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 theater and literary analysts in Canterbury, Stratford, Italy, and America, inter-cutting 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 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 predates 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 Shakspere'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.
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