Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Did Marlowe Die in Padua in 1627? by Peter Farey

One of the stories dear to the hearts of many Marlovians is one from Calvin Hoffman which concerns a man from Padua—Pietro Basconi—who claimed to have nursed an exiled recluse called Christopher Marlowe when he was terminally ill in Padua in 1627. Unfortunately, it has only very recently come to light that on 23 April 1916, the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, something appeared which seems to show that this whole story is a myth.

According to an item in the Guardian newspaper of 11 July 1983, Calvin Hoffman had been left some notes about it in the will of a journalist friend of his. Here is what it says:

"CALVIN HOFFMAN, probably the most indefatigable friend the Elizabethan playright (sic) Christopher Marlowe ever had, will travel to Italy next week in what he hopes will be the conclusive phase of his 30-year campaign to prove that Marlowe wrote the works of Shakespeare.
This is to follow up written evidence indicating that documents could exist showing that Marlowe lived in hiding in Padua, creating the entire Shakespearean cannon (sic), for 34 years after his supposed death in a tavern brawl in 1593. The evidence is in the form of notes which Mr Hoffman, aged 75, an American former theatre critic, received this year from the will of a journalist friend. These say that a 16th century Paduan, Petro (sic) Basconi, left papers stating that an English writer named Marlowe lived with him as a recluse until dying in 1627, 11 years after Shakespere's (sic) death. The notes add that the writer had "had to leave England." The papers were passed down the Basoni (sic) family and were said to have been shown during the 19th century to a British ambassador to Italy, who is said to have commented that he was "afraid to tamper with a matter so dear to the English heart." ... "Mr Hoffman does not know where to begin looking in Padua."

He did in fact go there and succeeded in finding a 17th century grave for someone called Merlin, a name used for Marlowe when he was at Cambridge, only to discover that it is quite a common name in Padua. He found nothing else.1

It is too good a story to just be left alone, however, and other Marlovians have tried to see what truth there might be in it.

In his 2001 film Much Ado About Something, after hearing of the Guardian account from John Hunt, Michael Rubbo also discovered the existence of a 1983 letter from Hoffman on the same subject, and showed that it mentioned Washington Irving (US Ambassador to Spain, 1842-6, who had apparently seen the relevant document) and Whitelaw Reid (US Ambassador to the UK, 1905-1912). Mike discussed the story with the archivist at Mantua, Dr. Ferrari, but—not really surprising as Padua is over 50 miles from there—found nothing.

In April 2003, Christian Lanciai reported to an internet newsgroup that he had visited three different archives in Padua, finding only (in the Archivio della Stato) that nobody with a name like Marlowe appears in a record of all the deaths in Padua from 1626 to 1651. He did find a Merlini who had died there in 1647, but "no confirmation at all in the city archives of Padua...that Christopher Marlowe had died there in the 1620s." His piece was also published in the Marlowe Society's Newsletter 22, of Spring 2004.

Izabel Gortázar mentioned the result of her research on this in an essay for the Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection blog on 20 September 20102 when she said that she "found no Basconi or Bosconi families in the Padua records." Amplifying this for some of us she said "A few years ago I went to Padua in search of Marlowe. Luckily I had friends who ensured that I had entry to the old Municipal, Church and University records and that I could talk to Librarians and Professors. Although I only spent a few days there I could not find any records of a Basconi/Bosconi family, and indeed was dissuaded by the Librarians to continue looking for such name, assuring me that there had never been a Bosconi or Basconi family in Padua."

Some Marlovians, amongst whom I count myself, nevertheless thought that there might even yet be something in it. At least we did until Edward Clybourn told us about a newspaper article he had found, dated 23 April 1916, which he correctly thought must cast doubt upon the truth of the whole thing. It was from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and was by Henry Watterson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal for more than 50 years (1868-1919).3

The first half of it consists mainly of a summary of, and apparent agreement with, his friend Mark Twain's argument against Shakespeare's authorship of the works attributed to him. "Thus Mark Twain briefs the case. Not a single statement can be gainsaid. The conclusion is dead against Shakespeare." Next he considers the Baconian case, finding some merit in it, but also disliking some aspects. He mentions how in a discussion with Whitelaw Reid, American Ambassador to the UK, Reid wouldn't check whether one Baconian argument was true or not, saying that he would not even if he could, "meaning of course that as American Ambassador he could not afford to meddle in such a controversy." Before and after the Bacon bit, however, are anecdotes apparently about how people feel free to make anything up in support of a story if they have enough belief in their version of it. Whereupon he illustrates this with his own story, written of course before Leslie Hotson's discovery of the inquest, and containing a whole lot of information which we now know to be completely wrong.

