Sunday, January 25, 2009

On Calvin Hoffman: a question for Samuel Blumenfeld, author of The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection

Q: Sam, you knew Calvin Hoffman (image at left), the legendary Marlovian who pioneered the "Marlowe as hidden hand behind Shakespeare" theory in the mid 1950s. How and when did you first come to meet him? Also, I know you believe some of his claims in The Murder of the Man Who Was "Shakespeare" do have shortcomings. Please elaborate.

Sam: As you know, Carlo, it was Hoffman’s book that turned me into a Marlovian. Before reading that book I believed, like so many college graduates, that Shakespeare’s authorship had been firmly established by indisputable documentary evidence. But Hoffman’s book showed that this was not the case.

At that time, in the late 1950s, I was editor of Grosset & Dunlap’s quality paperback line, and Calvin had come to my office to persuade me that we ought to publish a paperback edition of his book. So I had to read it, and reading it changed my life. It not only opened my eyes about Shakespeare, but it introduced me to the magnificent genius Christopher Marlowe, whom Calvin believed was the true author of the works attributed to Shakespeare.

Hoffman had spent years reading both Marlowe and Shakespeare and was convinced that the two canons were written by one man - Christopher Marlowe. The convincing point for me was the uncanny fact that Marlowe’s career supposedly ended with his murder in a barroom brawl at age 29 and that Shakespeare’s writing career suddenly began shortly after that event also at the age of 29. As coincidence would have it, both men were born in 1564.

Hoffman does a great job demolishing the Shakespeare myth, referring to the many works written on this subject by those who preceded him. But the real heart of the book is his assertion that Marlowe had not been killed as reported but had been the subject of a faked death in order to save him from Archbishop Whitgift’s prosecution of him on charges of atheism, punishable by execution.

In 1955 when Hoffman wrote his book, not much was known about the events at Deptford in 1593. But in 1925, Harvard Professor Leslie Hotson discovered the Coroner’s Inquest which described in great detail what was supposed to have taken place at the Deptford tavern or guesthouse. The Coroner’s report, written in Latin, had been buried away in Queen Elizabeth’s government archives and had not seen the light of day for over 300 years until the good professor dug it out.

Anyone who reads that document today in its English translation will see that it poses more questions than it answers. Marlowe was a member of the Secret Service and he was saved because he was too valuable an asset to Lord Burghley, Elizabeth’s right-hand man, and his son Robert Cecil.

In the research I did for The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection, written fifty years after Hoffman’s book was published, I realized that some of the conclusions Hoffman had come to about Marlowe’s life were questionable.

Most of the biographers of Marlowe believe he was a homosexual. But if you also believe that he is the author of the thirty-six plays in the First Folio, it is hard to believe that they could have been written by someone who had not loved women. So where did this assertion about Marlowe have its origin? We find it in the accusations of his arch enemy, Richard Baines, whose damning letter to the inquisition accused Marlowe of not only being a blaspheming atheist but also a homosexual. But Baines’s credibility has been challenged by none other than Charles Nichol, author of The Reckoning.

Of course Marlowe was well aware of homosexuality. He had read the ancient classics and he wrote about such male affections in Dido and Edward II. But because he could write about male homosexuality does not mean that he himself was homosexual.

There is no question in my mind that Marlowe, at age 15, had an affair with the Countess of Pembroke, Philip Sidney’s sister, and fell in love with her. And I believe that Venus and Adonis is the story of the countess’s attempted aggressive seduction of young handsome Christopher, who finally became aroused when she became passive, letting him make love to her in his own way.

In other words, Marlowe was repelled by sexually aggressive women, but enjoyed them when they passively invited his love making. You can see that in Hero and Leander, where Leander is the aggressor.

As for his friendship with Thomas Walsingham, also a member of the Secret Service and a year older than Marlowe, it was no doubt a strong, affectionate friendship, but not a sexual one. In those days, the word love was used among men to denote friendship, loyalty, devotion, and affection. It was not used to denote sexual desire or attachment.

There are other points I can quibble with in Hoffman’s book. Suffice it to say that the power of Hoffman’s book is in its strong assertion that Marlowe lived beyond his purported death in 1593 and went on to write the most magnificent dramas in literary history.

