In May, 1593, playwright Christopher Marlowe was supposedly killed in a tavern brawl. Two weeks later, William Shakespeare’s name appeared in print for the first time. Marlowe’s well documented life includes the facts that he attended Cambridge, worked as a spy for England, invented the form known as blank verse, and wrote bombastic tragedies, produced by Lord Strange’s Men (a company that evolved to become Lord Chamberlain’s Men) that took London by storm. At the time of his death “Kit” was the darling of the British stage, but his body disappeared—it’s assumed fear of the plague caused it to be thrown into a pauper’s grave. On the other hand, the documented facts available regarding the man known as Shakespeare include his grammar school education, that he hoarded grain during a famine and purchased a coat of arms, and that he was in some way connected—actor? shareholder?—with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. This man, who supposedly composed plays in which fathers make sure their daughters are educated (Tempest, Taming of the Shrew), had two daughters (his son died young) who could not read. This man, who ended Sonnet XVIII with the lines, So long as men can breathe and eyes can see, so long lives this, and this gives life to thee,” left a will in which no care was taken of his literary legacy, nor of the library that so educated a man would presumably have had. Marlowe is not the only candidate put forth as a possible writer for whom Shakespeare was a “beard” (although powerful arguments are made that Kit had gotten himself into such deep trouble that the “brawl” was a ruse, and that May night his high-born connections whisked him out of the country, in exchange for which he continued to spy for England; and in those foreign locales he wrote the plays that now had to bear another’s name). Some believe Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford wrote the plays, others Sir Francis Bacon, others a host of noblemen, which the man known as Shakespeare fronted.
People as diverse as Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Henry James, Helen Keller, and Shakespearean actor/director Mark Rylance have no faith that the Stratford man was the writer of the plays that bear his name. Yet the answer to those of us who find the Authorship Question fascinating, as well as troubling, is often, “So what? We have his plays. That’s all that matters.” But when I watch a play—as when I read a book or a poem—I often hold what I know of the author’s life in my mind as, simultaneously, I am caught up in the unfolding action or wordplay. To watch Long Day’s Journey into Night knowing Eugene O’Neill’s background deepens the experience. Sylvia Plath’s poetry is moving without knowing a thing about her; it knocks you sideways when you do. Even Alice Munro’s stories reflect the place she was raised, and known aspects of her life. As a writer myself, as well as an actor and director who’s worked extensively with Shakespeare’s plays, I’ve long found it curious how little autobiography there is to be gleaned from his lines. Or how what appear to be the intensely autobiographical sonnets have nothing to do with what we know of the Stratford man’s life. On the other hand, watching a production of Twelfth Night, as I recently had the pleasure of doing, having just finished a book arguing Marlowe’s case, I was forcibly struck by the issues of identity and masking that are part of that play: the heartfelt thanks Viola offers the Sea Captain who provides her with a disguise took on a vastly different meaning. As I recently worked on a paper on Hamlet, his interaction with the players suddenly held a deep, sad resonance—the players are old friends, long unseen, the man has missed them terribly. The speech Hamlet asks the First Player to recite he himself not only knows by heart, it is written about a character, and in a style, wrenched from one of Marlowe’s own plays. It is all quite unsettling. And terrifically exciting.
—Sands Hall is the author of the novel Catching Heaven, a Willa Award Finalist for Best Contemporary Fiction. Her plays include an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, which recently enjoyed its tenth production, and the comic/drama Fair Use, which explores the plagiarism controversy surrounding Wallace Stegner’s novel, Angle of Repose.
(photo: Marlowe Society)