Much Ado About Something -

Who Was The Real Shakespeare?

Howard Schumann

Talking Pictures alias






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Review of Much Ado About Something
Directed by Michael Rubbo. Australia. 2001.

Shown last year at the Toronto Film Festival and this week on PBS Frontline, Much Ado About Something, a documentary by the Australian director Michael Rubbo, promotes the view that English poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe, did not die at age 29 as is widely assumed but continued to write plays in exile from Italy and was the true author of the works of William Shakespeare. The film is based on a 1955 book The Murder of the Man Who Was Shakespeare, by Calvin Hoffman, an American who spent years trying to prove that Marlowe wrote Shakespeare. Hoffman went so far as to open the tomb of Marlowe's employer, Thomas Walsingham, the head of Queen Elizabeth's secret service, to see if he could find any plays that would reveal the author. He did not find any but he still left $700,000 to $1 million of his fortune to anyone that can prove the Marlowe case. Hoffman died in the late 1980s but apparently no one has laid claim to his money.

Rubbo purports to show that Marlowe faked his death in 1593, then went into exile, writing plays and sending them to his agent, William Shakespeare, the Stratford actor, to produce for the theater. Since Marlowe was not known for comedy, the film also suggests that Marlowe wrote the dramas and Shakespeare wrote the comedies in a true collaboration. In attempting to show that Marlowe's murder from a dagger thrust was all an act, Mr. Rubbo interviews theatre and literary analysts in Canterbury, Stratford, Italy, and America, intercutting the conversations with excerpts from Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet and Shakespeare in Love

Rubbo offers the following evidence for Marlowe's authorship: Marlowe is the only playwright among the candidates; many characters in Shakespeare are thought to be dead yet turn out to be alive; the sonnets are about being exiled; and Marlowe's lines are often paralleled in Shakespeare. Though I have many problems with the theory, I found the premise to be intriguing. Whatever side you take on the authorship debate, the  film is entertaining and may cause you to question some widely held beliefs, though it does not offer much in its place.

The following discussion centres on the main theory of the film. While other critics have either dismissed the film as hogwash or praised it as an interesting possibility, none have actually examined the issues involved.

Who Was Christopher Marlowe?

Christopher Marlowe was an English dramatist and poet considered by most scholars to be the greatest English dramatist before Shakespeare. Born in Canterbury in 1564, Marlowe, like Shakespeare, was a commoner whose father was a local shoemaker. Educated at Cambridge, he went to London in 1587, where he became an actor and dramatist for the Lord Admiral's Company. His most important plays are the two parts of Tamburlaine the Great (c. 1587), Dr. Faustus (c. 1588), The Jew of Malta (c. 1589), and Edward II (c. 1592). 

Marlowe's heroic dramas contain Shakespearean violence, passion, and bloodshed written in poetic and elegant language that raises it to the level of art. His themes could also be considered similar to Shakespeare's - great personalities destroyed by their own ambition. In 1593, Marlowe was murdered in a barroom brawl by a drinking companion. A coroner's jury certified that the assailant acted in self-defense and the act was never punished. Speculation abounds that the murder may have resulted from a plot tied to Marlowe's activities as a government agent. Curious indeed.

A Well-Documented Blank

The only reason the controversy even exists is that there are so few facts known about the life of the accepted author, William Shakespeare of Stratford, and these facts provide little, if any, biographical connection to the plays. We know that he was baptized on April 26, 1564. We know nothing of William's childhood, upbringing, or possible schooling. Records for the Stratford grammar school do not survive. We know he was married to Anne Hathaway in November 1582. Six months later, daughter Susanna was born. In 1585, twins, Hamnet and Judith were born and names after their neighbours, the Sadlers.

During 1588 to 1591, a "Shackespere" is named in legal action involving his mother's property. In 1592, in London, "Shackespere" loans 7 pounds to John Clayton. A pamphlet "Groatsworth of Wit", warns three playwrights of an "upstart" actor called "Shake-scene". In 1595, a payment of 20 pounds is recorded to William Kempe, William Shakespeare, and Richard Burbage for performances at court during the previous December. In 1596, Shakspere's eleven-year old son Hamnet is buried. In October, application is made to obtain a coat of arms for John Shakspere. From 1597 until his death in 1616, the only records extant are for real estate purchases, a citing for being a tax defrauder, court action to recover a loan, a purchase of 107 acres of real estate, an investment in tithes, a patent creating the Royal Acting Company, and other business and financial dealings.

There is no literary paper trail of any sort. There are no records of matriculation or schooling, no books from a personal library, no autograph manuscripts or drafts, no surviving letters or notes, no records of payments for writing, no references in letters regarding writing, no testimonials or personal references from other writers that show a direct personal link while the author was alive, and no personal tributes or memorials at death testifying to his being a member of a literary profession. On April 25th, 1616, the Stratford register records the death of "Will. Shakespeare, gent." and he is buried in Holy Trinity Church. His gravestone inscription contained the following doggerel.

"Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here:
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones."

Robert Bearman sums up Shakespeare's life as follows in Shakespeare in the Stratford Records (1994), published by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust: "Certainly, there is little, if anything, to remind us that we are studying the life of one who in his writings emerges as perhaps the most gifted of all time in describing the human condition. Here in Stratford he seems merely to have been a man of the world, buying up property, laying in ample stocks of barley and malt, when others were starving, selling off his surpluses and pursuing debtors in court…."

