Editor's Note: Anthony Kellett recently explained the case, regarding Marlowe’s disappearance, for those relatively new to the subject. From a transcription of that brief talk, I have produced this guide, both for those to whom it was originally aimed or for more experienced readers wishing to undertake a similar task.
Have you ever heard of a principle called Occam’s razor? Put simply, it says that the solution requiring the least number of assumptions or leaps-of-faith is probably the closest to the truth. Not “certainly,” by any means, but “probably.”
First, it’s fair to say that the “Shakespeare-style” of plays, in blank verse, was popularised by a man called Christopher Marlowe, who commenced his playwriting probably seven or eight years before anyone uttered the name “Shakespeare,” in this context. Bearing in mind that both men were born in 1564, whilst Marlowe was starting his writing career, roughly when he’s taking his master’s degree at Cambridge University, Shakespeare was in Stratford, his twins were being born and he was probably working in his father’s glove shop. I have to say “probably” because we simply don’t know.
One of the world’s leading Shakespearian scholars, Professor Stanley Wells (who believes the Stratford man wrote the works), said of Marlowe that if he and Shakespeare had stopped writing in 1593, and I quote: “We would now regard Marlowe as the greater dramatist. The achievement of Marlowe was greater than that of Shakespeare, by that age. Marlowe has a string of great plays: Faustus, Edward II, two parts of Tamburlaine, Jew of Malta; marvellous poem the ‘Hero and Leander,’ a lot of good translations as well.” Wells added the bit about translations because Marlowe made some of the first translations of Lucan and Ovid (supposedly Shakespeare’s favourite Latin poet) into English. Wells categorised Marlowe as “a very rapid developer” and Shakespeare as “a late developer.”
Now, there are a couple of things which are interesting about that summation of Marlowe. First, is that by 1593, the Shakespeare plays, which Wells believes existed, are Two Gentlemen of Verona, Taming of the Shrew, the three parts of Henry VI, Titus Andronicus and possibly Richard III. And yet, Wells still considers Marlowe’s the greater output, which gives you an idea of these plays’ quality. The second interesting thing is that even though many believe these few plays were all written and performed by 1593, no one (as far as we know) had ever mentioned a man called Shakespeare. If this is true, that Shakespeare was unknown, then any reasonable person in the audience would probably have believed them to be by the same author or authors (since they often collaborated on plays) as, say, Edward II or Doctor Faustus. I am simply going back to Occam’s razor here, as to what is most likely and requires least assumptions. It may not be true, but it is most likely.
Before I go any further, what you should also know about Marlowe is that he seems to have been a government agent, starting during his time at Cambridge. Apparently, he was involved in undercover work for Francis Walsingham. When Walsingham dies, Lord Burghley appears to have taken over “employment” of Marlowe. It is also worth you knowing that Marlowe’s patron and, it appears, good friend, was Thomas Walsingham, a young relative of Sir Francis.
Now, in April 1593, an entry appears in the Stationers register, a kind of copyright register, if you like, for a new poem called “Venus and Adonis.” There was no author mentioned, but it was a companion piece to Marlowe’s “Hero and Leander.” The problem is, Marlowe’s “Hero” was not published and wouldn’t be for another five years, and, at best, was only known to a few close friends. Most reputable scholars believe the author of “Venus and Adonis” must have been familiar with “Hero and Leander,” because of its style and a number of allusions it makes. In view of this, by Occam’s razor, again, and in the absence of further information, anyone would assume this was Marlowe’s work – unless one believes it was just a coincidence that someone else wrote a companion piece to “Hero and Leander,” without knowing it existed or what it contained? This is simply not probable.
Then, on May 20, 1593, Marlowe, staying with his friend Thomas Walsingham, has an arrest warrant served against him. It was probably the result of him being suspected of heresy, a capital offense. Strangely, Marlowe was not kept in prison, but was instructed to report, each day, until the Privy Council could see him. About three days later was possibly his first appearance before them, but he was still not imprisoned.
By the 28th of May, a report is completed into Marlowe’s heresy and was delivered to the Privy Council. Marlowe, it seemed, was in deep trouble. But, before he could be brought before the council again, Marlowe went to a meeting. He met with three men – two of whom worked as confidence tricksters for his friend and patron, Walsingham; the third, like Marlowe, was an intelligence agent. Without knowing anything more, it is difficult to imagine this was a chance encounter, but when you add the fact that they met, for eight hours, at a private house, owned by Eleanor Bull (a relative of the Queen’s closest attendant, Blanche Parry, a relative of Lord Burghley), situated near the docks at Deptford, it becomes extremely suspicious.
Burghley was one of the most powerful men in England. He would have known Marlowe was in deep trouble because he was a member of the Privy Council. So, with Marlowe probably facing an imminent death penalty, why would he meet three professional confidence tricksters and fraudsters, employed by Marlowe’s employer, and by his friend, in a Burghley-linked house near Deptford docks?
Yes, it could be to enable him to escape, or it could be to have Marlowe murdered. But really, if he wanted to murder Marlowe, why would Burghley arrange that in a house so connected to him; hire three tricksters, not murderers; and then why would they take eight hours to do it when a lone assassin could have done the deed in any dark alley in London or on a quiet lane near Walsingham’s country house, with little fuss? And why would Marlowe’s friend Walsingham get involved in that? Walsingham was still being lauded as Marlowe’s friend and patron, some five years later, by Marlowe’s literary friends. So, whilst the possibility still remains, it does not seem the logical conclusion and is almost completely nonsensical.
