Friday, June 5, 2009

On Hamlet and reasonable doubt: a question for Alex Jack, pt. 2

Part two of our interview 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: Alex, tell us a little about your amazing edition of Hamlet.

Alex: I’d long wanted to publish one of the Shakespearean plays under Marlowe’s name with annotations and complete commentary. I felt it was long overdo. Why wait another four centuries for the Shakespeare complex to come around or for more evidence to turn up? I’d literally grown up amid Marlovians, so I was pretty steeped in all the evidence from childhood. My grandfather, Rev. David Rhys Williams, was a pioneer American Marlovian, lecturer on Marlowe’s probable authorship of the Shakespearean works since the 1920s (when he met Thomas Mendenhall, whose pioneer stylometric study showed that the Marlovian and Shakespearean canons were written by the same hand), and close friend of Calvin Hoffman, whose book The Murder of the Man Who Was Shakespeare made the popular case for Kit and caused a worldwide sensation. (When I was a kid in the early 1960s, I met Hoffman at a family gathering.) My grandfather’s main interest, as a Unitarian minister, was the freedom of religion dimension to the subject, so I was almost destined to carry on the quest. However, unlike my grandfather, who was not very much interested in the actual plays or poems, I broadened it and was as consumed as much by the literary side of the subject as by the theological and political.

Yet I recognized maybe we were wrong. Perhaps de Vere, Mary Sidney, or Elizabeth herself was the real author. I’d read some Oxfordian literature over the years, and it too was highly convincing. I knew love is blind. Whatever we feel passionate about has another side that remains invisible to us. So in my meditations and prayers I asked for a sign that I was on the right path. One day, while still just toying with the idea of going ahead with a Marlovian edition of Hamlet, a project I knew would consume my life if I took it up, at least for a few years, I was scrolling through a 19th-century version of Hamlet on the Internet when a passage in the play literally jumped off the computer monitor. It was part of the famous scene in the opening act when the Ghost appears to Prince Hamlet and tells him that Claudius seduced his mother, Gertrude, and murdered him (Elder Hamlet) in the orchard to seize the throne:

GHOST. Ay that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
With witchcraft of his wits, with traitorous gifts,
O wicked wit, and gifts that have the power
So to seduce; won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming-virtuous Queen.

I intuitively recognized the passage as a punning reference to Archbishop Whitgift, Marlowe’s nemesis, the one who occasioned his arrest, and the one who set in motion the events of May 30. It was clear as day. Not only did the passage contain one pun, but it contained two, in case you didn’t get it the first time! The appearance of the ghostly passage sent shivers down my spine very much like the Ghost’s appearance to Prince Hamlet! Though in plain sight of every high school student and Shakespearean scholar, the witty puns had gone unnoticed until now - almost as if Hecate, the queen of Night invoked in Hamlet’s play-within-the-play, had scattered fairy dust over four centuries of viewers and readers. In the same passage in which the Ghost reveals the identity of his murderer to his son, the playwright discloses the identify of his tormentor to his witty reader/viewer. What could be cooler - or more Shakespearean - than that? I never looked back.

Over the next three years, I was totally consumed with researching and writing my edition of Hamlet. I developed an elegant literary interpretation that Hamlet’s overall theme of an incestuous marriage and usurpation of power had affinities with a poisonous union between the Church of England and the Crown. Throughout the text, at one level, in the characters of Claudius and Gertrude, the play satirizes wicked Whitgift, who lusted for temporal power and acquired absolute moral and spiritual sovereignty over Queen Elizabeth.

I found that the First Quarto of Hamlet contains a version of the revelatory passage, but the wordplay regarding Whitgift’s name did not appear until after the Archbishop’s death in 1603 and the publication of the Second Quarto in 1604. By this time, Queen Elizabeth - who referred to Whitgift as her “little black husband,” or spiritual spouse - had also passed away. The First Folio’s capitalization makes the pun even bolder: “Oh wicked Wit and Gifts.” Further, there are multiple hilarious references to Marlowe’s “death” and the events in Deptford of May 30 in Hamlet in the play-within-the-play and in the Gravediggers’ scene. One reference, for example, suggests that Prince Hamlet (who personifies Kit) was exactly the same age in years (29) and months (3) as Marlowe was at the time of the Deptford affair and his supposed murder! The autobiographical jests and allusions go on and on.

My reference above to Hecate, by the way, is not just an idle remark. Not only does she appear in more than half of the Marlovian and Shakespearean works (most notably Faustus, Dido, Hero and Leander, 1 Henry IV, Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, and many others), but May 30, the fateful day when Marlowe met his destiny, was the annual festival day of Hecate since ancient Greek and Roman times! The mythological correspondences are astonishing, but that’s another story and one I go into in depth in my commentary.

