Christopher Shakespeare - the man behind the plays

Christopher Shakespeare - Publisher: Book Guild Publishing, available from Amazon ISBN: 978 1 910 878 30 9 Price: £12.99 

Despite the phenomenal outpouring of praise for him in the 400th year since his death, there is very little to connect William Shakespeare of Stratford-Upon-Avon with the wonderful plays that bear his name. No one in his life-time seems to have taken much notice of the man, and no one wrote eulogies on his death. 

It was only in the late eighteenth century that the cult of Shakespeare took hold of the public imagination. People in Stratford were nonplussed at the interest shown in him, having seen him as no more than a local dealer in agricultural produce. Seizing their chance to make money out of their local hero, they substituted a pen and writing tablet instead of the sack of corn on his monument in the local church. Scholars sought everywhere to find some link with the literary genius. Even in Leicester we like to pretend that he acted in the guildhall, without a shred of evidence. 

William Shakespeare left not a solitary book nor a line of poetry, save for the excruciating doggerel in the church of St Mary: 

GOOD FREND FOR JESUS SAKE FORBEARE, TO DIG THE DUST ENCLOASED HEARE, BLESE BE YE MAN YT SPARES THES STONES, AND CURST BE HE YT MOVES MY BONES. 

Was there ever anything less likely to have come from the creator of Hamlet? The man just does not fit the image we have of a sublime poet. So far as we know, he never possessed a book, nor had access to any great libraries, yet the writer of the plays displayed detailed knowledge on matters of history, geography, philosophy, astronomy, medicine, seamanship, psychology and familiarity with the inner workings of government and courtly life. 

When Germaine Greer wrote ‘Shakespeare’s Wife’, in 2007, she admitted that ‘all biographies of Shakespeare are houses built of straw’ and two scholars writing about him in 2005, declared that ‘the hard facts we know about Shakespeare do not amount to much more than a rhyming couplet’. The novelist, Henry James confessed in 1903, that he was ‘haunted by the conviction that the divine William was the biggest and most successful fraud ever practised on a patient world’. 

The riddle of Shakespeare’s genius has led many to speculate on the real man behind the plays. Francis Bacon, the Earls of Oxford and of Derby as well as the Earl of Huntingdon, have all been championed as the true authors, but none with so much evidence to support their claim as that other great poet of the Elizabethan age, Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe was already a successful playwright and poet when he was suddenly removed from the scene by an untimely death at Deptford, in 1593, before most of Shakespeare’s plays had appeared. There is, however, a mounting body of evidence which suggests that he did not die, but was removed from the scene in a simulated death contrived by his friends. 

Marlowe was one of the free-thinkers in Raleigh’s so called ‘circle of night’. He was arrested in May 1593 when an heretical paper was found, said to have been written by him. Marlowe was given fourteen days bail and told to report daily to the Privy Council. Had he been put on the rack, the whole of Raleigh’s network of friends would have found themselves in peril. He had to be removed. 

He was 29 and the most successful writer of the age. He had been a secret agent of Elizabeth’s government, working in France and the Low Countries. This entailed his absence from studies at Cambridge, whereupon the Cambridge dons declined to grant his M.A. They quickly changed their minds, however, when the Privy Council told them ‘it was not her Majesty’s pleasure that anyone employed as he had been in matters touching the benefit of his country should be defamed by those that are ignorant of the affairs he went about’. This document of 1587 was signed, among others, by Lord Burghley, who, as Peter Farey has shown, secured Marlowe a position in the household of Bess of Hardwick as tutor to Arbella Stuart. Burghley could ill afford to lose so talented a man to a puritan witch-hunt. 

The plot to put him out of danger entailed the substitution on a corpse, in the same way that Claudio’s friends planned to save him from death in ‘Measure for Measure’. The coroner’s report was probably concocted to accord with the wishes of Marlowe’s friend, Thomas Walsingham, with the collusion of Lord Burghley. Marlowe meanwhile escaped to the continent and a life in exile. 

Just a fortnight after the incident at Deptford, the name William Shakespeare makes its first appearance as the author of ‘Venus and Adonis’. It is an erudite poem, hard to square with an unsophisticated actor from Stratford. It would seem that William Shakespeare agreed to act as front man for the ‘dead poet’. Marlowe’s earlier experience as a government agent, and his connection with freemasonry, would have enabled him to send his plays back to friends in England. There is so much more we would like to know about the later life of Christopher Marlowe and there remains a wealth of material for academic research. No one knows when or where he died, though it is likely to have been before 1612 when Shakespeare decided to return to Stratford. 

I have set out my reasons for believing in Marlowe’s continued existence in my book, ‘Christopher Shakespeare’. Some of the most convincing evidence comes from an American lawyer, Richard Paul Roe, who studied the many references to locations in Italy to be found in the plays. He describes many of these in his book. ‘The Shakespeares Guide to Italy’, published post humously in 2011. 

Author: Malcolm Elliot

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