Editor's Note:   Sam edited the 1960 paperback edition of Calvin Hoffman's The Murder of the Man Who Was "Shakespeare."  Sam and Calvin Hoffman co-founded the Marlowe-Shakespeare Society of America in 1960.  Although the Society is extinct, the International Marlowe-Shakespeare Society, of which Sam is a founding member, is alive and well.

© The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection, January 2009

Click here for the blog's home page and recent content.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Marlowe's arrest and escape: Mike Rubbo's John Baker interviews, circa 2000

Click here for video.

John Baker on Marlowe’s arrest, the horrific torture that likely awaited him, and the choice the playwright ultimately made. For further details on Baker's reference to Thomas Walsingham, see our 6/19/08 post on the Walsinghams.

Video outtake from Mike Rubbo's film Much Ado About Something. Courtesy of Mike Rubbo.

Click here for the blog's home page and recent content.

Marlowe and the Whitgift inquisition: Mike Rubbo's John Baker interviews, circa 2000

Click the headline above for video.

John Baker on how a valuable intelligence “property” such as Christopher Marlowe was not immune from the inquisition of the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift. For further details on Baker's reference to Marlowe’s influential handler, Lord Burghley, see our 6/23/08 post on the Cecils.

Video outtake from Mike Rubbo's film Much Ado About Something. Courtesy of Mike Rubbo.

Click here for the blog's home page and recent content.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Tamburlaine and Marlowe

Let us praise the lucid, well-organized scholarly articles of many years past, pre the deconstructive nihilism that has plagued so much literary criticism since the 1970s. Leslie Spence's "Tamburlaine and Marlowe" (PMLA, Vol. 42, No. 3; Sept. 1927) is a great one. Spence methodically challenges the assumption that the Tamburlaine figure is "a faithful expression of Marlowe's own personality." Spence maintains that the Tartar conqueror depicted by Marlowe is too historically accurate for one to make the assumption that he's somehow a reflection of Marlowe's own views: "Infinite ambition, inordinate lust of dominion, and unbounded belief in his own victorious destiny are [. . .] outstanding qualities in the sixteenth century conception of Tamburlaine, not products of Marlowe's invention." Where Marlowe does primarily offer a personal preference, however, is in adding "emotional complexity" to the character for dramatic purposes and in making Tamburlaine more admirable by omitting his cruelty and framing his harsh punishments as just. The overwhelming rest of it (ambition, lust of dominion, etc.) are culled from the histories of Tamburlaine, thus rendering the Tamburlaine/Marlowe oneness "purely fanciful."

© The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection, January 2009

Click here for the blog's home page and recent content.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

History Play: a question for author Rodney Bolt

We caught up with writer Rodney Bolt, whose immensely enjoyable 2004 speculative biography, History Play: The Lives and Afterlife of Christopher Marlowe, imagines Christopher Marlowe faking his own death, escaping England, and going on to write the works we attribute to Shakespeare. Of the novel, Judith Flanders of The Spectator (UK) praises: "A triumph . . . It has both a serious remit and enough puns and anagrams to make Shakespeare (or possibly Marlowe) blush. It made me laugh out loud. And, most of all, it made me want to go back to the plays. This was a book that needed to be done perfectly or not at all. It is perfect."

Rodney’s latest biography, The Librettist of Venice: The Remarkable Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte – Mozart's Poet, Casanova's Friend, and Italian Opera's Impresario (2006), has been lauded as “irresistible reading” by Megan Marshall in The New York Times.

Rodney was born in South Africa and was educated at Rhodes University in South Africa and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. He is an award-winning travel writer and has also written and directed for the theatre. He presently resides in Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

Q: Rodney, thanks for taking time to chat with us. I’m curious. Did Marlowe channel you while you were at Cambridge, or is the explanation for your writing History Play a bit more conventional and rooted in perhaps your skepticism with Shakespeare biographies? And certainly you had to know you were delving into the kind of territory that unsettles a lot of Shakespeare lovers and that you were perhaps placing yourself in the middle of some academic crossfire.

Rodney: At Cambridge, I studied English at Marlowe’s old college – so I guess he was always a presence looking over my shoulder. Perhaps, unconsciously, that was where it all began. Certainly, while I was writing History Play I was aware of wanting his ghost’s approval. More than that of living academics. I realized that what I was doing was going to create quite some huffing and puffing – though in the end, I was surprised at how few howls of anger there were. But this awareness did mean that History Play had to be absolutely watertight in its play with historical fact – if Marlowe and Montaigne have a conversation, it has to be completely possible that they were both in that place at the time; the plot that Marlowe becomes embroiled in (which leads to his staged death) is a real one, and his involvement perfectly feasible: that sort of thing. (For that reason, The Spectator review you quote is quite my favourite.)

