These are modern mysteries that grip the imaginations and minds of thousands of people across the globe. Both the inspiration for and creation of conspiracy theories, stem from the widespread belief in secret histories, deliberately concealed by or altered from official narratives. But a conspiracy doesn't have to be recent to attract a theory and the most successful and convincing of these are the ones that focus on charismatic subjects with appeal for believers and non-believers alike, because nothing makes for a conspiracy like dissent.
Conspiracy, Controversy, Questions and Conundrums
Elizabethan playwright Christopher 'Kit' Marlowe left to the world a legacy of seven plays, numerous poems, a romantic reputation and a controversial date: 30 May, 1593. Official documents from the time say that on this day Christopher Marlowe was killed in a brawl in a house in Deptford. But where his official life ends is where most of the theories begin. There are a lot of them, and they twist in and out of each other in a thorny tangle of suppositions and suggestions. The main areas of contention are as follows:
Marlowe was murdered in May 1593 (as the official documents report), but not in a quarrel over a bar-room bill. There are a number of theories competing for recognition as the real reason for his death, most agree that it was some kind of set-up, the question is - what kind?
Marlowe wasn't murdered, but had faked his own death in order to escape the charges hanging over him. You can take your pick from a proliferation of sub-theories offering alternative ways he could have done this. The 'Marlowe didn't die' theory leads inevitably on to the next theory - because if he didn't die in 1593, what did he do in the years that followed?
Marlowe became Shakespeare. This is a big favourite in conspiracy circles. Despite being officially dead for the entire span of Shakespeare's career, Marlowe is among the top three contenders for the Bard's crown.
This would be enough for most, but Marlowe was always a man for extremes. Some people believe that Marlowe also 'became' Miguel Cervantes (the author of Don Quixote), and also found time to be all 47 translators of the King James Bible, as well as penning a couple of dozen other contemporary plays and poems. All of this, of course, after his death.
Conspiracy Theory Number 1: A Dead Man in Deptford
There are those who are willing to go along with the official line on Marlowe's death, but they will subscribe to it only far enough to agree he was murdered. To their way of thinking, his drinking buddies on that fateful day in May were just a little too shady; the timing of his death was just a little too convenient. And then there is also the fact that Marlowe was in trouble. His ex-roommate, Thomas Kyd, had been arrested, and under torture had told the authorities all sorts of things about his friend that had Marlowe out on bail with the threat of the Star Chamber hanging over his head. It is often said that knowledge is both a powerful and a dangerous thing, and the knowledge that Marlowe could have had about highly placed powerful political figures made him a dangerous man. What would his enemies, or for that matter his friends, do to keep themselves safe from this potential loose cannon?
This is Conspiracy Theory Number One. Marlowe was killed to stop him talking. He could have been silenced by the authorities (although it is difficult to imagine why they would bother with such an elaborate plot, when they could just cart him off to the tower) worried by his inflammatory writings and alleged political, religious and social views. He may have been murdered by his former colleagues in the Elizabethan espionage game, who could have been concerned by the possibility of their own names and secrets coming to light if Marlowe was put on the rack. He may even have been murdered by friends and fellow members of the secret society of dissidents and free-thinkers known as the School of Night rumoured to have been led by Sir Walter Ralegh2 himself.
Conspiracy Theory Number 2: The Deptford Decoy
Because of the unusual and unnatural nature of Marlowe's death, and because it was said to have occurred within the 'verge' (within twelve miles of the Queen's presence), the inquest into these events is well documented. Yet the very fact that so much evidence survives seems to have encouraged those who choose to believe that Marlowe did not die on the 30 May 1593. This evidence is itself often used to support the claim that the event recorded as history was merely the cover story for a daring Renaissance rescue. There is plenty of proof, both literary and historical, that Marlowe had a number of influential and powerful friends. Indeed, when the warrant for his arrest was issued, Marlowe was found to be staying at Thomas Walsingham's country estate - halfway through writing his unfinished 3 epic poem 'Hero and Leander'. These friends had the resources and the connections to make Marlowe disappear, and with his imminent date with the Star Chamber in front of him, the motivation to make it happen.
