OTI Online
Fall 1997

Meeting the Ghost of Hamlet's Father
by Carolyn Gage


The night Marlowe appeared to me in my loft, I discovered the secret identity of the author of King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Othello. The world's most famous playwright was not only rumored to have been a screaming queer, but had left England under threat of death for his heresies.


P r o l o g u e

Debate about the authorship of the Shakespeare canon has entered the era of postmodernism and electronic media, with mock trials, interactive seminars, moot-court hearings, caucusing at international conferences, Web sites and PBS Frontline specials. Such questions, however, date back to 1728 when the issue was first raised in print by one Captain Goulding in his "Essay Against Too Much Reading." In the intervening centuries, many theories have been put forward, and the roster of potential candidates for authorship includes Sir Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, the Sixth Earl of Derby, Christopher Marlowe, Sir Walter Raleigh, Thomas Nash, Robert Greene, Thomas Lodge, the Earl of Rutland, Sir Edward Dyer, Queen Elizabeth and a "Learned Pig."

The most recent controversy centers around Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, whose name was first entered into the lists by British schoolmaster J. Thomas Looney in 1920, and whose claims have been most recently advanced by columnist Joseph Sobran in his book Alias Shakespeare: Solving the Greatest Literary Mystery of All Time (Free Press, 1997). The "Oxfordians" build their case on the recent discovery of de Vere' s Bible, with annotations that correspond to various passages from the plays, and on similarities between de Vere' s experiences and plot lines from certain of the plays, most notably Hamlet. As with every authorship theory, there exists a substantial body of scholarly refutations. I am obviously not in sympathy with the Oxfordians' cause, but, like many women authors before me -- including Muriel Spark, Clare Booth Luce, Helen Keller and Daphne du Maurier -- I have come to question the traditional wisdom that attributes the canon to William Shakespeare. I hope that my disputants will heed the words of him whom we have come to praise, not to bury, and "do as adversaries do in law/Strive mightily, but eat and drink as friends."


It was not on the ramparts of Elsinore. It was not in the Queen' s bedroom. It was upstairs in my studio loft, in front of my goddess altar. That was where I encountered the ghost of Hamlet' s father. An awesome apparition, it bore no resemblance to the stern military patriarch of the famous sixteenth-century tragedy. No, the ghost of Hamlet' s father, as he appeared this spring in my loft, was witty, articulate and profane -- but his message was the same as that of his dramatic predecessor: "Kill the King." And to that end, I tell my story:

It begins with Aunt Mary, the family eccentric. A large athletic woman, Mary had joined the "hut boys" of the Appalachian Mountain Club in the 1920s to blaze trails and stock cabins in the White Mountains. A radical thinker, she had broken with her father' s conservatism to take up the cause of labor in the 1930s. In 1964, at the age of 55, she returned to Wellesley College to finish a degree program begun 30 years earlier. After graduation she enrolled in a master' s program at Connecticut College, where she stubbornly devoted the next three years to writing a thesis her advisors warned would never be approved. That was my Aunt Mary, always quite contrary.

We all knew about Mary' s thesis, of course. It was like Cousin Bill' s ships-in-a-bottle, or Aunt Laura' s gardening or my mother' s dachshunds. To each her own. I had a copy of Mary' s paper. We all did, because she had specified in her will that when she died, a collection of her writings, including the infamous thesis, be published and distributed to members of the family. I placed my copy on the bookshelf as I would a cremation urn on a fireplace mantle -- a memento of a loved one, but certainly not a thing of any practical use to the living.

It was there the thesis sat, gathering dust for years, until the evening my research on a nineteenth-century lesbian performer drove me in search of information about Shakespeare. That' s when I remembered the book.

Mary' s thesis had been titled "Reasonable Doubt and Shakespeare Authorship: An Appraisal of the Marlowe Theory." That night, in my studio loft, I stayed up late and read it. And it was on that same night that the ghost of Hamlet' s father appeared to me. The ghost was Christopher Marlowe. Like the ghost in the play, Marlowe had returned in spirit to expose a crime perpetrated against him. He had come back to reveal how his kingdom -- and such a kingdom! -- had been usurped by one not deserving of the title. The usurper, of course, was William Shakespeare.