"TO COME directly to the point, there is a simple but perfect thesis in explanation of the Shakespearean mystery," he said. "This relates that the plays were written by Christopher Marlowe. They were revised by Francis Bacon. Thus prepared for the stage, they were produced by William Shakespeare." Then comes the "story". Marlowe and Shakespeare were celebrating in a tavern when he got into row with an actor called Herrick, who was accidentally killed in a scuffle. Marlowe's friend and "former classmate" Francis Bacon happened to be passing and helped to sort it out. Marlowe and the dead Herrick would swap clothes and the former "fly for his life". "Next day it was given out that Marlowe had been killed, and, the penalty death for him in case he came to life again, it was ever after thus proclaimed." He travelled to Paris and Spain, and "Finally, all individual traces lost, he repaired to Italy and settled down in Padua." There he wrote the plays which he sent back home to Bacon.

So far, so good, but now Watterson gives full rein to his imagination:

"Bacon left no cryptogram. No more did Marlowe. But, in an early edition of the Lemounier (sic) Vasari, the Comte de la Borde (sic), correcting one of the many errors in the Guida de Bassano,4 refers to a recluse of Padua, Pietro Basconi by name, who claimed to have nursed Marlowe in his last illness (Marlowe died in 1627, just a year after Bacon's death), and to have had from him the story and reduced it to writing. This strange composition came into the possession of Andreas Basconi, a descendant of Pietro, and was read, we are told, as late as 1843 by no less a person than Washington Irving, who, thinking it a doubtful yarn, and with Whitelaw Reid, knowing it dangerous for a man of importance (he was the American minster (sic) to Spain) to tamper with a subject so sacred to the British heart, wrote nothing about it, nor, indeed, spoke of it except to one or two intimate friends."

So could it have happened like that? "Why Not? Why Not?" Watterson asks. Couldn't a friend of his, long resident of Florence, have heard the story and told him about it? Or why, when in London, couldn't he have "fallen in with a ragged Italian in Leicester Square who, born and reared in Padua, had an inkling of the truth and who tried to sell me a plaster cast of Christopher Marlowe, declaring that, if I would go with him on a dark night into a wood by the river Wye, he would produce from the hollow of an old oak the identical Basconi manuscript."

Now comes the important bit. "Go to! Go to!" he says. "I am not on the witness stand making oath to anything—only pursuing the usual Bacon-Shakespeare method" ... "Why may I not call from the shadows and the stars the strange story of Christopher Marlowe ... at the moment of his supposed death the greatest of English poets and dramatists...many of whose early conceits, and some of his actual phrasing, to be found in the plays later ascribed to William Shakespeare?"5 In other words, whilst agreeing with the Marlovian theory, the story he told about it was "from the shadows and the stars"—all made up. In fact it is easy to see that the bit about the River Wye must have been inspired by the actions in 1907 of a Baconian, Dr. Orville Ward Owen, who claimed he had decoded instructions revealing that a box containing proof of Bacon's authorship had been buried in the River Wye near Chepstow, but whose dredging machinery failed to retrieve any concealed manuscripts.

