Ahead of the release of Anonymous, disaster-porn director Roland Emmerich’s take on the Shakespeare authorship question – a intriguing juxtaposition partially anticipated below – I’m revisiting my interview with Mike Rubbo about his 2001 documentary on the same subject, Much Ado About Something.
The following story contains espionage, conspiracy theories, faked deaths, cover-ups, identity theft, homosexuality and sex.
Ok, not so much sex, but the other ingredients of a fantastic story are there; it’s so outrageous Hollywood would love it. It could be re-written as the next Bond flick: Murder? He Wrote. And, in fact, there’s rumours of a film on the subject in pre-production now.
Beating them to the punch, however, is Australian director Mike Rubbo (the man behind ABC’s Race Around The World), whose documentary on the topic, Much Ado About Something, was one of the most enjoyable films from the 2001 Melbourne International Film Festival.
So what’s the story?
Basically, that the most famous writer in English literature, William Shakespeare, was an illiterate fraud and that his lesser known contemporary, Christopher Marlowe, a spy on Her Majesty’s Secret (16th Century) Service – who also happened to be gay (horror!) and an atheist (HORROR OF HORRORS!) – faked his own death, then wrote all Shakespeare’s plays!
There’s more to it than that, of course, and to discover just how surprisingly convincing it is, you’ll have to watch Rubbo’s film. And no, you don’t have to be a Shakespeare fan to enjoy it. Rubbo brings such humour and excitement to the topic, treating it as a delicious detective story, that it is accessible to everybody. It may even help if you hate Shakespeare. Imagine the comeback when your English teacher says you’re studying King Lear next term: “Shakespeare didn’t write that, why should I read it?”
Well, apart from the totally gruesome and excellent scene with the eyeball, it’s one of the greatest plays ever written. The authorship question, Rubbo’s detractors say, is beside the point: like The Bible, who wrote it isn’t as important as what they wrote. Said detractors may be right but in Rubbo’s hands the authorship story practically eclipses anything the man behind the name ever penned, in terms of plot, character and thematic content. It’s almost a medieval soap opera.
“Shakespeare is very precious to people. What they don’t understand is that once they get over the initial hurt, as it were, it’s absolutely fascinating and it’s the greatest mystery in the world.”
I mention The Bible deliberately, because the reverence that Shakespeare claims in our culture is virtually religious. For some rabble-rouser to cast plausible doubt on him is like Darwin claiming we’re just a bunch of overgrown monkeys: it’s worldview-shattering, life-changing stuff.
As Rubbo explains, the more you look into it, the harder it is to ignore the evidence. The doubts first arose in the 18th century with James Wilmot, a scholar and Shakespeare lover commissioned to write a biography on the bard. “Wilmot’s puzzled by Shakespeare’s lack of books, because his will has just been discovered. He concludes that Shakespeare must have owned books and he sets out to find them. But we don’t know what he found because some years later he’s so upset that he burns all his papers, having concluded that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays. He’s the first sceptic.” Those to follow him include Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Derek Jacobi and, it’s rumoured, Sir John Gielgud, among many others.
“We only know about his findings,” Rubbo continues, “because in 1803 Wilmot’s discoveries are reported to The Royal Ipswich Historical Society, who tell him to shut up and the whole thing is buried for another 150 years. And the last pages of that report are now missing. Many people have commented that whenever you think you should find a paper about Shakespeare, it’s missing. His school records are gone. Everything’s gone.”
Disturbingly, the very people who should be most interested in this mystery don’t seem to be; or they’re too scared to be. All of Melbourne’s Shakespeare academics were personally invited to the local opening of Rubbo’s film, and were conspicuous by their absence (although one student told Rubbo she’d seen her lecturer there, who surreptitiously vanished before the post-film Q&A). Rubbo welcomes, encourages, dissent; having dedicated five years of his life to making the film he wants to be challenged on his theory. The lack of willingness from academics concerns him, but he understands their reluctance.
“People have always had trouble getting new theories discussed. Academics have sinecures, jobs that depend upon certain orthodoxies; if they step out of line they have to devote a huge part of their intellectual energies to explain why. But look at their body language in the film: I don’t think they’re sure about Shakespeare at all. If you asked these people to swear in a court on Shakespeare as the sole author, I reckon they couldn’t.”
Ultimately, Rubbo comes down firmly on the side of the Marlovaians – those who think Marlowe wrote the plays. There are other theories too, the most prominent of which include the Baconian theory, initiated by James Wilmot and proposing Sir Francis Bacon as the author, and the Oxfordian theory, which prefers Edward DeVere, the 17th Earl of Oxford [this is the theory Emmerich has indulged with Anonymous]. Naturally, there are some people who even think Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare!
Rubbo can’t prove his theory – yet – but the evidence, though circumstantial, is impressive. And he has “much better evidence now”, several years after he finished his film. He goes through some of it for me, as he will after any screening, for anyone who asks. Question him about Measure For Measure – the plot of which is a carbon copy of Marlowe’s life, down to his arrest for freethinking – or the first 17 sonnets, for instance, and he’ll answer with enough information for a sequel.
Rubbo is like Marlowe in the sense that he’s spreading unwanted ideas. Thankfully, freedom of speech means that the worst those in power can do is ignore or insult him. But the issue won’t go away. “Shakespeare is very precious to people. What they don’t understand is that once they get over the initial hurt, as it were, it’s absolutely fascinating and it’s the greatest mystery in the world.”