewed his poems and plays as commodities, and had no concern about their value as a means of achieving literary immortality, then why would he choose to feature a quote from Ovid on his first work? Why would he choose to quote this particular poem, the clearest declaration available of poetry's function as a medium of transcendence? Why would he continually talk about literary immortality and the importance of the poet's name living on after his death?

Shapiro suggests that "the few surviving documents relating to [Shakespeare's] life in Stratford did not suggest he was a spiritual sort of person at all." But how can this square with a poet who clearly loved Ovid, who quoted Ovid's poems about literary immortality, and who wrote poetry redolent with the music and the feeling of Ovid? I fail to see how this makes sense, and Shapiro does not, and cannot explain it away.

Sothis said...

Shapiro was looking at the history of the Shakespeare Authorship controversy, not assessing every candidate for alternative authorship. That's not quite the same as dismissing the case for Marlowe; by the same token, he dismisses the case for about six other people at the same time.

And I don't think he did say Marlowe was buried at Westminster Abbey; although I did have to re-read that part myself before I realised he is actually referring to the memorial rather than a tomb. Is there a link to the "macleans" article please?

Finally, one question I'd like to ask the current posters et al: why do you all get so angry about this? I love Marlowe, but I don't understand this apparent degree of personal attachment to (and passion for) someone who died 400 years ago. I'd be really interested to read your thoughts. (Maybe I should get a forum going - would anyone be interested?)

Anonymous said...

Dear Sothis -

The link to that article is on the upper right side of the blog.

If it doesn't work, it's in the Tuesday issue of

If Shapiro misspoke, he should make an effort to retract it.

Sothis said...

Ah, thanks for that. I'll read it more carefully later, but I've found the part you mean:

"Go to Westminster Abbey and look at Marlowe’s grave. In 2002, his death date of 1593—and he needs to be alive long after that to be Shakespeare—suddenly spouted a question mark."

I think you're all being a bit hard on Shapiro here. A live interview isn't the same as a considered piece of writing, and to conflate "grave" with "memorial" in the context of "abbey" isn't an unusual mistake, and it doesn't alter the point he is making.

(Although I was under the impression that the "death date" featuring the question mark was the first memorial to Marlowe to appear in Westminster Abbey. I suspect Shapiro's conflating the memorial in Westminster Abbey with the grave in Deptford. While it is unmarked, there are two memorials, both giving 1593 as the date of death.)

Why would a retraction be necessary?

Peter Farey said...

Sothis said...
Shapiro was looking at the history of the Shakespeare Authorship controversy, not assessing every candidate for alternative authorship. That's not quite the same as dismissing the case for Marlowe; by the same token, he dismisses the case for about six other people at the same time.

He does indeed, and had he stuck to looking at the history of the controversy, we would have no objection. But, as those who read the book will discover, he doesn't do this. He slips in various comments about the the Marlovian claim (pp.6-7, p.219, pp.240-1, pp.247-8, p.258, pp.261-2), some of which certainly dismiss it. What we object to is that (on p.3) he says that an "exhaustive account of all the candidates ... would be both tedious and futile, and for reasons that will soon become clear, Bacon and Oxford can be taken as representative" a claim which never does "become clear" (and is in fact completely wrong) but based upon which he presumes to judge the validity of all the rest. Our argument with him is simple - if he can't be bothered even to read what the proponents of a particular theory have said, then it is unacceptably presumptious of him to reject it.

As for why we get angry (if that is what we all do, which I doubt) I can only say that this is a topic upon which I have spent far more of my 72 years than I really should have done to arrive at a conclusion which I believe to be based upon carefully researched information and logical reasoning. To have this simply lumped in as indistinguishable from all of the other non-Stratfordian argument by someone who apparently can't be bothered to read even the Wikipedia entry on Marlovian theory is galling, to say the least!

Peter Farey

Daryl Pinksen said...

Dear Sothis,

I just re-read all of the posts following my article, and I can't see the anger you refer to. I would say that we are all exercised by Shapiro's summary dismissal, but that is very different from anger.

Let's face it, Shapiro's book is a big deal. It is the first time a leading academic has weighed in on the authorship subject in any meaningful way. I think I speak for most of us when I say that we have enormous respect for James Shapiro. Rival Playwrights is an academic treasure, and 1599 is, in my opinion, the exemplar of how to write historical scholarship.

Here's our problem, this will be most people's first exposure to Christopher Marlowe, and the impression we are left with is that Mr. Shapiro gave a close reading of the Oxfordian and Baconian literature, but chose to gloss over the Marlowe case instead of giving it the same attention, assuming, incorrectly, that there was no need to concern himself overmuch since the Marlowe argument is essentially the same as the ones for Oxford and Bacon.

We are glad that he wrote this book, and pleased with the tone, but Shapiro could have done much better with regards to tackling Christopher Marlowe. This warrants remark, and it falls to us to do it.

Angry? Not at all. But very much concerned.

Anthony Kellett said...


Unlike my more professional and academically astute friends here, I do get very angry; though not with people, such as you, willing to discuss the issue (frustrated, sometimes, yes, but not angry).