Henry Watterson did clearly favour the Marlovian theory over any other. The Wikipedia article6 on the Louisville Courier-Journal says that "He attracted controversy for attempting to prove that Christopher Marlowe had actually written the works of Shakespeare" and the New York Times carried his reaction to the Oxfordian book of J. Thomas Looney, saying that "My own guess—we can only guess—has always been that Marlowe wrote the plays."7 His correspondence with Wilbur G. Zeigler—the first known Marlovian—is also held in the Library of Congress, and should be well worth reading.8

The date when his article appeared is an interesting one, though. Not only was it the exact tercentenary of Shakespeare's death,9 but it followed hard upon a quite extraordinary court case, which ran from 3 to 21 April, in which a Colonel Selig—who had produced several films about Shakespeare (presumably ready for the tercentenary)—sued a Baconian, Colonel Fabyan, because the recent publishing of his anti-Stratfordian theory would lose Selig money. The judge actually came down on Fabyan's side because he found that Bacon must indeed have written the works of Shakespeare! The plaintiff and defendant were apparently good friends, however, and cynics suggested that the publicity given to Selig's films would have been well worth the cost to him of those proceedings. Watterson's article appeared on 23 April as a signed front-page feature article in his own Courier-Journal, which apparently realized over a thousand dollars for its syndication of the story to other newspapers.10

So how is it that Calvin Hoffman got hold of this, and thought it worth following up? We know that the notes about it had been left to him in 1983 by a friend of his. Any of Henry Watterson's five children would have been well over 100 years old by then, so we are probably looking at one of his grand—or great-grand—children. It is in fact interesting that the Watterson Papers as held at the University of Louisville carry on until 1983, despite his having died in 1921. Perhaps this descendant lived until 1983, having carried on collecting related documents, and then left them all to the University of Louisville and the Library of Congress, except for one item. They left the "notes" about the Basconi/Padua story to Calvin Hoffman, because they not only knew of Henry's beliefs but also that Hoffman's 1955 book had argued much the same theory. It is just a pity that they seem to have missed their ancestor's point—that that bit was just a story.

©Peter Farey, 2012

1 I am grateful to Gene Ayres for sharing with me this information which he obtained from the then archivist at King's College Canterbury, Paul Pollak.
2 http://marlowe-shakespeare.blogspot.com/2010/09/more-doubts-about-will-4-real-death-of.html (accessed 13 February 2012).
3 The article is quite long, but it can be found online at http://tinyurl.com/watterson-item  (accessed 13 February 2012).
4 The earliest edition of Vasari’s writings published by Lemonnier appeared in 1846. As Ellen Wilson pointed out to me, this must therefore refer to Léon-Emmanuel-Simon-Joseph, Comte de Laborde (1807-69). He wasn't one of Lemonnier’s editors, however, so this would appear to have been in the form of handwritten marginalia.
5 I have corrected part of this, where the lines were set in the wrong order.
6 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Courier-Journal (accessed 13 February 2012).
7 Thanks to Ellen Wilson for finding this at http://tinyurl.com/watterson-NYT (accessed 13 February 2012).
8http://memory.loc.gov/service/mss/eadxmlmss/eadpdfmss/2009/ms009072.pdf (accessed 13 February 2012).
9 Thanks to Anthony Kellett for pointing this out.
10 Wall, Joseph Frazier. Henry Watterson, Reconstructed Rebel (1956). Oxford University Press, New York. pp.293-4.


Donna Murphy said...

Thanks, Peter, for your article showing that the "news" about Marlowe dying in Italy in 1627 was almost certainly written as a parody with no factual basis. Hopefully it will divert others from spending their time pursuing this particular lead.

Maureen Duff said...

Brilliant, Peter. I was aware of Henry Watterson’s interest in the subject from reading “Henry Watterson: Reconstructed Rebel”, but I hadn’t read his entire article till now. With hindsight, perhaps the association of Washington Irving with the “Pietro Basconi” story was Mr Watterson's wink to his readers that a tall tale was afoot. Famously in 1809 Irving placed a series of hoax missing person ads in New York newspapers, allegedly searching for an old Dutch historian Diedrich Knickerbocker who had not paid his hotel bill and warning that the hotel proprietor threatened to publish a manuscript he’d left behind if the bill wasn't paid. A series of newspaper articles followed, creating such public interest that when Irving published his first major satirical novel, "A History of New York by Diedrich Knickerbocker" it was an immediate critical and financial success - due in no small way to the PR stunt he'd just pulled!

Peter Farey said...

Well, thank you for the kind words, both of you, but it was of course Edward Clybourn who turned up the Watterson article and was good enough to tell us all about it. I just offered to write up the results of the ensuing discussion.