Q: How has your book been received?

Alex: Overall, my book was well received by Marlovians and a few independent and open-minded observers. For example, the poet Robert Bly wrote me several times how entranced he was with my thesis, and Howard Zinn, the historian and champion of a “people’s” approach to history, was enthralled. But generally it met the proverbial wall of silence by the scholarly world and book reviewers.

The one exception was the Times Literary Supplement in London, which included my book in a review of several others on the authorship. The reviewer, Brian Vickers, a prominent Shakespearean scholar, panned it completely saying anyone who seriously doubted the Shakespeare authorship was akin to a holocaust denier! Stephen Greenblatt, the doyen of American Shakespearean scholars and a professor at Harvard, has used the same metaphor in his comments on the subject. I take exception to remarks by him, Vickers, and other Stratfordians comparing those of us who question the received version of history to holocaust deniers! That’s pretty low-hitting, beneath the belt, in my view, and if anything it trivializes the Jewish holocaust. But more than anything else it shows how desperate the Shakespeare establishment is. Is it so afraid that a small, essentially self-published book like mine will rock its foundations that they have to engage in that kind of character assassination? Of course, what it reveals is that inside they know full well that the whole Shakespearean edifice (and I’m not referring to Shakespeare’s house in Stratford) is a house of cards. Their whole careers, reputations, and honors and awards are at stake. So naturally, like Grand Inquisitors, they silence all who express the slightest doubt, voice suspicion, and dare to speak out or question authority. Totally absurd and childish! The irony is that Vickers himself recently wrote a pioneering book, Shakespeare Co-Author, showing that many of the plays in the Canon had junior co-authors in the persons of Peele, Middleton, Wilkins, and Fletcher - an enormously valuable contribution to the riddle of the authorship question.

Fortunately, the climate for free inquiry is rapidly changing. Nearly 1500 people - including several hundred current or former college and university faculty, actors and other theater arts people, and other professionals, as well as just plain extraordinary readers and theatergoers - have signed a declaration circulated during the last year by the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition asking that the authorship be treated as a legitimate subject in academia. Already a few schools of higher learning are including Shakespearean authorship studies in their curricula. The edifice is cracking, and the Shakespearean scholars don’t have enough fingers to plug the leaks in this dike.

Another sign of the times is the hoopla over the recently identified Shakespeare portrait. It was unveiled at a news conference by Stanley Wells, the leading Stratfordian scholar (who referred contemptuously to my grandfather in one of his books!), as a done deal and swallowed wholesale by almost the entire global media. Only later did doubts surface. (The likeness may well be of Shakespeare, but we need more than just the assurances of Wells and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Like everything they pontificate on, it was presented as fact rather than a hypothesis!) Eventually, the New York Times, which had uncritically accepted Wells's preposterous claims in its original front page news story, ran a whimsical commentary a few weeks later on its editorial page by one of its top editorial commentators who observed there wasn’t a shred of evidence for the portrait’s attribution to Will. With evident amusement, he said the claim was conjecture piled on conjecture, like everything else in Shakespeare’s historical biography!

The whole effort by the Shakespeare literary-industrial complex to prop up a dying cause and defend the indefensible has many parallels with doomed scientific theories, ideological crusades, and contemporary wars. I suspect that if Marlowe were alive today, he would satirize it in a new comedy reminiscent of Errors or Twelfth Night. The distinguished scholars would be undone by their own folly and past pronouncements as new evidence turned up conclusively documenting Marlowe’s survival and literary afterlife.

While such evidence would be the proverbial holy grail to clinch the matter, I don’t think it’s necessary. There’s already enough historical, literary, political, theological, linguistic, and other compelling evidence to convince a jury of our peers - the 21st-century reading and viewing public - and commonsense gravediggers everywhere that Marlowe was the primary author and guiding spirit of the Shakespearean canon. I predict that by 2023, the 400th anniversary of the First Folio, if not before, there will be a literary tectonic plate shift, and Marlowe’s leading role will be universally recognized. And just as a Shakespearean comedy has a happy ending, I can foresee the collected plays of Marlowe and Shakespeare all being performed in 2023, beginning in Stratford, under both Marlowe and Shakespeare’s names. If they are still with us, I suspect by then the leading Stratfordians will have been reborn and morphed into Marlovians and take full credit for solving the greatest historical literary mystery of all time. Well, let them. As said in another place, all’s well that ends well!

Q: Professor, we’d love to have you come back again. Thanks for taking the time with us.

Alex: My pleasure.

© The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection, June 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.  to be or not to be james shapiro emmerich

Alex’s web site is, and he could be reached at

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


Unknown said...

