The Shakespeare Conspiracy: Living in the Shadows
I came to love Shakespeare rather late – past my prime, I’d say. Sitting in a classroom with twentysomethings, I was there to earn a teaching certificate in English. It was my professor who brought me to this love affair, for he was so passionate about Shakespeare that I couldn’t help but be infected with his love. Besides, I found that I had a gift in English that not many, as far as I could tell, had. Professors would marvel, and sometimes stare, after I proclaimed my psychological insights about the writers we were studying. I think they thought I was a witch.
Flashes unto the motives of Coleridge and Hemingway were mine, and I was prepared to take on the divine William. I was used to getting solid A’s in my classes and consistently made the dean’s list at my college. My professor mentioned offhandedly that yes, there were those who said Shakespeare didn’t write the plays or sonnets, that the man from Stratford couldn’t have because of his lack of education. But, he offered, quite casually, Shakespeare was a genius. As if that explained everything. Suspicious, I turned a critical eye to his face, to his statement. I believe that genius is earned; it isn’t hatched from a stork’s egg. But no matter. Shakespeare is Shakespeare – or so I thought.
I remember the day it happened, even where I was sitting. I sat staring out the window at Lake Superior on the second floor of the Peter White Library, doing some research for an essay I was writing for my Shakespeare class. Trolling through my Internet finds, I came across Mike Rubbo’s site about his film, Much Ado About Nothing. Eyes glued to the monitor, I read every inch of text on that site. I became sick. Not because I had read too much, but because the man who I thought was Shakespeare, you know, the pudgy faced guy on the First Folio, was not Shakespeare. Christopher Marlowe was Shakespeare.
Ultimately, sanity lies in the ability to question reality. I think Mark Rylance, former artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, put it very succinctly when he said, “One of the fortunate things of this Shakespearean thing is it’s totally unimportant, it doesn’t matter a jot. But when you break through it, it starts to teach you how to question and break through other fallacies that are being put about at the moment.” And that in my opinion, is the measure of true art. So I came to grips with my sickness.
The Shakespeare tradition is huge. Built up over the years like a barnacle infested boatyard, it became tied to the British identity. It actually took quite awhile to take root, because at first, people weren’t all that interested. Part of the problem was that playwrights just didn’t have the clout that well bred, gentle noble poets did. Poetry was entrenched in an upper class tradition and playwriting…well, that was just base. But apparently everyone from the queen to the groundlings loved the plays. Truly, Shakespeare had something for everyone. He wrote for the nobility because he rubbed elbows with them, and he wrote for the groundlings because he understood them. He had come from poor, base beginnings, but managed to work his way up.
And on the way up he challenged authority, and because he spoke his mind he was considered dangerous. This Shakespeare fellow would never become sanitized. Safe. The man who wrote the plays and sonnets was an “atheist,” a term that was commonly used during the late sixteenth century to describe someone who didn’t proscribe to the dominate religious view, which in England was the Anglican faith that King Henry VIII had implemented when the Catholic church refused to grant him a divorce from his wife, Anne Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth’s mother.
England was a violent place, a paranoid place, a place that had to worry about being overthrown by the Spanish or French, who would gladly see Catholicism restored to England and Elizabeth overthrown. Fellow playwright Ben Jonson said that, “… wherein he flowed with that facility that sometimes it was necessary he should be stopped…His wit was in his own power; would the rule of it had been so too.” Ben was talking about Shakespeare here, whose wit apparently was in his own power. If the rule of his wit wasn’t in his own power, whose power was it in?
Censorship in Elizabethan England was formidable. Not only did you have to get past the master of the revels, the main playwright censor in England, if you were a free thinker you had a lot to worry about. There were ways to keep these dissidents in line, quiet. But what we tend to forget is that history repeats itself. In every age free thinkers are persecuted; they are the truth tellers, the ones who will openly criticize government, business, and their corresponding propaganda and policies. And in Elizabethan England there were factions supporting opposite or conflicting interests, just as there are today. People in power wanted to advance, they wanted to gain favor. They played people off of each other – just as it happens today.
It all took hold in my research. I literally devoured all the literature I could find concerning the author debate. Gobbling up all these investigative goodies I sat back and digested all this information. And out came an idea – a great novel idea. This novel, like my first, took about a year to write. I wrote it before I read The DaVinci Code, but when I read Dan Brown’s book, I was struck by the similarities. Like Da Vinci, Shakespeare also used code, because codes during the Renaissance were extremely important. To avoid persecution by the authorities, code was used by writers and artists to portray symbolic and other information. In the case of Shakespeare, his system of code was woven within the plays and sonnets, which contain numerous double entendres and innuendo.
If you wanted to get your message across, if you wanted to influence people, this is how you did it. And maybe people would pick it up. Probably people would pick it up, because when you’re working on the level of symbol and code, it involves your subconscious, that tricky mechanism that works right under the layer of your overt understanding. And of course DaVinci and Shakespeare were geniuses when it came to understanding this coded mechanism of the subconscious.
As I delved further into my studies of connecting the dots of why Marlowe was Shakespeare, I started seeing connections everywhere. Not only did the puzzle put itself together vis a vis the Renaissance, but I started noticing the modern day connections, as Mark Rylance had alluded to. I noticed how the propaganda machine in a country needs people to think a certain way to stay in power, and how it is invested in squashing the truth. How people live on the surface and live a lie because they refuse, or do not know how to swim out of the shallows into the deeper water. I was even convinced that the shallow puddles of information found via the Internet magnified the problem by encouraging people to surf quickly through bursts of superficial, mind numbing garbage. I thought of the Brazilian filmmaker, Vik Muniz, who stated that he was well skilled in the art of metaphor due to living in a dictatorship that used censorship as a weapon against the people. And how he was forced to use double meanings in his work.
I too had a double life. Fully immersed in the material I lived in the Renaissance and my current life. Sometimes it was hard to negotiate living in the past while staying anchored in the present. But like all things it came to an end. My novel was finished and I started seeking literary representation. After a literary conference in New York City, and sending out a few queries with no positive response, I decided to put it on hold and formulate a better plan. So I left it for a year.
But nothing disappears, and like all things that go underground, my ideas just silently moved and grew in the fertile soil of my subconscious, waiting for their season to emerge. Then, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why, but suddenly Marlowe demanded attention. Almost against my conscious control, I entered into the material again. If anything, writers are obsessive.
There are those that argue that it isn’t important who wrote Shakespeare. Well, as a writer I can honestly say that I think I’d like to have a byline after waiting four hundred years in exile. Knowing that you were a mere shadow behind the name of Shakespeare would sicken and demoralize you.
And the thing is, it’s such a great story – a classic story. Who else could have risen from such humble beginnings to become the world’s greatest playwright? Marlowe was a poet and a spy, who was, before his death was faked at Deptford in 1593, the most popular and successful playwright ever to hit the London theatre scene. It could be argued that he made the London theatre scene with plays like Tamburlaine, Doctor Faustus, and The Jew of Malta.
For those who wonder about the authorship question and who actually wrote the plays – it was Marlowe. He is the only one who fits and the evidence is continually accumulating in his favor.
There are those that believe Shakespeare is nothing but objective content, the man somehow came up with all this great writing off the top his head. This is not possible. As a writer I know you bring everything you are into your writing. Nothing on earth is a literary exercise. It’s not possible to divorce yourself and your experience from your own words. Your words are your breath, your soul. It’s your individual stamp upon the world. Those that say Shakespeare as a man is divorced from his writing is like the physicists who say they can objectively view their particle/wave experiments without somehow altering them. From a literary perspective, it’s literally impossible.
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