You say, “I was under the impression that the ‘death date’ featuring the question mark was the first memorial to Marlowe to appear in Westminster Abbey. I suspect Shapiro's conflating the memorial in Westminster Abbey with the grave in Deptford. While it is unmarked, there are two memorials, both giving 1593 as the date of death.”

I completely agree with you. Here is a comment I made, in a private communication, to support that. “I’m sure Shapiro would say, ‘I meant memorial rather than grave’…based on my own experiences, I would not rule out the possibility that he said ‘memorial’ and the journalist wrote down ‘grave’ because he couldn’t spell memorial…or it contained too many syllables!”

You clearly see this as an error and, knowing the case as you obviously do, you are capable of making that correction for yourself. However, consider the people who are not so conversant with the case for Marlowe. Are they capable of similar filtering? Moreover, is that journalist (when he comes to write his next piece) forever burdened with an impression of that question mark “sprouting up”?

Just in that one phrase, “his death date of 1593…suddenly spouted a question mark”, gives the impression that there was a date already in place and a question mark was added later, when the ‘conspiracy’ was born. You cannot be oblivious to the imagery of that statement and the support it gives to those that come to this subject with an in-built degree of cynicism (but little knowledge). It deftly conveys a sarcastic, dismissive tone and conjures up a sense of conspiracy theorists beavering away in the background.

That is why I get angry, because these things, uncontested, become fact in the public perception and make the whole process of trying to gain widespread support, for a re-examination of the authorship issue, nigh on impossible.

In another article (Wall Street Journal, I believe) Shapiro said, "Shakespeare performed at court over 100 times probably in the course of his career, and was as close to the action as a White House reporter is today."????? Where on earth does that come from? Are we supposed to “filter” that too? How would you explain that one, Sothis? Do you think that is acceptable? How many people do you think will simply take that as a fact and repeat it to others in their social group? It is throwaway, unsubstantiated rubbish like this that has perpetuated the Shakespeare claim for 400 years now; and it is about time it was stopped.

Only widespread public support will put the academic community in the uncomfortable position of having to defend Shakespeare’s authorship claim. Even Shapiro has been criticised for deigning to discuss the issue. In my opinion, articles, such as this, delay that debate.

Anthony Kellett said...


Regarding your question about the emotional attachment to Marlowe, I cannot speak for everyone here, but I am far from emotionally attached to Marlowe. I will not even label myself as a Marlovian, until I find more evidence of his long term survival (even if he survived Deptford, which I believe likely). The kind of emotional attachment, to which you allude, is far more prevalent amongst Stratfordians than any Marlovian with whom I have hitherto conversed. This leads to them labelling non-Stratfordians as the equivalent of holocaust deniers and creationists; hardly a detached or logical repost.

Generally speaking, Marlovians seem a far more fact-based and logical group of people. Any doubts about this would soon be dispelled, were onlookers privy to the exchanges during peer-reviews of an article being proposed for publication, believe me! Moreover, that I have aligned myself with them is the biggest endorsement I can give to their common sense, as far as I am concerned. I would trust their response, to any theory I proposed, to be unfettered from prejudice for their favoured candidate.

However, there are some here that strongly believe Marlowe is the author, Shakespeare. That being so, can you not understand why those people get a little emotional about the fact that another man is being lauded as the genius behind the works? You say, “Someone who died 400 years ago”, but that is irrelevant; the debate is today. I do not think “personal attachment” would be more, or less, appropriate, had the author died 50 or 1,000 years ago. That Marlovians must attend plays, such as Hamlet, with billboards declaring them to be by William Shakespeare, must be somewhat difficult to swallow; when they firmly believe them to be by Marlowe. Is that an attachment to the man himself, 400 years later; or simply a reaction to an assertion, still current, they believe to be false? Perhaps it is a combination of both; but, that the attribution is ongoing, I believe, renders the 400 year gap irrelevant.

I apologise, to my Marlovian friends, if my comments misrepresent them; but (in accordance with my previous comments) I am sure the peer reviews will flood in, that being the case!

Anthony Kellett said...

I realise I am simply restating points Daryl has already made (and far more succinctly), but I cannot let this subject go without comment.

I am tired of people using authors, such as Stephen King, to dispel the assertion that works of literature have an autobiographical element (as was cited in a recent BBC debate). That is far too literal and, frankly, is the repost of a simpleton (in my view)…or at least someone that considers his audience as simple.

Even though I do not know King’s books, I would be staggered if there are not numerous personal elements in them. It could be some are derived from nightmares he had; maybe they are the result of day-dreams, fuelled by the comic books he was reading at the time; the locations may be similar to ones he visited; names could be taken from real life.

Autobiographical elements are more subtle than some, wishing to simplify the debate, would have people believe. Even King’s imagination is limited, and its fuel will be his experiences. This is where Oxfordians are way off the mark, in my opinion. They take his personal life as the source of the stories themselves. Even if true, that is no basis for a claim to authorship. Firstly, it presupposes that he is the only person aware of the story. Can no-one think of an example where an author wrote a story based on the life experiences of another; Robinson Crusoe, perhaps? Could it be that Elizabethans had never thought of doing that? Did they not read Plato’s Republic…or was that Socrates’ Republic?

