“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare said. Plenty, it turns out. If there is any truth to the conspiracy theories that swirl around his authorship crisis, a name is of the crux. The Shakespeare-Marlowe identity puzzle lends new meaning to the legendary line. The man, “who was not for an age but for all time”, may well have been an impostor. It is speculated that Marlowe, another celebrated playwright, faked his own death, assumed the identity of William Shakespeare, a small time stage actor, and began writing under the pseudonym. The controversy that shrouds the life of these two literary giants has all the elements of a Bond movie, including undercover spies, stolen identities, espionage and staged deaths.
Ironically, the debate about Shakespeare’s authorship controversy sprang right around the time when Shakespeare was being worshipped as the greatest dramatist in the English language. It is a fairly recent debate, surfacing in the mid nineteenth century, nearly two hundred years after Shakespeare’s death. Among those who doubt the veracity of Shakespeare’s identity are acclaimed writers Mark Twain and Henry James, in addition to other noted personages like Charles Chaplin and Sigmund Freud. The evidence that the theorists present is primarily founded on personality profiling. Australian filmmaker Michael Rubbo, who made a documentary on this subject, titled, “Much Ado about something”, says, “The doubts center mainly around his education, or lack thereof. The plays and poems are very learned, the vocabulary gigantic, and yet there is no evidence he went to school, and he certainly did not go to university…Shakespeare was so uninterested in culture that he appeared to have owned no books, to have not educated his own daughters, and made no cultural contribution to the town in which he lived and died.”
Being illiterate, he showed a lot of insight about the “corridors of power”. So much so, that it might even have been written by someone who was well versed with the ways of the Elizabethan court. It is also said that Shakespeare had a tendency to engage in numerous lawsuits against his Stratford neighbours, something which the compassionate writer of Hamlet cannot be fathomed doing. Shakespeare lived in a time when access to books was not easy; in universities, books were often chained to the desks for fear of the students stealing them. In such limiting circumstances, how does a man with no university affiliation access reference material for his works like Holinshed’s Chronicles. Another puzzling fact is that Shakespeare’s last will and testament bears no record of him bequeathing, or even owning a single book. Something which contradicts the presumption that the author of Othello must have been a well-read man. It might seem blasphemous to some, but the fact that Shakespeare, the best known playwright in the world, could even write, is questioned. The six credible sources of his signatures, three on his will and three on other legal documents seem to be irregular, lacking the effortlessness that a seasoned writer like him would posses. David Crystal, a linguistic expert, has surmised through the works of Shakespeare that he had garnered an extremely large vocabulary which included as many as thirty thousand words, more than any other English writer. This seems implausible considering his lack of reading and writing skills.
Amongst the many contenders, Christopher Marlowe seems to best fit the character of the greatest dramatist in the English language. Marlowe is suspected to have been an undercover spy in the service of Elizabeth I, who fled to England to escape from the Star Chamber and then again to Italy after fabricating his own death in a tavern brawl. From there he wrote his masterpieces and then sent them to Sir Thomas Walsingham, also rumoured to be Marlowe’s lover, who managed to find a reliable, unintelligent actor by the name of William Shakespeare, who, for a particular sum of money agreed to “lend his name as author and his efforts towards staging the play”. So basically, if it was not for Sir Thomas Walsingham, the world would never have known William Shakespeare.
The works that are accredited to Shakespeare have an intellectual bearing that suggest that the author was a man of prestigious academic background. Christopher Marlowe was one such man, who despite being a commoner, same as Shakespeare, had studied at the Corpus Christie College in Cambridge. There is a close affinity in some of the lines and passages of both writers, in that they seem almost identical. For instance, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine reads, “Holla, ye pampered jades of Asia/ what, can ye draw but twenty miles a day?” and now, lines from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II is almost verbatim “And hollow pampered jades of Asia./ Which cannot go but thirty miles a day.” As many as thirty parallelisms such as these have been compiled between the two pieces of writing. Another similarity that is striking yet disconcerting is the average word size of the two writers. This is an attribute unique in the two of them, for unlike any other poet, only they chose words that average 4.2 letters in length.
Marlowe’s death was never proved, nor his grave ever identified. Merely weeks after the supposed death, Shakespeare had surfaced, in full possession of the “dead” dramatist’s prowess and intellectual property. Who Shakespeare really was, whether there exists even a morsel of truth behind these theories or is it just fluff, will never be known. Doubts will circle around the identity of the Bard, but will always remain so, doubts, never proven. Calvin Hoffman, the writer of The Murder of the Man Who Was Shakespeare, has neatly summed up what is a convoluted tale of mystery and ambiguity, “a murder mystery that rivals any Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ever wrote. I uncovered a real-life literary ‘thriller’, complete with murder, brawl, duels, and normal and abnormal sexuality. A violent, crimson-coloured pattern unfolded itself, with England as the background and the splendidly barbaric Elizabethan era as the setting.”