Again, another great article. Thanks to Carlo for taking the time to do these interviews.

I find it highly interesting that the concept of religion is so intricately woven into the lives of Marlowe and his contemporaries, the plays themselves, and even Shakespearean scholarship. In fact, it could be said that Shakespeare is the literary equivalent of Jesus Christ, given the zeal with which Stratfordian "true believers" deny any possibility of alternative authorship--in spite of the huge body of evidence to the contrary.

Those of us who entertain ideas about alternative authorship are akin to the "heretics" and "atheists" who challenged orthodoxy in the early Church. Those who have a vested interest in holding on to power and prestige gained through one ideology are always violently opposed to those who espouse challenging ideologies--particularly when those challenges are backed with weighty arguments that raise reasonable doubts in the minds of the average person. I can think of several professors I had back in college--still teaching, mind you--who gained their tenured positions and respected reputations all based upon their orthodox writings within Shakespeare scholarship. These people aren't even the "heavyweights" in the field! Were they to allow and entertain the idea that Marlowe or Oxford or Bacon or Mary Sidney or anyone other than William of Stratford wrote The Works, they'd be out of a job at worst and at least, they'd have a considerable amount of mud on their faces. Now imagine someone like Jonathan Bate entertaining such ideas!

Ah, how often Truth is sacrificed on the altars of Human Vanity!

Anonymous said...


GlasgowIan said...

thanks for the whitgift clue!

WyomingEagle said...

Prof. Jack,

I can't thank you enough for your bold, well-grounded assertions that force us to think outside the box. It's sad how blind (and dare I say fearful?) academia has become to truth; it's all about the money...

Alex Jack said...

I couldn’t agree with Rachelle more about how Shakespeare has become a secular Christ. English departments have become temples of idolatry, and Wells, Vickers, Greenblatt, and the other Strat luminaries perform the function of high priests.

In a query to Part I of my interview, Isabel asked me why I don’t concede that Will Shakespeare was portrayed as a country bumpkin in As You Like It and parodied by Ben Johnson. Like many Marlovians, she was dismayed when I credited Will as co-author in my edition of Marlowe’s Hamlet.

In As You Like It, the characterization of Will could be a send up in the way that Kit parodies himself as Christopher Sly in Shrew. And there are other, more endearing references to Will, including some of the 14 instances in Sonnet 135. I think the jury is still out on the question of their relationship.

Indeed, Will is such a cipher, it’s clear we really don’t know whether he could read or write (beyond his scrawled signatures), whether he was Catholic or Protestant, and whether he was a loving husband and good father (mostly at a distance in London) or a rake who abandoned his wife and family. Regarding the authorship, none of this really matters. It’s like Martin Luther King. Whatever it says about his moral character, the fact that he cheated on his wife and plagiarized sermons does not diminish his commanding role in the civil rights movement. Similarly, what matters is that Will played his part, however unlettered, and enabled the world’s greatest poetry to be performed and published under his name.

In his capacity as an actor and stage manager, it’s not unreasonable to assume that some of Will’s reading of the text, stage directions, and acting shaped and influenced the performances at the Globe, entered theater tradition, and snippets even made it into some of the quartos or the Folio. Was it a major role? Almost certainly not. But he chipped in his 2 pence and he succeeded magnificently. That he was a maltster, may have blackmailed Southampton (or whoever was footing the bills) into arranging a coat of arms or purchasing his silence in return for a big house in Stratford, is beside the point. Yikes, compared to today’s grain speculators, biotech companies, and ethanol developers who highjack whole economies, his hoarding is small change. And don’t forget Kit had some unsavory episodes in his past, including street brawls and a fatal duel.

For good or ill, Shakespeare has been forever associated with the plays and poetry performed and published in his name. I see no point in denying the obvious. It’s like saying the Gospels of Mark, Mathew, Luke, and John should all be renamed because New Testament scholarship has shown that their namesakes couldn’t possibly have written them. As a practical matter, I’m interested in seeing that Marlowe gets credit for his starring role. In the absence of finding the holy grail, or manuscripts to the comedies and tragedies signed by Kit, we’re not going to convince the world of Marlowe’s claim by bashing Will, turning him into a Judas, and making him a scapegoat for centuries of Strat domination and bondage. Let’s embrace Will, disarm the critics, and strive to have Marlowe recognized by 2023, the 400th anniversary of the First Folio, as the authorial superstar along with Shakespeare, Peele, Middleton, Wiikens, Fletcher, and other junior co-authors or co-dramatists bringing up the rear.

Anonymous said...

the Alex Jack interview was a real treat to read.

ParquVCBC said...

you must love the iconoclastic vigor of this website; the nerve of Mr. Jack! Good for you, Professor!

Anonymous said...

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