Christopher Marlowe

History of the Marlovian Shakespeare Authorship Theory

The idea that the plays of Marlowe and Shakespeare were written by the same person was first suggested anonymously in 1819 in Monthly Review when an anonymous writer asked ‘Can Christopher Marlowe have been a nom de guerre assumed for a time by Shakespeare? ... This much is certain, that, during the five years of the nominal existence of Marlowe, Shakespeare did not produce a single play.’

The first person to publish a reversal of this idea, suggesting Marlowe wrote the Shakespeare canon, was lawyer and author Wilbur G. Zeigler. In the preface to his 1895 novel, It Was Marlowe: a story of the secret of three centuries, Zeigler explains his disenchantment with both the orthodox and Baconian narratives, and his reasons for forwarding Marlowe as the author: chiefly a ‘similarity of vocabularies, versification and thought of the Marlowe and Shakespeare dramas’ (as he summarises it in a letter of 1916). In the novel, he creates an imaginary narrative about how the deception might have occurred.

In 1901, Marlovian theory received an unexpected boost from Dr Thomas Corwin Mendenhall, a distinguished physicist and President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. An early exponent of 'stylometry', Mendenhall applied the statistical principle of frequency distribution to explore the idea that the occurrence of different word-lengths in a writer's work formed a unique pattern, which could be used to identify that writer's authorship of other texts. Asked by a wealthy Baconian to compare the distribution curves of Bacon and Shakespeare, he found no match; comparing Shakespeare’s plays with those of his contemporaries, he noted a 4-word ‘spike’ that no other playwright replicated - except Marlowe. He described the match as a ‘sensation’ and published his findings in Popular Science Monthly, with graphs showing an almost exact correspondence. Both writers used an average of 240 four-letter words per thousand, 130 five-letter words and 60 six-letter words, with other word-lengths close if not exact.

On the tercentenary of Shakespeare's death, in 1916, the Pulitzer prize-winning editor of Louisville's Courier-Journal, Henry Watterson, a friend of Mark Twain, supported the Marlovian theory, also through a fictional account of how it might have happened. This piece was the source of the information, subsequently pursued by Calvin Hoffman and others, that Marlowe died in Padua in 1627, nursed by someone called Pietro Basconi: a theory conclusively debunked in 2012 by a small group of Marlovian researchers.

The first essay solely on the subject was written by Archie Webster in 1923 in The National Review. In an article entitled ‘Was Marlowe the Man?’ Webster explored the problems orthodox scholars have found in matching the autobiographical content of Shakespeare’s sonnets with his known life: and offered a succinct but fairly comprehensive Marlovian reading of the sonnets.

In 1925, Leslie Hotson published his discovery of the inquest on Marlowe’s death. Though Hotson was in no doubt that Marlowe died in Deptford on 30 May 1593, his research revealed for the first time the name of Marlowe’s apparent killer – Ingram Frizer - and two named witnesses, Robert Poley and Nicholas Skeres. That all three were professional liars (secret service agents and conmen) and all connected to Marlowe’s friend and patron Thomas Walsingham threw the reliability of the inquest document into question.

Perhaps the most influential Marlovian was American theatre critic, press agent and writer Calvin Hoffman. In 1955 he published The Man Who Was Shakespeare, resting his case for Marlowe’s authorship mainly on numerous textual parallels between the works of Marlowe and Shakespeare, and outlining a possible narrative of events. In Hoffman’s version of the theory, a drunken sailor was killed to provide a substitute body, and Marlowe’s escape was orchestrated by Thomas Walsingham, whom Hoffman believed was Marlowe’s lover. Hoffman’s 1955 visit to Chislehurst, Kent, to open Walsingham’s grave in the hope of finding Shakespeare manuscripts, led directly to the formation of the UK Marlowe Society. Hoffman’s will founded the Calvin & Rose G Hoffman Memorial Prize, aimed to promote Marlovian scholarship. In addition to an annual essay prize, anyone providing 'irrefutable and incontrovertible proof' of Marlowe’s authorship of Shakespeare’s works will be awarded half the Trust Fund.

Marlovian theory was extended and deepened considerably by the work of Hoffman-inspired Dolly Walker-Wraight, who as A.D. Wraight published four books about Marlowe. In Search of Christopher Marlowe (1965) was a relatively orthodox biography. Christopher Marlowe and Edward Alleyne (1993), argued for Marlowe as the author of Edward III and challenged the conventional identification of the ‘upstart crow’. The Story that the Sonnets Tell (1994) developed Webster’s Marlovian reading of the sonnets. Shakespeare: New Evidence (1996) introduced discoveries, made jointly with Peter Farey in the Lambeth Palace Library archives, of papers concerning an intelligence agent named Le Doux, a possible posthumous identity of Marlowe.

1997 marked the launch of Farey’s website, a comprehensive resource for original documents and texts relating to Marlowe, and the home of his numerous essays on the Marlowe authorship theory. Farey is the only Marlovian to have twice been recipient of the annual Calvin Hoffman Prize (which has historically been awarded to orthodox scholars). Also in 1997, David More’s essay ‘Drunken Sailor or Imprisoned Writer?’ was the first to suggest John Penry as a viable substitute body for Marlowe. John Penry, imprisoned for his writing, was executed just three miles from Deptford on 29 May 1593, and the whereabouts of his body has never been discovered.

In 2001, Michael Rubbo, an award-winning Australian documentary film maker, made the TV film Much Ado About Something for PBS Frontline, exploring Marlovian theory and interviewing prominent Marlovians such as A.D.Wraight and Peter Farey, as well as orthodox academics such as Stanley Wells, Jonathan Bate and Charles Nicholl. Repeat screenings on PBS, as well as screenings on the BBC and Australia’s ABC led to this film influencing a new generation of Marlovians including Daryl Pinkson, Carlo diNota and Ros Barber.

2005 saw the publication of Rodney Bolt’s novel History Play, a well-received fictional biography of Marlowe as the author of Shakespeare’s works constructed from a combination of real and invented historical evidence.

In 2008, Carlo DiNota founded the The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection blog, which has become a key repository of independent Marlovian scholarship. 2008 also saw the publication of Daryl Pinksen’s Marlowe’s Ghost: The Blacklisting of the Man Who Was Shakespeare. Pinksen compares Archbishop Whitgift’s English Inquisition of the 1590s with Senator McCarthy’s communist witch hunts of the 1950s, arguing that comparable conditions of political/religious paranoia and censorship might drive writers to similar solutions – in particular, the employment of a ‘front’ to protect a persecuted writer’s identity. He cites Dalton Trumbo, whose Oscar for the screenplay of the 1953 film Roman Holiday was for sixty years awarded to his front Ian McLellan Hunter.

In 2009, Mike Rubbo, Daryl Pinksen, Isabel Gortazar, Peter Farey, Carlo DiNota, Samuel Blumenfeld and Ros Barber founded the International Marlowe-Shakespeare Society, whose website provides permanent and updated Marlovian resources, as well as a discussion forum.

2010 marked the first academic paper on Marlovian Theory to be published in a peer-reviewed academic journal: Ros Barber’s ‘Exploring Biographical Fictions: The Role of Imagination in Writing and Reading Narrative’ (Rethinking History 14:2). Barber’s 2011 PhD in English literature made her the first professional Marlovian scholar. Her fictional exploration of the theory, verse novel The Marlowe Papers (2012), was winner of the Desmond Elliott Prize 2013, joint winner of both the Hoffman prize 2011 and The Authors' Club Best First Novel Award 2013, and longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013.

Christopher Marlowe Putative Marlowe Portrait

Thanks to the Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

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