But as you suggest, the main impetus for writing the book was indeed a scepticism about Shakespearean biography as a whole. We have just so many facts about Shakespeare. Those and no more. Every single Shakespearean biography there is has only this handful of hard fact to work with – the rest is speculation and (though authors generally deny they are doing it) extrapolation from the works themselves. One of my favourite quotes unearthed during research was Mark Twain’s, likening writing a biography of Shakespeare to reconstructing the skeleton of a brontosaurus, using "nine bones and six hundred barrels of plaster of Paris." I wanted to throw those old bones in the air, and let them land in a different pattern. To show that, using the same method, you could create an entirely different story. So I am not a true Marlovian, in the sense that History Play is a work of fiction (although it looks and reads like a straight biography). I’m probably closer to the people who in the UK recently signed a Declaration of Reasonable Doubt about William Shakespeare. The deeper I got into the research, the more sceptical I became – and certainly, for me, Marlowe is the most feasible candidate for an alternative authorship.

Q: Of all the things you uncovered in your impressively detailed research (many of the characters and events mentioned in History Play, by the way, have been discussed here at our blog), is there any one thing that really floored you about Marlowe, Shakespeare, a shadowy figure, or perhaps some historical incident? Any eureka moments, perhaps?

Rodney: The discovery that absolutely fascinated me was that there were troupes of English players travelling through continental Europe, hugely popular for performing in English. This struck me as an ideal cover for a spy, given the mobility of players. A poet-player (especially a university man like Marlowe) would have access both to servant’s gossip, and to the lords themselves (more often as not when they were drunk and relaxed after a meal), as well as a jester’s immunity in crossing borders (both social and political). And indeed, the same troupes performed for both sides in the war between the Spanish and the Dutch (a war in which England had a crucial role, and from which Queen Elizabeth’s court would be most desirous of inside information). This discovery was made even more exciting by my realization that Marlowe’s mysterious absences from Cambridge, doing "her majesty good service" in "matters touching the benefit of his Country" coincided with the players’ prime touring season. It also makes sense that high-action dramas such as Tamburlaine were written with one eye on a non-English-speaking audience . . . and there was a troupe present at the festivities surrounding the inauguration of Kronborg Castle at Elsinore (Kronborg’s topography bears a startling resemblance to that of the castle in Hamlet), a troupe that included the Shakespearean clown Will Kempe.

Q: I need to ask you about Roland Barthes’s “death of the author” argument. Should an author’s identity matter when we’re interpreting a text?

Rodney: For me, the plays written by (or attributed to) Shakespeare are unassailable. Having worked with them practically (as a theatre director) as well as academically, I stand in awe . . . and it does not matter one jot who wrote them. So, in that sense perhaps, I’m with Barthes. But with works so great, one cannot help but be intrigued to find out more about the hand behind them. I can be very cynical about academics who claim that you cannot move from the works to information about the author – and then go right ahead and do so, to fill out the pages of a biography that would be naked without such speculation. And I find the whole industry that surrounds the man Shakespeare – up there with Queen Victoria and Churchill as great national symbols, an icon subject to extraordinarily lucrative commercial, tourist and academic exploitation – most offensive.

Q: Care to clue us in on what you’re working on now?

Rodney: I’ve moved to the late-Victorian/early-Edwardian period for a (true) book about the Benson family – the spouse and offspring of an Archbishop of Canterbury. When the domineering, stuffy archbishop died, his wife changed her name from Mary to Ben, and took one Lucy Tait into her bed. Her brood were all famous in their own right (E.F. Benson for his Mapp and Lucia books, Arthur as the author of England’s unofficial national anthem "Land of Hope and Glory," Maggie for her archaeological excavations in Egypt, and more). They knew everyone, from Queen Victoria to Oscar Wilde, and not one of them (to use the idiom of the time) was "the marrying sort."

Q: Rodney, many thanks for sharing some thoughts with our audience. Please join us again, we hope? We’ll do lunch in downtown Sarasota when you’re on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

Rodney: Great!

(Bolt photo by Armando Guerra)

© The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection, January 2009

Click here to visit Rodney Bolt's website.

Click here for the blog's home page and recent content.