No, by Occam’s razor, again, if we have three professional deceivers, whom we must assume are friendly to Marlowe, his employer and his patron (unless we make unfounded assumptions that they weren’t), arranging to meet him for what might be the last time, before his arrest and subsequent execution; and they meet at a “safe-house” next to the sewer-infested Deptford docks (rather than Walsingham’s country estate, where three of the four, one assumes, would have regularly gathered anyway), the only sensible conclusion is that it was to arrange Marlowe’s escape – conveniently near the Thames and numerous ships.
The trouble is, if you just let Marlowe escape, then he will be known to be at large, and any Tom, Dick or Harry could be his downfall. Even worse, Marlowe’s capture could lead to problems for everyone else involved, which is just not feasible. So, the only viable solution was not merely an escape, but a faked death and new identity so that Marlowe would not be hunted.
This is Elizabethan England, not the dark ages. If you fake a death, first you need a body. There are several theories about this, not least is the disappearance of the body of a man executed nearby the previous day. His family was not told that his already delayed execution was to go ahead; it happened, strangely, late in the day, around 6pm, and without any notice. The family could never discover what happened to his body. Either way, whether you believe this version or another, it is not beyond the wit of man to assume that these powerful, connected people could provide a body.
Unfortunately, there is a bigger hurdle: the problem of the coroner. When someone was killed, the local coroner would be called to hold an inquest. This would be fatal to this plan. He would almost certainly spot any inconsistencies between the body’s physical appearance and the story explaining his death. The only solution would be to have control of the coroner, and the only coroner likely to be a candidate would be the Queen’s coroner, William Danby. He had jurisdiction over all deaths occurring within a 12-mile radius of the Queen’s court (wherever that was at the time). We know the Queen was at Nonesuch Palace on this day.
Now, which was the dock, as far as possible down the River Thames, but still within 12 miles of the Queen? It was Deptford. This solution may also answer another question requiring explanation. The question is, “Why did this deception (if that’s what it was) take place anywhere near London?” If the plan was to spirit Marlowe away, as quickly as possible, then why not go to Tilbury, or somewhere already well on the way to safety. One possible reason is the need to use the house of a trusted owner, but the fact that Danby would preside is far more essential. It also happens that Danby would have been responsible for the “missing body” of the prisoner, executed the previous evening. Is that not convenient?
So, what other problems remain? We supposedly have the body of England’s leading poet in our possession; so what happens if he, like Chaucer, gets paraded up to Westminster Abbey for burial in front of all his friends and relatives? Well, we just bury the body immediately, before they have a chance. What if they decide to dig him up? Well, we bury it in an unmarked grave. In fact, we throw him in a common grave (maybe the plague pit) and see if they want to go digging in there.
So that’s what happens; they take the body, purported to be “Marlowe,” and just dump England’s greatest playwright in a Deptford Churchyard pit, before anyone that might know him gets the chance to view the body. The only people that identified the body as Marlowe were the three men he met at Deptford. Doesn’t that sound a little strange to you? What would Thomas Walsingham, his friend and patron, think of that? More than that, what would he do when he discovers that his servant, Frizer, was the man who supposedly killed Marlowe? The answer? He did nothing. Frizer was pardoned and went back to working for Walsingham. Does this sound like the behaviour of a friend and patron? I can only understand that response if either, Walsingham wanted Marlowe dead (already acknowledged as highly unlikely), or he knew he was still alive. Which do you think is most likely, by Occam’s razor?
There are many questions that surround this, obviously, and it is very far from proved. Even amongst those that believe Marlowe survived, there are disagreements about who would or could have organised it – but that gets far more involved.
Now, if we leave that there, for the time being, and just put it down as “a bit fishy,” we then come back to this chap Shakespeare, of whom no one has ever heard, at this point.
Remember I mentioned that anonymously registered companion piece to Marlowe’s “Hero and Leander,” called “Venus and Adonis,” that would sensibly be thought to be by Marlowe? Well, less than two weeks after Marlowe’s disappearance, that piece gets published. Except that it appears as written by some chap called William Shakespeare, and he calls it “The first heir of my invention.” That is the first time Shakespeare’s name ever appears, anywhere, in connection with any writing, of any sort – at the ripe old age of 29, no less.
If this is written by the guy from Stratford, we have absolutely no idea how he got from that glover’s shop in Stratford, 7 or 8 years earlier, to being able to produce poetry of the highest degree of complexity; not only matching the quality and knowledge of perhaps the greatest poet in England, but also writing in Marlowe’s style and a companion piece to Marlowe’s great, but unpublished, poem. Now, by our old friend Occam’s razor, what do you think is the most probable explanation of that, by introducing the least amount of speculation and leaps of faith?
At the end of the day, amongst those who doubt Shakespeare’s authorship, there are very few claiming to have all the answers, or that believe the case is resolved in favour of some other candidate. In fact, the only people, who seem to believe that, are those believing it was the Stratford man; they seem to think they have “won” something, so have no reason to enter the debate. But this is not about winning or losing; it is about establishing the truth.
I’ll tell you the bizarre thing: anti-Stratfordians, as we are called, are likened to supporters of “intelligent-design” rather than “evolution,” cranks and conspiracy theorists. Well, we have one group, which wishes to examine and debate real observations and real evidence in the real world, whilst another group wishes to take its beliefs on faith and has an attitude that says, “We don’t know how he did, but he just did.” You tell me, which group are the Darwinians, and which are the religious zealots?
© Anthony Kellett, 2011 was Marlowe shakespeare?
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