William Shakespeare, that greatest of all dramatists in the English language, is the figure against which Western playwrights measure ourselves -- and fall miserably short. The facts of his life are the stuff of legend. With no opportunity for education beyond the local grammar school, he had somehow achieved a university-level proficiency in Greek, Latin and the classics. Even in an era of public libraries, this would be an impressive feat, but for an author who lived at a time when there weren' t even any published dictionaries, it challenges credulity. The texts for the classics were not in general circulation, and the books he would had have to read were cloistered in the private libraries of very rich men or chained to the desks at Cambridge and Oxford.

Then there is the fact that Shakespeare' s first play sprang full-grown from his brain, like Athena from the head of Zeus. There were no records of formative works, abortive efforts, juvenilia, embarrassingly bad plays, rejected drafts. Just -- boom! -- Henry VI, Part I, a five-act drama in iambic pentameter, a work of genius. And then 36 more plays written at an estimated clip of 1.38 per year over the next 26 years -- sandwiched between spending time with his family (three children before he was 21); managing a large and rambunctious theater company; memorizing, rehearsing and performing numerous roles; buying and renovating the second-largest house in Stratford; investing in real estate; engaging in several lawsuits; and commuting regularly from Stratford to London, a distance of 90 miles that required two days' travel each way.

With a track record like this, it is hardly necessary to add that, without ever attending a university or socializing at court or living on the streets, he had an intuitive understanding of the details, customs and private scandals of all three worlds. There is no record that William Shakespeare ever traveled outside of England, but more than half his plays are set in other countries, especially in Italy.

Perhaps the most daunting aspect of the Shakespeare legend is his reputation for writing the plays "with scarcely a blot" : the manuscripts delivered to the printer apparently contained no editing, rewrites or even minor corrections. It would appear that William Shakespeare lived and breathed and had his being in perfect iambic pentameter.

So here was my role model for playwriting -- the solitary genius with the time and inclination to raise a family, the full-time writer with the initiative to run a busy theater -- William Shakespeare, a man who traveled by astral projection, who learned by osmosis, who existed simultaneously in parallel universes and who channeled his plays through automatic handwriting.

Plagued by Demons

Virginia Woolf wrote of being hounded by the Victorian specter of an "angel in the house," an unwanted alter ego who continually tried to censor her unladylike writing. I, in my work as a feminist playwright, also have been plagued by a demon -- this fiend of a bard from Avon. Where Virginia Woolf chose to kill her tormentor, I have endeavored to compete with mine: If Shakespeare had run his own theater company, then so would I. If Shakespeare had produced his own plays, then so would I. If Shakespeare had performed in and toured with his own productions, then so would I. If Shakespeare had been able to meet the demands of family life, then so would I. And if Shakespeare could write one and a half plays a year while holding down a full-time job and commuting, could I, a writer of nonpoetic drama, be expected to produce any less?

All my efforts to emulate my role model only demonstrated how far short I fell of my ideal. My domestic life was a disaster; the petty politicking within the theater company drove me crazy; acting and directing and producing and touring and playwriting produced a disorder akin to multiple-personality syndrome; and the pressure to write even two plays a year was overwhelming. Finally, after years of this insanity, my body had enough sense to go on strike, and I collapsed.

In addition to the daunting record of achievement, there was another angle to the long shadow cast by the Shakespeare legend. As a very public lesbian-feminist playwright, I was forever in trouble: threats from the local homophobes, shunning by straight women and closet lesbians, eviction and boycott by gay men, slander from lesbians in coalition with all of the above, attacks from poverty-class lesbians for being middle-class, neglect from middle-class lesbians for espousing working-class causes, trashings in the press, systematic exclusion from production and publication opportunities and -- most painful of all -- sabotage by the members of my own theater company. Why couldn' t I be more like the easygoing William Shakespeare, who apparently was respected by his peers, accepted as an equal by the members of his theater company, loved by his family, generously supported by his audiences and patrons, and well thought of by his community? He had even scored a coat of arms, the sixteenth-century symbol for having arrived.

