Politics Magazine

In Re the Shakespeare Controversy

Posted on the 30 October 2011 by Erictheblue

At Salon, Laura Miller has a review of Anonymous, the new movie concerning how Shakespeare's plays were written by Christopher Marlowe.  Marlowe seems an odd choice.  He was dead at 29, in 1593, by which time he had written the plays--The Jew of Malta, Dr Faustus, Edward the Second, Tamburlaine--on which his reputation as the second greatest Elizabethan playwright rest.  His biography is crowded.  John Berryman's essay on him begins by observing that Marlowe was

a professional secret agent, a notorious unbeliever, a manifest homosexual, cruel, quarrelsome, and perhaps murderous, his habitual associates scoundrels and traitors. . . . Let us take both the atheism and the homosexuality seriously, because Marlowe did: he was missionary about both and he could have been burned for either. . . .

If to this busy lifestyle we add the authorship of some thirty plays, including Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Tempest, it begins to appear that Marlowe's ten or so years of adult life must have been unmarred by the stomach flu. 

But of the various suggested alternative authors for the plays of William Shakespeare, Marlowe is not unusually implausible.  Here is Harry Levin on the subject:

The figure of Shakespeare as a practical man of affairs, though well attested by the evidence, seemed rather too modest to occupy the lofty pedastel reared by the Bardolaters.  Hence the strange proliferation of irresponsible theories proposing rival candidates for the authorship of Shakespeare's work, most of them titled and all of them colorful but none of them circumstanced to have done the job--as William Shakespeare indubitably was.

In general, theories of great intricacy, with many moving parts and involving elaborate conspiracies concocted for purposes that remain vague, may be dismissed as the play things of hobbyists.  There is a simple theory that explains a lot.  Shakespeare wrote the plays that have, since he lived and died, been attributed to him.  Ben Jonson and the editors of the First Folio edition were contemporary admirers, not co-conspirators.  It's natural to be curious about the man who wrote these great plays, and frustrating that more isn't known.  But it's better to have his works than his biography.

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