Shapiro condemns non-Stratfordians for trying to read biographies into the works, and yet you have Dobson and Wells, uncensored, able to say, “In the Merry Wives of Windsor (4.1) Shakespeare shows a pupil, suggestively named William, being put through his paces in Latin Grammar, not very successfully, on a ‘playing day’ for his mother’s benefit. The scene, irrelevant to the plot, is something of an indulgence, and Shakespeare is clearly drawing on his own boyhood experience.”

Every writer brings something of himself to his works, however subtle, and Stratfordians obviously know that; unless someone else does it, of course!

Rado Klose said...

A question for Anthony Kellett. Who do you think wrote the sonnets? If one entertains the possibility probability certainty ( delete where applicable ) that Christofer Marlowe did, then of course one forms an emotional attatchment to him . Own up hand on heart. Shakespeare 1 Marlowe 10 where would you be? I'm at about 7.5 (and rising).

Anthony Kellett said...


I would put myself at about 9.9 on the measure you outline. That said, with Shakespeare at one end of your scale that is not a difficult question, since I believe he had little or no chance of being the author.

When I said I am far from emotionally attached to Marlowe, I did not mean to imply that his work does not stir emotion in me, far from it. Fortunately, I do not have it in me to lose my sense of reason, simply because I admire someone’s work.

I would be interested to know, what prompted your question about the sonnets?

Rado Klose said...

Thanks for answering. So why the sonnets? One of the reasons for taking Marlowe as their author is that it allows things to mean what they say they mean. Disgrace is disgrace anonymity is anonymity and so forth . That being the case it is very easy, and normal I would have thought, to form an imaginative attatchment to their writer. Or the idea of their writer,which is all we can have. This does not (or should not) mean that the critical or analytical faculty switches itself off. In the natural sciences ( which is my background) it is commonplace for both critical and imaginative faculties to be brought to bear on a problem. ( Personally, I half wish that orthodox scholarship would kill the whole debate off and the damn itch would stop. But of course it can't.)

Philip said...

What is the standard answer to the obvious objection - if Shakespeare had already written at least one play by 1592, possibly more (which is a FACT proven by Greene's famous 'player's hide' allusion), some at least of Shakepeare's work could not have been written by Marlowe after faking his own death in 1593. Doesn't the whole bizarre house of cards fall to the ground right from the start?

Anonymous said...


Not so fast.

Gallant said...


You are kidding me, right? FACT???

Talk about grasping at straws . . I mean, really . . . straws. Desperate straws.

Gina said...

Better Still, Phillip, read the excellent article by Daryl Pinksen, 'Was Robert Greene's "Upstart Crow" the Actor Edward Alleyn?' published in the Marlowe Society journal (article 3):

Was Robert Greene's Upstart Crow the Actor Edward Alleyn? said...

Click the link for an article answering your question. It makes a strong argument that the "Shake-scene" Greene was referring to was in fact the great actor Edward Alleyn.

Alleyn was the lead actor of Lord Strange's Men when Henry VI Part III was on the boards in 1592, and was the person mostly likely to have spoken the "tyger's hart" line on stage, in the character of Richard Duke of York.

I'd love for you to take a look and tell me what you think.

You are right though; if Greene was referring to Shakespeare as a writer in 1592, it would make the Marlowe theory close to impossible. On the other hand, if this reference is not to Shakespeare, then it means that the first appearance of Shakespeare as a writer was in June of 1593, a few weeks after Marlowe's disappearance.

Daryl Pinksen

Anthony Kellett said...


I think you need to try to separate yourself from preconceived ideas, before trying to dissect the Marlovian claims for authorship.

If, as seems likely, Greene was referring to III Henry VI, there is nothing to suggest that this was a ‘Shakespeare play’.

You seem to imply that, when they first appeared, plays were linked to the name of Shakespeare. I haven’t double-checked, but I believe I am correct in thinking the first reference to Shakespeare, as a playwright, was by Francis Meres in 1598; the same year that quartos of ‘Richard II’, ‘Richard III’ and ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ appeared with that name attached. I am sure someone here will correct this, if I am wrong. This assumes you do not subscribe to the theory that the 1595 quarto of ‘The Tragedy of Locrine’ by WS was a Shakespeare play.

There is no evidence that anyone (Marlowe included) published anything in the name of Shakespeare (or that anyone believed any work was written by someone named Shakespeare) prior to Venus and Adonis in June 1593 or any play prior to Richard III in 1598. Though Francis Meres believed various plays to be by Shakespeare, whilst undoubted, it is unknown how he comes to that conclusion; except that it seems to include all ‘Shakespeare plays’ performed by The Lord Chamberlain’s Men and excludes those exclusive to The Admiral’s Men.

Anonymous said...

I Think it was A.D. Wraight who first suggested that Shakescene was very likely Alleyn. She also points out that whereas all other names in the text are iitalicised
( even Johanes factotum) Shakescene isn't. Draw your own conclusion.