The night Marlowe appeared to me in my loft, I discovered the secret identity of the author of King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Othello. The world' s most famous playwright was not only rumored to have been a screaming queer but had left England under threat of death for his heresies. He had been arrested and incarcerated. Even after the news of his death, his name continued to be vilified in the press and from the pulpit. Kit Marlowe, mon frere.

A Tale of Two Authors

So, what' s the story? The subject could fill a book, and, in fact, already has. In brief, here' s the synopsis:

Marlowe, born in 1564 (two months after the birth of the actor William Shakespeare), was the son of a cobbler. He had been able to obtain scholarships first to a prep school and then to Cambridge, evidence that his intellectual gifts had been recognized at an early age. During his years at Cambridge, Marlowe became involved in Her Majesty' s secret service. When the university attempted to withhold his master' s degree on the grounds of excessive absenteeism, the Queen herself intervened with a message from her Privy Council: "It was not her Majesty' s pleasure that anyone employed as he [Marlowe] had been in matters touching the benefit of his country should be defamed by those ignorant in the affairs he went about." Marlowe received his degree.

Instead of taking the religious orders that might have been expected under the terms of his scholarships, Marlowe had gone to London, where his first play, Tamburlaine, had been a brilliant success. At this time, his patron was Thomas Walsingham. Walsingham' s cousin was secretary of state, and both Thomas and his young protege moved freely in court circles. Marlowe joined a group of heretical intellectuals who gathered around Sir Walter Raleigh, and he was hailed as the most gifted and original playwright of the age.

Then on May 12, 1593, fellow dramatist Thomas Kyd was arrested. When Kyd' s room was searched, a pamphlet that argued against the divinity of Jesus was discovered. Kyd, tortured on the rack, identified the author of the pamphlet as Christopher Marlowe.

Heresy was a serious charge, and heretics were still being burned at the stake in England. A week later on May 20, Marlowe was arrested at Walsingham' s estate, but his influential friends managed to arrange for his bail -- on the condition that, until the date of the hearing, he report daily in person to the Privy Council. This would effectively prevent Marlowe from leaving the country.

During this time a formal charge of heresy was entered against him by one Richard Baines, a government informer. Baines claimed that "almost into every company he [Marlowe] cometh, he persuades men to atheism, willing them not to be afraid of bugbears and hobgoblins and utterly scorning both God and ministers."

The document includes a list of accusations, including the following statements attributed to Marlowe:

"That the first beginning of Religion was only to keep men in awe." "That all Protestants are hypocritical asses."

"That if he [Marlowe] were to write a new religion, he would undertake both a more excellent and admirable method, and that all the new testament is filthily written."

"That all they that love not Tobacco and boys were fools."

Baines' s report to the Privy Council was received on May 29, 1593. The next day, Marlowe was "accidentally" killed.

Until the nineteenth century, Marlowe' s death had been only a historical rumor with no details as to the date, place or circumstance. Then in 1820, the burial record was found in Deptford. It read, "1st June, 1593, Christopher Marlowe slain by Francis [sic] Frizer."

It was to be another hundred years before the coroner' s report surfaced. In 1925 Dr. Leslie Hotson discovered the original report of the coroner' s inquest, along with another interesting document; if these papers had come to light just a few centuries earlier, it is unlikely that the legend of William Shakespeare would have ever taken root.

According to the official report, Christopher Marlowe had been socializing all day in a rented room of a private residence (not a tavern!) with three of his secret-service buddies, men who were also in the employ of Thomas Walsingham, Marlowe' s patron. Allegedly, there had been an argument over the bill; Marlowe attacked one of the men, Frizer, and the man reacted in self-defense, fatally wounding Marlowe in the face with a dagger.

The inquest itself was unusual, in that it had not been conducted by the local coroner, but by the Queen' s Coroner, who just happened to have been traveling in the neighborhood at the time of the murder. Was this a second incidence of Her Majesty' s intervention on behalf of the young hothead? The second document discovered by Hotson was a personal pardon by the Queen for the man who had murdered Marlowe, a pardon issued in an unusually brief period of time. Frizer, the pardoned murderer, was back in Walsingham' s employ within weeks -- a seemingly odd indulgence on the part of Marlowe' s dearest friend.