Questioning The Scholarly Consensus

Of course, the scholarly consensus attributes the authorship to William Shakespeare of Stratford, and for most people, there simply is no authorship controversy. If they read something about it, it is filed in the drawer marked "Grassy Knoll". The list of doubters, however, includes some prominent individuals including Henry James who wrote, " I am…haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world", Sigmund Freud who wrote, "The man of Stratford seems to have nothing at all to justify his claim", and Orson Welles who said, "I think Oxford wrote Shakespeare. If you don't, there are some awfully funny coincidences to explain away." Other well-known doubters include Charlie Chaplin, Daphne DuMaurier, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Derek Jacobi, Mark Twain, and Walt Whitman.

Following are the main reasons I question the Stratfordian orthodoxy:

1. Shakespeare (referring to the actor from Stratford) left no letters or other writing in his own name, except for six crude signatures that are barely legible. There is only one known letter addressed to him - it was about 30 pounds and it was never delivered.

2. There is no record of Shakespeare attending school. Even assuming he attended the local school until age 13, his plays reveal a knowledge of languages, the law, Latin and Greek classics, medicine, falconry, the sea, music, and nature that is so deep it could have only been learned through personal experience.

3. He left no books or manuscripts in his will, though, at the time of his death, 20 of his famous plays remained unpublished. Indeed, his will gives no indication that the deceased was engaged in literary activities of any sort.

4. His parents, siblings, and daughters were all illiterate except that one daughter could sign her own name. Would the greatest writer in English history have allowed this?

5. At the height of Shakespeare's alleged fame, tax collectors could not discover where he lived.

6. At his death, there were no eulogies, no testimonials, or tributes, not even from fellow actors, playwrights, or his esteemed friend, Ben Jonson. His only alleged connection to the plays came seven years after his death in the tribute by Ben Jonson in the First Folio.

7. Scholars agree that his later plays were collaborations with other authors. Why would the great playwright at the height of his powers turn over his incomplete works to be finished by lesser authors?

8. Shakespeare is not known to have travelled outside of England, yet the plays reveal an extensive knowledge of Italy and France.

9. The plays reveal an intimate familiarity with court life and manners that Shakespeare, as a commoner, could not have obtained simply by conversations at the Mermaid Tavern. 

10. Shakespeare's point of view in the plays and poems is always that of an aristocrat. He has created commoners, but they are mostly buffoons who mangle the language. He portrays the nobility as individuals, but the lower classes as types, even stereotypes.

I Coulda Been A Contenda

Contenders for the authorship of Shakespeare's plays have been many, some plausible, some farfetched. Only three candidates for the authorship of Shakespeare's works have persuaded a large number of people. These are philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon, (for many years the preferred candidate), poet-playwright Christopher Marlowe, and poet and Courtier Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford (a discussion of whose credentials would require an essay beyond the scope of this project). 

Bringing Home The Bacon

Francis Bacon is a strong candidate but he had none of Shakespeare's wit and whimsy. He was generally considered to be a sombre and inflexible individual who was also a busy man of affairs with little time for a second career. In addition, the sonnets would seem totally incongruous with his personality and with his dignified and sonorous style of writing.

The Elizabethan James Dean

The case for Marlowe is certainly reasonable. He was the most renowned writer of the candidates mentioned and, perhaps because of his early death, has become a very romantic figure, the Elizabethan equivalent of James Dean. He lived at the right time to be considered. His language was poetic and elegant and could easily be called "Shakespearean". As mentioned, he wrote plays about tragic heroes who gave their lives to passion and ambition. Moreover, there is definitely something fishy about the circumstances of his death and his survival and exile must be considered as a possibility. Does that mean I support the theory advanced in the film? No, it doesn't and here are ten reasons why not:

1. Shakespeare-like plays were presented at court as early as the 1570s, which pre-dates Marlowe by two decades.

2. Marlowe is so distinctive a poet and dramatist that it is hard to believe he could have also been Shakespeare.

3. Marlowe is not noted for comedy; certainly great comic figures like Falstaff, Rosalind, and Beatrice seem to be beyond his scope.

4. Marlowe has no biographical connection to the plays.

5. The plays and poems are written from the vantage point of a nobleman. As the son of a small-town tradesman, Marlowe would have had a profoundly different social perspective.

6. If Marlowe had survived and kept writing in exile, why is there silence from the time of Shakespeare’s "retirement" in 1609 until his (Marlowe's) alleged actual death in 1627? 

7. All plays attributed to William Shakespeare were published anonymously from 1593 to 1598. Why was this the case if Marlowe was using Shakespeare's name as a cover for his own work?

8. The first 120 or so sonnets were written in the early 1590s at the time when marriage between Henry Wriothesley (to whom the sonnets are dedicated) and Elizabeth de Vere was being proposed. In 1592, Marlowe would have been 28 years old, hardly in a position to address a young earl in terms of intimate endearment and longing, or offer fatherly advice to a nobleman about who he should or shouldn't marry. 

9. The sonnets tell us that the poet was in his declining years. He was "Beated and chopped with tanned antiquity", "With Time's injurious hand crushed and o'er worn", in the "twilight" of life. The last sonnet clearly referring to events consequent on the passing of Elizabeth was in 1603. At that time, both Shakespeare of Stratford and Marlowe would have been only 39, hardly in the twilight of life.

10. No evidence has yet to be found that proves Marlowe lived past the year 1593.

Curiouser And Curiouser

The year 1604 seems to have been some sort of a watershed. 

No source for any Shakespearean play is dated after 1604. 

No sonnets were written after 1604. 

Between the years 1593 to 1604, seventeen plays attributed to Shakespeare were published. From 1605 to 1623 there were only five, said to be collaborations. 

What happened in 1604? For starters, the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, died at his home in Hackney in June.

For some very useful links to material about Shakespeare in the movies and much more visit the 
Mr William Shakespeare and the Internet website at:

Also see:

Shakespeare In Hollywood by Francis Akputa.

Elizabeth - Film and History by Howard Schumann.
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