The Stratfordians. The Oxfordians. Baconians and Marlovians. What sounds like the breakout of Illuminati frat houses is actually something a lot stranger. These sects war over a secret at the root of possibly the greatest cover-up in literary history: that William Shakespeare was, in fact, not the great author William Shakespeare and the aristocracy of the time knew.
The genius poet who penned the definitive catalogue of Great Theatre and whose turns of phrase cycle through everyday parlance (“it’s Greek to me,” “love is blind,” “forever and a day”) may have been several men. Or, maybe, just one man: Christopher Marlowe, the famed Doctor Faustus playwright who allegedly died in a tavern after a squabble over the bill pitched him on the business end of a dagger.
This confounding “authorship question,” as it’s known, dates to the 1800s when Delia Bacon, an American woman ironically unrelated to Sir Francis Bacon, argued convincingly that the philosopher was the true author behind Shakespeare’s works. Baconians, ergo, side with Delia that Sir Francis is the real genius behind the folios and sonnets. Delia’s blasphemy on the subject of authorship attracted another great blasphemer of the time, Mark Twain. He gathered the thread of Sir Francis Bacon as the real writer as a lark, something else to poke fun at, until the evidence against William Shakespeare, a farm boy with a grammar school education, seemed to suggest that Delia wasn’t another cockamamie American out to discredit the motherland. In his book Is Shakespeare Dead?, Twain ultimately concludes he can’t prove who wrote the works of Shakespeare, but he is “quite composedly and contentedly sure that Shakespeare didn’t.”
These allegations against The Bard – the man of the age who dominated the cultural landscape and determined the standards of the Western world’s artistic achievements – would not stand. Stratfordians, those who believe William Shakespeare was the genius of Stratford-upon-Avon, sounded a volley shot, decrying the Baconians as American snobs barking on with no convincing evidence. But there was nothing the Stratfordians could do to heal the damage to Shakespeare’s reputation. The authorship question raised too many other puzzling issues.
How did a rural child with no formal education create such astounding works of classical references and symbolism? Why do no records exist of a Shakespeare from Stratford being paid to write (there are records of other paid writers)? In the death record, Shakespeare from Stratford is noted as a “gent,” not a “playwright” or “poet.” Even his death went unnoticed. In his cunning and often eye-rolling attempts to throw petrol on the ever-smoldering coals of who-really-wrote-Shakespeare, filmmaker Michael Rubbo for PBS’s FRONTLINE series took to the lanes of England to interrogate experts from all factions.
According to Rubbo’s documentary Much Ado About Something, the Oxfordians answer the riddles by arguing that the Earl of Oxford – a poet and playwright – hired the Stratford actor William Shakespeare to be the public face of his work. As an aristocrat, the kind who would have a refined, classical education and first-hand understanding of the nuances of social and political machinations, the Earl couldn’t tarnish his social standing by rolling around in the common muck of public theater. Shakespeare would have made the perfect front. However, Oxford died before Macbeth and The Tempest, so he definitely wasn’t the only author if he was any “Shakespeare” at all.
Where this authorship question gets a bit DaVinci Code happens in the Marlovian camp. Marlovians assert that poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe faked his own death in the tavern to escape torture by the British court’s gestapo-esque Star Chamber. The Star Chamber specialized in medieval torture techniques against anyone cited for sedition or heresy. Marlowe was both seditious and heretical. More than that, he was a spy for the Queen, and his benefactor happened to be the Queen’s spy master. A network of connections supplied a real dead body to be “Marlowe” while the writer was secreted away to Italy. There, Marlowe wrote in exile, his manuscripts smuggled into London to be copied over so no one would recognize the penmanship. A player and business partner of the theatrical company, someone named William Shakespeare, took the manuscripts public. To keep Marlowe alive, everyone kept their mouths shut and let the thing play itself out. The case for Marlowe carries a lot of weight except no one has yet to produce undeniable proof Marlowe lived after the alleged killing in the tavern.
And that’s a pretty big hole in the plot.
Stratfordians contend that without definitive proof to close the case, Marlovians continue to weave unnecessary myths and legends about the man from Stratford who should get his due without aspersions thrown upon his accomplishments. The Shakespeare/Marlowe debate led to the creation of the Hoffman Prize by late writer Calvin Hoffman, whose bestselling book The Murder of the Man Who Was Shakespeare launched the modern case for Christopher Marlowe as the real author of works credited to William.
The prize, totaling one-half of the Hoffman’s substantial trust fund, goes to any scholar who offers “incontrovertible proof” that Marlowe was the real Shakespeare.
So far, no scholar has yet to proffer the definitive evidence.
Whether you be Baconian, Stratfordian, Marlovian or Oxfordian, you are welcome to Jobsite Theater’s productions of Shakespearian works. Othello is on stage now – Feb. 9 and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) [revised] runs March 13 – April 7 in the Shimberg Playhouse. For more of The Bard, catch the Tampa Bay Symphony performing Brush Up Your Shakespeare Feb. 24 in Ferguson Hall.