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, 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.
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