Conspiracy Theory Number Two, therefore, proposes that Marlowe's friends in high places helped to delay the report of the charges levelled against him until after his supposed death. This report was a list of accusations by one Richard Baines, the spy that Marlowe had fallen out with while undercover in Holland in 1592; a man whom it would thus be difficult to call unbiased. The charges levelled against Marlowe this time, however, made Kyd's accusations look like compliments. If he had been found guilty, he stood to face a list of punishments that ranged from merely having his tongue cut out to being burnt at the stake, boiled alive, or, that old Elizabethan favourite, hung, drawn and quartered.
By delaying the Baines report, Marlowe's friends gained for him the relative freedom of bail, and time to fake his death at the house of Eleanor Bull, a woman with close connections to Lord Burghley. Burghley was Queen Elizabeth I's Lord Treasurer; one of the most powerful men in the country and one of Marlowe's patrons in the world of espionage. His signature was on the letter from the privy council that saved Marlowe from expulsion during his Cambridge days, hinting at valuable work done for Queen and Country. The theorists suggest that this time Marlowe was in too much trouble for even Lord Burghley to save by conventional means, forcing Burghley to construct instead an elaborate, and highly secret, plot.
The men who gathered in the small room hired for the day from the Widow Bull, were all con men working for the same spy-masters as Marlowe. The man who is alleged to have killed him, Ingram Frizer, was an employee of Marlowe's old friend, Thomas Walsingham. Just one month after Marlowe's death, Frizer received a personal pardon from the Queen herself, and returned to work for the murdered man's best friend, for the rest of his working life.
On the second of June, 1593, a body was brought before the Coroner to the Queen's Household, William Danby. The local coroner would usually have handled such cases, but as the Queen had been only twelve miles from Deptford when the murder took place, Danby, a colleague and possibly old friend of Lord Burghley, took charge of the affair. Evidence was presented to Danby and the sixteen members of the jury to support the story passed down through history that this was the body of Christopher Marlowe. Conspiracy theorists argue that the fatal stab wound to the eye would have helped disguise the identity of the corpse4, and have looked for alternatives to Marlowe. Conveniently enough, there were several executions in the area that would have provided suitable candidates to replace Marlowe; John Penry a non-conformist Puritan preacher, one year older than Marlowe, is a particular favourite. Penry had been condemned to death on 25 May. He was executed a couple of miles from Deptford on the evening before Marlowe's death, and there is no known record of what happened to his body. Conspiracy theorists like to point out that coroners were responsible for disposing of the bodies of prisoners who died in custody, and that John Penry (who's body is unaccounted for) was executed 'within the verge' - under the jurisdiction of the Queen's own coroner, a very busy William Danby.
Advocates of Conspiracy Theory Number Two also point to the convenient location of Widow Bull's house; situated on the River Thames5 for a speedy and discreet exit. They mention that, the day after Marlowe's death, a secret service agent in Burghley's employ escorted a group of unnamed men across the Channel, from Dover to France. He returned to England directly and travelled back to London by way of Marlowe's home town, Canterbury, a route that oozes suggestion. If any of this can be called evidence of a Marlovian conspiracy, it is only circumstantial. But the problem that faces more orthodox Marlovian scholars is that so much of it can be tied up in such neat and intriguing little knots.
The controversy surrounding Marlowe's death has now become as much a part of the Marlowe mythology as his supposed double identity as a spy and a scholar. Neither the theory that Marlowe was a spy, or the contention that he was not murdered, have been proven, yet this hasn't stopped both becoming generally accepted as fact (or, at the very least, likely possibilities). To the horror and outrage of many a 'serious' scholar, the memorial plaque to Marlowe in Westminster Abbey's Poets' Corner was unveiled in July 2002 to reveal a question mark next to his date of death; thus immortalising both the man and the mystery.