I would like to think that Donna's hopes are realised, but somehow I can't help thinking that they probably won't. Interesting that Maureen already knew of the book about Henry Watterson. I have only just stumbled across it myself at http://www.archive.org/stream/henrywattersonre007688mbp#page/n9/mode/2up and found pp.293-4 very useful in installing him as the second known Marlovian in the Wikipedia "Shakespeare Authorship Question" article. A group of mainly Stratfordian editors jealously guards the content, and anything not supported by a "reputable source" like this (even a link to the article itself is prohibited!) is deleted.

He (for now at least) gets a mention on both the "Shakespeare Authorship Question" and "Marlovian theory" pages, and I've even added the Bacon/Marlowe/Shakespeare illustration to the latter. I wonder if anyone who is unaware of it until now will be puzzled by how a 1916 article can (other than for the hairstyle) so closely resemble the "Marlowe" portrait which wasn't discovered until 1955?


Maureen Duff said...

Ironically, as if to prove a Marlovian point, I congratulated Peter because his name is on the article as “the author” and I failed to congratulate Edward as the discoverer of the vital information – even though Edward’s contribution is in plain sight in the body of the post! Psychologically it is very easy to attribute authorship to anyone whose name appears as “the writer” and ignore the rest of the evidence. Name at the front: William Shakespeare. Content and style: Christopher Marlowe.

Well done, Edward Clybourn!

Peter Farey said...

Absolutely right, Maureen. But then we should perhaps compare Edward's undoubtedly helpful use of an internet search engine sitting at his computer with the efforts of Christian and Isabel who actually travelled to Padua and spent days trawling through the archives there! :o)

What we all need to congratulate ourselves on is, I think, our readiness to acknowledge publicly where we are mistaken. It is an approach which some of our main opponents would do well to emulate.


Erika said...

Sigh, I was fond of the notion that Marlowe died in Padua. Ah, well, at least you all have dispelled this idea so that future Marlovian scholars will not have to bother pursuing it. Thank you Peter, Edward, Isabel, and Christian for all the work you put into this!

Maureen Duff said...

I absolutely agree with Peter and Erica!

daver852 said...

Any ideas as to where or when Marlowe actually did die?

Peter Farey said...

Not any longer, I'm afraid, Dan! At least, not 'where'. I interpret the poem on the Stratford monument to be saying that he, 'Art', was still alive (now without a page to dish up his wit) when Shakespeare died, and presumably still was when it was erected, probably in late 1621. I also think that Ben Jonson's words "though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek" make best sense if Marlowe was still alive when they appeared in 1623. In this case they could be read as saying either that the addressee had "little Latin and less Greek", if he was dead (like Shakespeare), or that he did not have "little Latin and less Greek", if he was alive (like Marlowe) - thus being appropriate for Marlowe whilst appearing to be appropriate for Shakespeare. I also recall John Baker arguing that Marlowe was still alive in 1633, when the Jew of Malta was published - one reason being that Thomas Heywood's Introduction to it was addressed to "My worthy friend, Master Thomas Hammon, of Gray's Inn" and a Thomas Hammon is listed in William Urry's Christopher Marlowe and Canterbury as a contemporary of Marlowe's at Kings's School Canterbury.


Peter Farey said...

Mind you, Thomas Heywood had also dedicated the First Part of The Iron Age (printed 1632) "To my Worthy and much Respected Friend, Mr. Thomas Hammon, of Grayes Inne, Esquire."


Anthony Kellett said...

…And one of the parts of ‘The First Maid of the West’.

I don’t know if it is of any use (or interest); but I can find no record of a ‘Thomas Hammon’ in my ‘Gray’s Inn Pension Book’ (1569-1669). There is a ‘Thomas Hammond’, called to the ‘Barr’ on 27th July 1617 (the same day as a ‘Mr. Kellett’, coincidently) so perhaps that is the man we seek?

There is another ‘Hammond’ (no other name) mentioned on May 26th 1584 (Eliz 26th year); and these two are the only ones.

This book is described as a ‘summary’ though quite what is edited out, I do not know. I suspect it is more detailed minutes of the meetings, rather than names; but I am not certain.