It kills a man more dead than a great Reckoning in a little room.
That line from As You Like It is traditionally taken to refer to the death of Shakespeare’s first and greatest rival playwright, Christopher Marlowe, who was killed in a bar fight over who would pay the bill, the reckoning, in a private, little, room in a tavern in the London suburb of Deptford---traditionally.
There’s another tradition. That Marlowe was murdered in that little room for reasons personal, political, or both. Marlowe led a colorful life in the Elizabethan underworld, and apparently didn’t pick his friends, enemies, or lovers carefully. He was also, quite probably, a spy.
In those days and in that place, spies were not figures of romance and adventure. They were basically paid informers. Glorified snitches. Treason was in the air and plots against the Queen were a general hobby. There was no professional police force but that didn’t stop Elizabethan London from resembling in important ways a police state. The authorities paid spies to wander up and down the town and report back on what they’d seen and what’d they’d heard. This is how the authorities investigated crimes and caught criminals too, by encouraging Londoners to spy on each other and rat each other out. Being outed as a spy would not have earned Marlowe many admirers.
And the spy may have been spied upon. A man duplicitous enough to spy on his friends---or drinking buddies or bedmates---and grass on them to the authorities can be assumed to be duplicitous enough to play games with his paymasters.
Marlowe could easily have made several enemies who would have paid to see him dead or been eager to do the deed themselves.
This is why Marlowe is my favorite candidate for the “real” author of Shakespeare’s plays.
I don’t believe Marlowe wrote Shakespeare’s plays. I don’t believe anybody but Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s plays. But as long as we’re playing the game, Marlowe is the only candidate I know of who was a talented enough playwright. Note I said playwright. Forget poet. The author of the plays wasn’t just some high-minded artiste with a knack for blank verse and the occasional rhymed couplet. He was someone who knew his way around a theater, knew how to structure a scene, knew how to write dialog, and knew how to develop characters and cast them---there’s plenty of evidence that the author of the plays was writing parts for specific actors. The Earl of Oxford, Francis Bacon, Queen Elizabeth, they weren’t theater people. Oxford wasn’t even that good a poet. Marlowe was a consummate pro.
But Marlowe would have had the best reason to keep his authorship a secret. There were people who wanted him dead. There were people who had tried to make him dead. It would have been congenial to his health and continued well-being if those people thought he was already dead.
Suppose Marlowe fakes his own murder or survives it. His bloody “corpse” carried out of that little room by bored and unsympathetic servants who wouldn’t have much reason to care about the deceased and what happened to his remains. Bodies had a way of piling up in 16th Century London. It would have been easy to lose track of one. Marlowe wakes up wherever he’s been stashed while waiting for authorities to get around to an inquest and sees his chance.
He disappears himself.
The question is why doesn’t he disappear himself right out of London?
With what money? How’s he to pay his way to some far away safer location, how is he to live while hiding out there?
For a playwright and poet, London is where the money is.
Disappearing into London would be tricky. It’s a crowded place but the crowd is relatively small and you tend to bump into the same people day in and day out. But it helps that there are not just no photographs but few portraits of anyone---the one we have of Marlowe is only traditionally supposed to be him---and no one who didn’t know Marlowe personally would know what he looks like. He can avoid casual acquaintances by avoiding his old haunts, and if goes out mainly at night or stays indoors as much as possible, nobody is going to get a good look at his face. It’s a world lit dimly by fire. Even in a room full of candles, there are pockets of deep shadows. And there’s one simple thing he can do to disguise himself, the same thing Viola, Rosalind, and Julia do, change clothes.
We tend to think we recognize people by their faces, but then how is it we often recognize them at a distance, long before we can make out a face? It’s because we actually recognize them by their affect, which includes not their faces but their expressions, their gestures, the way they carry themselves, their gaits, and their habits of dress. Clothes do make the man or the woman or make the man into a woman and vice versa. That was more true in Marlowe and Shakespeare’s day when only the very rich could afford a daily change of clothes. Most people, even the relatively prosperous, wore the same outfit day after day, sometimes for weeks on end. Artisans and tradespeople wore what were essentially uniforms. People became identified with and by what they wore. You were your blue dress or your green coat or your floppy, feathered hat. Someone who habitually wore brown leather could turn himself into someone else, at least at a glance, by switching to green worsted. Marlowe could throw on an apron and a white cap and he wouldn’t look like a baker who happened to look like Kit Marlowe he would look like every baker.
