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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.
Being a devotee of the late writer-historian Calvin Hoffman and owner of his
impressive out-of-print book, "The Murder of the Man Who was Shakespeare," I
found this documentary to be of mixed quality.
Instead of building the case from the ground up, this docu began with superficial bits and pieces, and continued this approach through almost half of its duration.
In attempting to avoid a standard "talking head interview" approach and to keep things moving, the director apparently asked interviewees to go about their normal routines while being photographed.
Thus, we have people trying to make definitive statements on Shakespeare and Marlowe while digging with a shovel, eating a meal, doing office work, and driving a car. There was constant cross-cutting editing, resulting in various snatches of "pro-con" expressions, with one ineffectively trying to cancel out the other.
Somehow all of this got pretty disjointed and erratic, leaving the viewer with a less than clear understanding. Hoffman's "parallellisms," utterly striking in his text, is weakly presented here, with two actors alternatingly delivering Marlowe and Shakespeare quotations. However, these excerpts are not inscribed with source references, nor are the chosen examples as remarkably similar as those in the Hoffman text.
Random cameo interviews with pedestrians on the street merely add an "evening news touch," without much substance. The enactment of the kind of physical torture Marlowe faced unless he exiled himself is disturbingly gross and brutal; this could have been done better through descriptive words and/or illustrations--as it is, the horror makes more impact than the documentary's basic thesis.
The one thing this Frontline/PBS attempt has going for it is its uniqueness: there have been few visual programs on the Shakespeare-Marlowe controversy, and one is grateful for this effort. Another more solid and better executed work on this significant subject is most welcome.
This documentary movie does not pretend to provide definitive answers
to the many questions and mysteries which surround the plays and poems
that have been attributed to William Shakespeare of Stratford. What it
does focus on, however, is the possible role played by Shakespeare's
brilliant contemporary, Christopher Marlowe, in the writing of some of
One of my criticisms of the presentation of subject material in this movie is that it dwells unduly on the theory that Marlowe survived his reported death on May 30, 1593, and subsequently wrote most of the works anonymously while living on the continent. This would have been facilitated by his mastery of the Latin languages. According to the theory, all of the works were sent back to England and prepared for the stage by Shakespeare (and/or perhaps others) and eventually published under Shakespeare's name - some seven years after his death.
The problem with this theory is that there is no direct evidence of Marlowe's survival beyond 1593. There is, however, circumstantial evidence that all is not as it appears on the surface. This is based largely on a convincing demonstration, by the late scholar Dr Leslie Hotson in one of his books, of gross irregularities and inconsistencies in the original coroner's report of Marlowe's death. Notwithstanding this fact, there exist alternative hypotheses which would help to explain the premature exit of Marlowe from the London literary scene in 1593.
What I found disappointing was the omission of any discussion about the possibility that the prolific Marlowe actually died in 1593 and that some of his earlier works might have been revised, and perhaps completed, by Shakespeare. Such a scenario is not at all implausible. It has been demonstrated recently by several scholars that some of the Shakesperean canon exhibits more than one distinct writing style, suggestive of co-authorship. Based on their literary and stylistic analysis, the following plays appear to be co-authored (the suggested co-authors' names are in brackets):
Titus Andronicus (Peele and/or Marlowe); Pericles (Wilkins); Timon of Athens (Middleton); King John (Marlowe); Richard 2 (Marlowe); Richard 3 (Marlowe); Henry 4, Pt 2 (Marlowe); Henry 5 (Marlowe); Henry 6, Pt 1 (at least 3 of the "university wits"); Henry 6, Pt 2 (Marlowe); Henry 6, Pt 3 (Marlowe); Henry 8 (Fletcher); Edward 3 (Marlowe and/or Peele); Macbeth (Middleton); Sir Thomas More (Munday, Heywood, Chettle, Dekker, Kyd)
The remaining issues to be resolved include (a) which of these works might have been the outcome of active collaboration with Shakespeare, and (b) which were revised, extended and completed versions of other authors' works.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Hold on tight--I'm going to go off on a bit of a rant.
In hindsight, I really am not sure why I watched this documentary. After all, despite being a very well-educated guy, I cannot understand the popularity of Shakespeare's plays. I know that there are thousands of English teachers and professors who practically orgasm when they talk about him. Folks go on pilgrimages to Stratford-on-Avon to see his home and his films with Laurence Olivier are considered classics--classics with Oscars. However, I also know that Shakespeare is like colonic irrigations and Amway--you either love 'em or you have no idea why people get so excited about them. However, I have read about 8-10 of his plays and was bored to tears by some and irritated by others because the historical accuracy was just horrible and others because his plays were actually not original in the least ("Romeo & Juliet" is a great example). And, while professors went on and on about how wonderfully lyrical and brilliant they were, I had the nerve to ask "why are we READING Shakespeare....wasn't it originally just meant to be seen performed by others?"--at which point I got dirty looks from these Shakespeare lovers. And, I must admit, the best Shakespeare films are those BASED on the stories--without all the 16th-17th century prose ("Strange Brew" and Kurosawa's Shakespearean films, for examples, are great). So, why did I watch this film since I am not a lover of 'the Bard'?! Frankly, I have no idea.
Now this film may not be the best thing for Shakespeare lovers either. That's because it has the temerity to suggest that PERHAPS he did not write these plays. They talk about various possible people who wrote them instead--and the one they focus on most is Christopher Marlowe. Now this seems like a stretch, as Marlowe was killed in bar fight when he was still rather young--before most of Shakespeare's plays debuted. Their answer? Marlowe was a secret agent and his death was faked!! And, the stupid Shakespeare guy was his cover! Their argument is very interesting and their reasons are pretty fascinating. But for me, there was one problem...who cares?! Other than the Shakespeare and Marlowe fanatics, I can't see the film having much interest to the average person--who, I am sure, is NOT in rapture about these plays. Despite all this, the film is well-constructed and moderately interesting.
Not the greatest of documentaries on the debate about the authorship of Shakespeare's works but certainly one of the funnier and more interesting ones I've seen. If nothing else it convinced me that Marlowe's life could be made into an action packed spy movie. Check it out if you happen to be in a place that shows many documentaries from Canada or Australia.
"Much Ado About Something" is a fascinating documentary about the debate
over who actually wrote Shakespeare's plays and sonnets. Australian
Rubbo treats his film like a mystery, feeding us clues and expounding on
various theories that come to light over the course of his investigation.
"Much Ado" is also frequently quite funny, as it seems just about
involved in the debate is rather on the eccentric side, with those making
the case for Christopher Marlowe the most adamant about
If you've ever harbored doubts that a largely unschooled Elizabethan actor-manager could have written many of the greatest works in the English language, then this film is for you.
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