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Was Shakespeare a Con Man?

The real author of the most famous plays and poems in the English language faked his own dramatic death, after conspiring with a village actor for his plays to be published as the work of that actor, one William Shakespeare.

That's the belief of a band of scholars and researchers who are convinced that the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe, officially reported to have been killed in a knife fight at the age of 29, had in fact faked his death and fled to Italy. There, they believe, he continued to write, his work being published in England in Shakespeare's name. Many others have doubts about the bard, and have suggested a wide range of other men who could have written Shakespeare's works.

If the sensational Marlowe conspiracy theory is ever proved, millions of the world's text books will have to be rewritten, and the British tourism industry will have to shift its focus from Stratford-on-Avon to Canterbury, where Marlowe, "duelist, scapegrace, genius, and poet" (and probably homosexual atheist) was born in 1564, the same year as Shakespeare.

For centuries, doubts have been expressed about Shakespeare's ability to write the works attributed to him. To quote Australian film-maker Michael Rubbo: "The doubts centre mainly around his education, or lack thereof. The plays and poems are very learned, the vocabulary gigantic, and yet there is no evidence he went to school, and he certainly did not go to university, the training ground for many of the best playwrights of the day.

"Shakespeare was so uninterested in culture that he appears to have owned no books, to have not educated his own daughters, and made no cultural contribution to the town in which he lived and died."

Calvin Hoffman, a Broadway (New York) press agent and writer, published The Murder of the Man Who Was "Shakespeare" in 1955. In his book, long out of print, Hoffman claimed that Marlowe did not die young, that his "death" was a ruse to escape the 'English Inquisition', and that he fled to live in Italy. There, he continued writing plays, to be published at home under the name of a front man in the London theatre world - William Shakespeare.

Michael Rubbo became so engrossed in the theory that he explored it for five years. Wondering whether Hoffman had exposed what might be "the biggest cover-up in literary history," he made a film called Much Ado About Something.

His documentary has been shown several times in the US by the PBS (Public Broadcasting Service), twice in the UK by the BBC, and in other European countries.

In New York, where the film had a two week season at Film Forum, a West village art house, it received mixed but generally favorable reviews.

Here in Australia, the ABC has not yet decided when to telecast it. Mike has bought a projector and toured New South Wales and Victoria with Much Ado, as well as presenting one night screenings in the State capitals.

After the film was shown in London, Britain's best-selling history monthly, BBC History Magazine, said: "Michael Rubbo takes a rather weary topic... and gives it a hugely entertaining new lease of life."

And in Melbourne, Melanie Sheridan wrote in Beat Magazine: "The story contains espionage, conspiracy theories, faked deaths, cover-ups, identity theft, homosexuality and sex... it's so outrageous Hollywood would love it. It could be re-written as the next Bond flick: Murder? He Wrote."

The film plays as a road movie as Rubbo goes to England into the very heart of what he calls bardolatry to debate the academics in their dens. He uses actors and recreations to test his version of the Hoffman Theory. He gives screen time to the Marlovians, some persuasive, others somewhat eccentric.

"I began to shoot my documentary, working solo with a small digital camera, making a vow that I would stop at any point," says Rubbo. "I was quite ready to cut my losses if anyone could convince me that Hoffman's thesis was silly.

"I took several years, on and off, shooting the film. I slept at a friend's house in south London, and made frequent visits to Italy, where Marlowe might have gone in exile.

"Then, I spent a very long period editing, coupled with approaches to broadcasters who were hostile at first but gradually came around. As the editing progressed, I circulated many copies, asking for feedback from scholars and lay viewers alike. I was obsessed with eliminating all errors.

"I continue to read on the subject and wake in the middle of the night with a new angle on the mystery, or a new reason to doubt the bard.

"Just as some people become obsessed with this authorship question, others find it profoundly upsetting. As Sue Hunt says in the film, the English, and not just the English, take in Shakespeare with their mother's milk.

"All over the world, he is loved beyond all questioning, beyond all doubts. And yet once you know a bit of the story, the doubts may begin. Also, the more one is told that one must blindly believe in Shakespeare, the more the doubts multiply.

"It is human nature I suppose for the forbidden to fascinate, and to doubt Shakespeare is virtually forbidden, certainly in academic circles. Not only forbidden, but very upsetting. One famous scholar, Tucker Brooke, said in a candid moment, 'Even if Shakespeare stood up in his grave and said he was not the author, we would not believe him.'

"In unguarded moments some fierce defenders of Shakespeare do show some puzzlement. Harold Bloom, author of the magnificent book Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human, wonders why the man is so colorless. It does not seem to fit with the huge power and personality of the Bard.

"And Sam Schoenbaum, the great American scholar, author of Shakespeare's Lives, wonders why Shakespeare cut such a low profile in his time. One would think that such a towering talent would have attracted much interest from his contemporaries, and yet he did not.

"Mark Rylance, director of Shakespeare's Globe theatre, says William could not have done it alone. He joins a long line of intellectuals and theatre people, including Henry James, Mark Twain, Charles Chaplin, Sigmund Freud, and Derek Jacobi, who have doubts. The list grows by the day."

Distinguished English historical researcher and writer Katherine Duncan-Jones in her book, Ungentle Shakespeare, said Shakespeare was not the divine William of legend, but a rather unlikable man, a money-minded fellow who dealt eagerly and profitably in real-estate, and lent money to people at high rates of interest.

At a screening of his film in Australia last month, Rubbo was asked if he believed Marlowe was the real Shakespeare. "I'm not sure," he said. "But if Shakespeare didn't write his own works, Marlowe seems to be the most likely alternative."


"Before I began my investigation, which finally led to the publication of this book, I was convinced -- like most other people -- that William Shakespeare was the author of the most magnificent English dramatic prose ever written, and certainly the most magnificent poetry," Calvin Hoffman, a Broadway press agent and writer, wrote in the introduction of The Murder of the Man Who Was "Shakespeare," published in 1955.

"Nineteen years later my feelings toward the qualities of this writing have not changed; they are magnificent. Only, William Shakespeare of Stratford on Avon never wrote the plays and poems.

"For almost two decades I pursued a literary will-o'-the-wisp that gave me no rest. My investigations took me to England, France, Denmark, and Germany. I roamed through graveyards, I crawled into dusty tombs, I shivered in the dampness of veritable archives, and in the musty atmosphere of libraries whose book-lined shelves had remained undisturbed for centuries.

"Across my mind's eye there still unreels the endless procession of ancient houses, decaying churches, and old universities which I patiently investigated as an unofficial detective in a murder mystery that rivals any Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ever wrote. I uncovered a real-life literary 'thriller,' complete with murder, brawls, duels, and normal and abnormal sexuality. A violent, crimson-colored pattern unfolded itself, with England as the background and the splendidly barbaric Elizabethan era as the setting."

To read many more details of this enthralling story, click on HOFFMAN.




Copyright 2004

Eric Shackle

Story first posted February 2004

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