Now, for the next even trickier step. Getting his plays produced.
The people he needs to fool first---the actors, theater managers, stagehands, and hangers-on of the theater world to whom he’d be handing his almost literally ghost written plays---would be the people hardest to fool. They knew him and they knew his work.
He needs a go-between, a plausible front, and it can’t be any drunken lout of an actor. It has to be someone who could fool other actors and playwrights. It has to be someone who can not just pass as a writer but be seen as someone who at work writing. It has to be, then, someone who’s already known as a writer and one with enough talent that he could plausibly develop to rival the late Christopher Marlowe’s.
So Marlowe goes to a young playwright who’s written a trilogy of history plays that are popular but not really very good and a few comedies stolen straight from the Greeks, an actor who has a business interest in producing plays but not a deep personal interest in developing a reputation as a playwright, someone who is in fact committed to being a poet. Writing plays is mostly a collaborative effort, anyway. Some plays have five or six authors. What does this young actor-poet-businessman knocking out plays on the side care if his latest collaborator wants to pretend he doesn’t exist?
It helps that the younger man is a friend and an admirer who cares more that Christopher Marlowe is alive and that he stays that way than he is concerned with his own future reputation.
At this point in his career, William Shakespeare doesn’t know he’s going to become SHAKESPEARE!
What he knows is that he’s got a hole in his company’s schedule next week and a new play by Kit Marlowe to fill it with.
The beauty of my Shakespeare Didn’t Write Shakespeare Just-So Story and the advantage it has over others is its simplicity.
It doesn’t need there to have been an elaborate court conspiracy. It’s just a secret between two friends both with good reasons to keep it a secret. It doesn’t need to ascribe attitudes to the Elizabethans they didn’t actually have. If it was scandalous for an aristocrat to write plays and hang out with actors, then why were all Shakespeare’s company’s sponsored by aristocrats, his last one by King James himself? It doesn’t need a complicated, convoluted, and self-contradictory explanation for how the “real” Shakespeare managed to write his best plays after he died---mine’s easy, he wasn’t really dead. And it doesn’t need the snobbish, ahistorical argument that the man from Stratford wasn’t intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually capable of writing King Lear, which means it doesn’t need to make the case that a degenerate nobleman with a minor talent for turning out conventional poetry was that intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually capable.
As I said, this is just a game for me. I don’t believe somebody other than Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s plays. I don’t believe Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s plays. I know he did.
I know he did because the people who knew him best knew he did.
Contrary to what anti-Stratfordians claim, there is plenty of contemporary evidence that Shakespeare wrote his own plays. (There is no evidence at all that anyone else wrote them.) I’m not going to get into it all. If you want to know more, you should read James Shapiro’s Contested Will which is one of my favorite books on Shakespeare after Shapiro’s A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599. But for now, just think about the way plays were written and staged in those days.
Theater companies had short but jam-packed seasons. They needed new plays all the time and turned them over quickly. Sometimes they’d buy a complete script from someone outside, a freelancer, although they didn’t use the word. More often than not they turned to writers who were already affiliated with the company in some way. You wouldn’t call them staff writers, but they’d be writers the company managers knew could be relied on to turn in a workable script in a hurry. The managers knew who was good at comedy, who was good with a romance, and who knew how to stage a blood-curdling murder. (It happened that there were a few playwrights who were good at all three, and one who was better at them than all the rest.) A usual practice was to put two or more writers to work. We don’t know how this played out, if the writers sat down together to write or if after sitting down together to figure it out they divvied up the work by scene, act, character, or whim. The point is, though, that at some point the writers would have been talking to each other about what they were writing.
