Sunday, January 17, 2010

In Plain Sight: What the Witness Protection Program Can Tell Us About Shakespeare by Daryl Pinksen

I. Marlowe’s problem

When Christopher Marlowe met with Robert Poley, Ingram Frizer, and Nick Skeres at Deptford on May 30, 1593, a raft of potentially fatal charges against him had just been circulated around the Privy Council, courtesy of Marlowe’s nemesis, the devious Richard Baines. In Marlowe’s last known conversation with Thomas Kyd — the playwright lately tagged as a collaborator with Shakespeare on the anonymous Edward III — Marlowe made it clear that he intended to flee England for Scotland, and urged Kyd to do the same. Unfortunately, both Marlowe and Kyd were arrested before either had a chance to escape the coming repression.

Marlowe’s arrest on May 20, 1593, would hardly have dampened his impulse to run; rather, it would have underlined the sense of urgency. Given these circumstances, along with the fact that the men present at Deptford with Marlowe had associations with Marlowe’s patron Thomas Walsingham, and the spurious explanation given by these men in the Coroner’s report, it seems at least possible — likely, one could argue —that Marlowe had made good on his plan to escape.

What we do know is that in early June 1593, Marlowe was pronounced dead, he was believed dead, and after that, so far as we know, he was never seen alive again. In spite of this, the soon-to-follow plays and sonnets of William Shakespeare — a man who, biographically, is arguably one of the most un-writer-like writers of all time — do sound like Marlowe, and scholarship has been making note of this similarity for centuries.

The claim made by Marlovians is that Marlowe’s death had been faked, as a ruse to allow him to escape to some unknown location and begin a new life with a new identity without fear of pursuit. This speculation is understandably met with scepticism, and the whole thing is usually dismissed as an impossible, conspiracy-fuelled fantasy. But is it really so far fetched? Reports of people faking their death (or rather, failing in the attempt) surface every few months. This is not now a novel concept, nor would it have been then. And assuming a new identity in order to escape pursuers is even more common. The witness protection program in the U.S., WITSEC, with similar programs in dozens of countries, routinely creates new identities for people they are trying to protect. The public finds neither of these scenarios preposterous in a modern context; movies, TV shows, and books have made them familiar to everyone.1

What makes this story sound so incredible is neither the “faked death” nor the “new identity” scenarios themselves, both of which are now common enough to border on the mundane. The problem lies in who it is we’re talking about — Shakespeare. The fact that the works of Shakespeare function as quasi-religious texts for millions of his literary devotees heightens the emotional content of any discussion of authorship. To those disturbed by the suggestion that Marlowe wrote the works of Shakespeare, they should take comfort in the fact that there is no incontrovertible evidence of Marlowe’s survival after 1593. All we have to work with, and perhaps all we will ever have to work with, are the surviving texts and the accompanying documents.

Nevertheless, these texts do tell a story beneath the stories and reveal a psychological profile of their creator which sounds far more like the work of a disgraced exile writing under an assumed identity that an actor/theatre producer/grain merchant from Stratford. If the writer of the Shakespeare plays was Marlowe, presumed dead, in exile, struggling to survive under a new identity, then an examination of those works, in concert with observations from WITSEC, may reveal some noteworthy similarities.

II. How WITSEC keeps people alive

The Federal Witness Protection Program grew out of a need to protect mob witnesses from certain assassination. After several expensive and often failed attempts to protect witnesses with guards, the originator of the WITSEC program, Gerald Shur, soon realized that “the most efficient way for the government to protect a mob witness was by giving him a new identity and relocating him to a new community.”2

Once a witness is accepted into the program, there are a few simple rules witnesses are expected to follow. First, witnesses and their dependents must undergo a legal name change. WITSEC provides all of the accompanying documents for the witness and their families, but will not provide falsified documents such as death certificates — even though this would undoubtedly ensure a higher level of safety, the government needs testimony from live witnesses. Second, they cannot tell anyone from their old life about their new identities or where they have been relocated. Third, they cannot tell anyone they meet, including people they date or even marry, about their old identities. Fourth, they must not return home. This last restriction has proven unbearable for many, as sometimes “the desire to go home and get back in touch with one’s family and friends would become overwhelming.”3

As tough as the program was for the many criminals who were relocated, it was even harder for the small number of noncriminals who found themselves trapped with no other way out than to go into WITSEC. Agents strongly cautioned these noncriminals about how gruelling their new life would be. As Gerald Shur put it, “being relocated was something I would not wish on anyone. The only reason to do it was if it was your only hope to stay alive.”4

The strain that separation from their past lives put on noncriminals was agonizing, and it had a profound influence on their psyches:
The small number in the program who were not criminals found this transition overwhelming, even torturous. Having to give up their identity and live a life that to all appearances eradicates one’s past was deeply disturbing for them. Many felt themselves trapped in two different worlds. Within the safety of their family, they shared a past — a heritage, memories, actions, relationships — that they were forced to deny every day as they lived a lie at work or with friends and went about their daily routines not only in an alien place but in a totally new guise. Relocation destroyed their sense of self. 5
III. “Shakespeare” and WITSEC

So what does WITSEC have to do with Shakespeare? A careful reading of the plays and sonnets allows us access into the mind of their creator, no matter how guarded he was about avoiding personal revelations. That he was unusually guarded for a writer of this period is generally accepted; in Stephen Greenblatt’s superb Shakespeare biography, Will in the World, he poses the question, “Why is everything [Shakespeare] wrote — even in the sonnets — couched in such a way that enables him to hide his face and his innermost thoughts?”6