These are the facts of Marlowe' s "murder," a murder that occurred within days of his hearing before the Privy Council on charges of such a serious nature that even his wealthy patron would not have been able to save him from torture -- and the possibility of his naming other "heretics" -- and execution.

If the murder had been staged (as the circumstances would suggest) by substituting a corpse with a mutilated face for the body of Marlowe, and if Marlowe had been allowed to escape from England to live in exile, this would certainly explain a number of things. It would explain why Shakespeare' s first writings did not appear until the year of Marlowe' s death. It would explain why the early Shakespeare plays are so similar to the late Marlowe plays, why the Shakespeare plays deal with so many of the same themes, and why the Shakespeare plays borrow so many phrases -- even whole passages -- from the Marlowe plays.

If Marlowe did escape, it would explain the familiarity with and interest in foreign settings for the plays. It would also explain why the manuscripts received by the printers were letter perfect: A copyist would have been hired to transcribe all of them in order to prevent Marlowe' s handwriting from being recognized. It might also explain the unusual and generous bequest to a copyist made by Thomas Walsingham in his will.

If Marlowe did escape, it would explain how the author of the plays knew so much firsthand about working-class life, about the inside of jails, about court intrigue and customs, about Cambridge and about exile. It would explain the author' s extensive knowledge of the classics. And if the author had been living in exile, away from his family and friends, away from the theater, away from the country where his language was spoken, it would explain how he acquired the solitude, isolation and leisure that every other creative author in the history of the world has required in order to turn out works of comparable genius.

Moreover, if Marlowe did escape, it would explain the dramatist' s obsession with themes of traumatic reversals of fortune, betrayal by trusted friends, life in exile and cases of mistaken identity. It would explain the repeated plot device in which characters fake their own death in order to save themselves, as well as the playful gender-bending that appears in so many of the plays, especially the comedies. It would explain the sonnets about separation, and if Marlowe was indeed gay, it would explain the sonnets about gay love. The Shakespeare plays do not treat marriage kindly, and when there is a stable, loyal relationship, it is inevitably between members of the same sex, especially between two men. (When camaraderie is depicted between a man and a woman, frequently the woman is passing as a male, or -- as in The Taming of the Shrew -- both partners are actively engaged in subverting the heterosexual paradigm.)

The thesis that Marlowe lived to continue his playwriting solves more problems than it raises, and one is left to marvel at the far-fetched and incredible hypotheses of those who would still argue in favor of William Shakespeare' s authorship of the plays. The only plausible explanation for this phenomenon is that these academics are -- as Shakespeare was -- middle-class, bourgeois, Christian, heterosexual, politically conservative, status-seeking organization men who, in their zeal to have it all, have elevated the legend of William Shakespeare to a religious doctrine, one that holds for them a promise of salvation and redemption. The legend of Shakespeare would prove that any one of these men, at any moment, is capable of producing world-class literature. Such a myth demonstrates not only an innate capacity for spontaneous, unrehearsed genius, but also a depth of spirit that has historically been associated only with individuals who have undergone tremendous loss and suffering through an ordeal by which they have carved out an identity separate from and at odds with the norms of their society.

In 1930 my Aunt Mary had won a scholarship to study sculpting at Yale. She chose instead to go to New York, where she worked as a bookkeeper and as a secretary for 12 years -- up until the time of her marriage. As a child, I remember discovering one of Mary' s sculptures up in my grandmother' s attic. It was a stunning female nude, and I had asked my mother why her sister never told me she was an artist. My mother explained that because of Mary' s passion for great art, she had decided it was better to quit than risk turning out inferior work.

Aunt Mary aborted her career without even giving herself the chance to develop. I can' t help wondering how much the censorship of information about women artists -- and the inflated myths of male artists, like the legends surrounding the actor William Shakespeare -- had contributed to her unrealistic expectations and subsequent demoralization. And I also can' t help wondering if her return so late in life to academia, with her hopeless quest for the acceptance of her heretical thesis, was not the final act of a tragic patriarchal drama, in which her own monarchy had been usurped by a pretender.


Carolyn Gage is a lesbian-feminist playwright and author of Like There's No Tomorrow: Meditations for Women Leaving Patriarchy (Common Courage Press, 1997).


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