Then, would come the rehearsals where in a very short time they’d have to put the whole thing together. It doesn’t appear that plays had directors in the way we understand the job. Staging was probably a group effort by all the actors, but it’s likely that when arguments broke out over how to say a line or where to stand when saying it or whether or not it should be said at all, if the playwright could be consulted, they’d consult him. This would have been easy enough to do if the playwright was an actor in the company and one of the managers.
I suppose that every time he was asked a question or was told he needed to fix something, Marlowe’s---or Oxford’s or whoever’s---front man could have gotten away with promising to work on it overnight or by dashing from the theater and down the block to the tavern where the “real” Shakespeare was waiting with quill and ink, but it’s more likely the company would need him to revise or rewrite on the spot.
There’s more to it.
If you’re part of the literary scene, in any time or any place, Paris in the 20s, Greenwich Village in the 50s, a university writers workshop in the 80s, London in 1599, you get to know pretty quickly who’s writing and who isn’t and you know why the people who aren’t writing aren’t---because they’re blocked, because they’ve run out of things to say or never had much to say to begin with, or they’re fakes, playing at being writers and poets. I mentioned above about how Marlowe’s front man would need to be someone who could be seen to be writing. I didn’t mean that if you surprised him in his garret you would find him at a desk scribbling away. Writing is not that solitary an art. The part where the writer sits down at a desk and scribbles or bangs away at a keyboard is just that, a part of the process. Another important part of the process is talking about what’s going on or not going on during the scribbling or the banging. Writers crave company and when they find it they talk about…writing. They share ideas, ask for advice, show each other pages, boast, whine, pontificate, rage, gossip, and, occasionally, praise each other’s work. At rehearsals and in conversations with other writers, Shakespeare would have needed to be able to talk like the writer writing those plays. He wouldn’t have fooled anyone who understood the process, particularly fellow playwrights and certainly not a rival as jealous and ambitious as Ben Johnson, for five minutes if he couldn’t talk about writing as if he was as talented and skillful as Christopher Marlowe…or William Shakespeare.
And here’s the thing.
As much fun as I have with my alternative universe tale of how Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare, the longer I let it play out in my head the more reality creeps in and takes over.
There’s enough evidence to show that Marlowe and Shakespeare wrote their own plays. What we don’t have is much evidence of what their personalities were like. The little we do have, however, suggests that Kit Marlowe was wild, undisciplined, temperamental, and self-indulgent while Will Shakespeare was steady, thoughtful, sober, pragmatic, and focused. It’s easy to imagine Marlowe drifting back into his old ways, growing over-confident in his disguise, spending more and more of his time drinking in seedy taverns and chasing after pretty girls or, according to another tradition, pretty boys, and leaving more and more of the work to his supposed front.
And I can imagine the arguments that would follow as Marlowe, the “real” writer, objected to what Shakespeare was doing with “their” plays.
“What’s going on here? You have this character speaking in blank verse and two speeches later he’s speaking prose?”
“Why have you given a five minute comic speech to a drunken doorman in the middle of a tragedy?”
“You want to make a woman the main character?”
And I see Will winning those arguments.
Swiftly and surely, by necessity, and as he gains confidence, Shakespeare takes over as senior partner, while Marlowe looses himself upon the town, wandering up and down, until he wanders into another little room and meets another great but this time final reckoning.
And sad as he is at the loss of his friend, Shakespeare starts going back over what they’ve written together and revises what Marlowe insisted on not revising. He revises and revises until he’s not revising anymore, he’s rewriting and he doesn’t stop until he’s written Marlowe out of all of it, which he doesn’t do out of spite or ego. He does it because he knows.
As good as Marlowe was, he’s better.
I was looking forward to Anonymous, but I thought it would be a comedy like Shakespeare in Love. Apparently, however, it takes itself and its central conceit, that the creepy mediocrity and, incidentally, definitely dead at the time Earl of Oxford wrote the plays as coded political manifestos, and expects us to take it seriously too. More disappointing, though, is that it’s also badly written, ham-handedly directed, and basically a visual and narrative mess.
Christopher Marlowe’s career as a spy and how it led to the great reckoning in a little room is the subject of Anthony Burgess’ novel, A Dead Man in Deptford.