Greenblatt’s reading of the Shakespeare canon is illuminating. In Will in the World, Greenblatt is fascinated by the recurrence time and again in the Shakespeare plays of the themes of loss of self, hidden identity, exile, banishment, and scandal. Greenblatt regards it as a fascinating mystery:
Again and again in his plays, an unforeseen catastrophe … suddenly turns what had seemed like happy progress, prosperity, smooth sailing into disaster, terror, and loss. The loss is obviously and immediately material, but it is also, and more crushingly, a loss of identity. To wind up on an unknown shore, without one’s friends, habitual associates, familiar network — this catastrophe is often epitomized by the deliberate alteration or disappearance of the name and, with it, the alteration or disappearance of social status.7
Granted, these themes were not exclusive to the work of Shakespeare, they were common plot devices in the plays of many of his contemporaries. But none of those other writers displayed the depth of preoccupation with these themes that Shakespeare did. Why Shakespeare? Shakespeare’s life — the biographical Shakespeare — betrays nothing to provide a credible explanation. He was well off enough by the early 1590s to afford a partnership in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and his wealth and social status only continued to climb throughout his career.

So what lies at the root of this strong undercurrent in Shakespeare’s plays? There has been speculation that Shakespeare was a “hidden Catholic” and that fear of being found out created this pre-occupation. Or perhaps Shakespeare was embroiled in the English intelligence service, as Marlowe had been, and this led to fear of a downfall similar to Marlowe’s. Maybe, as Greenblatt suggests, it stemmed from his father’s financial troubles, back when William was a teenager, and this experience had seared itself into his consciousness. None of these explanations sound convincing. Perhaps we need to consider that this preoccupation was born of the author’s direct experience, making it impossible for him to eliminate or disguise in his writing. If this is the case, then we must abandon Shakespeare, but need look no further than Christopher Marlowe.

What Stephen Greenblatt is describing in Will in the World sounds exactly like the psychological profile of an exiled writer living under an assumed identity. Compare Greenblatt’s description above to this description from WITSEC agents about the impact that relocation had on noncriminal witnesses:
Noncriminal witnesses . . . had to deal with a deeper problem. The psychologists described it as loss of identity, dignity, and self. . . . A noncriminal witness explained . . . “In giving up our pasts we paid a heavy price, because what you are as a person is based on where you came from and the people who love you.” 8
If the works of Shakespeare were not written by Christopher Marlowe, a disgraced poet in exile, his old name destroyed, his old life destroyed, then how else are we to explain Greenblatt’s observations? That Marlowe authored these plays is the simplest explanation, and yet to accept it would mean that Christopher Marlowe’s death in 1593 would have to have been faked.

One wonders how the psychological impact of living under such a condition might manifest itself in a writer’s work. Perhaps Stephen Greenblatt has already provided the answer, for it is not merely loss of identity, banishment, and disgrace that permeates the work of the writer of the Shakespeare plays. As Stephen Greenblatt tells us:
Shakespeare’s business throughout his career had been to awaken the dead.9
Daryl Pinksen

© Daryl Pinksen, 2010

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.

1The TV drama “In Plain Sight,” which debuted on the USA network in 2008, deals with WITSEC agents and those in the program living under new identities. See:
2Earley, Pete, & Gerald Shur. WITSEC: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program. New York: Bantam Dell, 2002. p.84.
3Ibid., p. 93, 274-5.
4Ibid., p. 368.
5Ibid., p.10.
6Greenblatt, Stephen. Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004. p.173.
7Ibid., p.85.
8Early and Shur, op. cit., p. 388.
9Greenblatt, op. cit., p.376.

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DoubtingTom said...

I pose this question to all those willing to at least entertain an alternate authorship theory: if you were Marlowe, facing inevitable harsh punishment the result of very serious (though trumped-up) charges brought against you (yep, they still burned people at the stake back then for atheism!), what would you do? Roll the dice in the courts or use your very real connections with very influential people and make a run? Easy choice, everyone.

Luminosity said...

Doubting T -

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Rado Klose said...

Apropos Marlowes relationship with Kydd. What would Shakesperian scholars not give to have him say " a room I shared for writing with Shakespeare". It would have spared all this trouble.

DresdenDoll said...

well said, Mr. Pinksen.

Daryl Pinksen said...

I thought it might be useful to provide a list of links to stories about people who tried, and ultimately failed, to fake their own deaths.(It is worth noting that those who are successful in the attempt do not make the news.)

Consider that these cases date only from the past decade or so, and represent only those that turned up in a quick Google search. If we extrapolate this rate back 400 years, the scenario does become mundane.

The point is that while faking one's death may be sensational, it is far from extraordinary.

1. Bruce Leyte

2. Patrick McDermott (suspected, Olivia Newton-John's husband)

3. John Stonehouse

4-6. Carl Hackett, Graham Cardwell, Thomas Osmond

7. Bennie Wint

8. Marcus Shrenk

9. Jenaro Hernandez

10. John Sung Park

11. Daniel Kinge

12. Harry Gordon

13. Bill Grothe

14. Gubraman Subramaniam

15. Sean Lovelock-Woodall (suspected)

16. Bruce Dale

17. Jason Hart

18. John Darwin

19. John Fossett (suspected, later disproved)

20. Jeremy Daniel Oakley

Anonymous said...

Keep on posting such themes. I like to read articles like this. By the way add some pics :)

StephenUVA said...

thanks for the list, daryl.

Conte said...

What a wonderfully iconoclastic website, as the Shakespeare defenders still grasp at skimpy facts and rampant speculation and present them as "irrefutable" and "voluminous evidence."

Anonymous said...

What a great resource!

MoonOverManhattan said...

I enjoyed this article very much. Interesting way of looking at things.