Conspiracy Theory Number 3: A Bard By Any Other Name...
Those who suggest that Marlowe survived 30 May, 1593, generally propose that Marlowe then went into exile, first in France, later in Spain and possibly Italy. They offer up identities that could well have been assumed by the banished playwright and spy, both abroad and on clandestine visits to his homeland. But still a question remains - would a writer with a talent as outstanding as Marlowe's be able to stop writing? If, as is proposed, he remained in contact with his political and literary patrons throughout his second life, would he (or they) have been able to resist the temptation to publish Marlowe's latest work under the aegis of an assumed name, thus creating the ultimate ghost writer in the history of literature?
To a modern perspective it may seem absurd to suggest that Shakespeare, a man famous in his own lifetime for his literary achievements, and revered ever after as the greatest English writer of all time, could be a fraud, a fake. But doubt over the authorship of Shakespeare's plays is nothing new. There is no question that a man called William Shakespeare lived and died in Stratford-upon-Avon, but many people have found it hard to believe that this man could be the author of the canon of work generally attributed to him. There are several reasons for this, but they all lead back to the same problem - there is very little surviving evidence to connect the Stratford Shakespeare to the author of the plays. No manuscripts, no letters, no records of his personal library, and few if any references to Shakespeare-the-man by his literary contemporaries. This Shakespeare, it would seem, lived only in his plays.
The lack of information about Shakespeare's life leads on to a problem that perplexes many. How could a man with only a provincial grammar school education have written those plays and poems? This question is not entirely one of intellectual snobbery - few would doubt that such a person has the potential to be a literary genius - but rather one of practicality. Today there is no difficulty in obtaining copies, either in translation or the original Latin, Greek, Italian and Spanish, of the extensive source material behind his writing, but in Shakespeare's day there were no public libraries or book shops. The texts that Shakespeare must have been familiar with, would have been sequestered in the libraries of the rich, or under watchful guard in the Libraries of Oxford and Cambridge University, and many of the sources that Shakespeare used were not translated into English until much later.
No-one has ever managed to explain how the Stratford Shakespeare could have acquired the knowledge and skills he needed to write the Shakespeare canon - he was said, even in his own day, to have possessed little Latin and less Greek, and yet many of the texts that provided plots and characters for his work existed only in their original languages, and in a scattered handful of copies. Some were apparently not available in any form in England at the time that Shakespeare would have needed them, and there is no evidence that Shakespeare ever left the British Isles. Marlovians are quick to point out that Marlowe's studies at Cambridge, coupled with the catalogued contents of his patrons' libraries and the opportunities afforded by travels abroad (if he had indeed worked as a spy in foreign lands) were exactly the kind of training 'Shakespeare' would have needed. By comparison, there is no record of the Stratford Shakespeare travelling abroad, mixing in the court circles, or owning so much as a single book (valuable items in those days). Strangely, for a writer of his stature, he seems to have made no cultural contributions to his home town. Even his own children appear to have been neglected on this account - they are thought to have been illiterate.
Conspiracy Theory Number Three proposes that Marlowe, living in exile and anonymity, continued to produce plays and poetry under the name William Shakespeare. If this is true, it would have needed to be with the Stratford Shakespeare's knowledge and consent, since the evidence of the first folios indicate no doubt at the time that Shakespeare was the author of the plays they contain. Marlovians have suggested that a third man also figured in the deception - an actor who became the front-man for the trio, playing the part of Shakespeare in London whilst Marlowe provided the material and William provided the name.
There is no evidence that William Shakespeare wrote anything before 1593, the year of Marlowe's death. The first work attributed to his name was Venus and Adonis, an epic poem registered in the Stationers Register on 12 June, 1593 (two weeks after the Deptford incident). This was published, somewhat suggestively, with a dedication to Lord Burghley's ward, the Earl of Southampton. The dedication includes two lines from a verse by Ovid that Marlowe had translated a few years earlier. But the dedication did not include the conclusion to that verse (often quoted by Marlovians):
The living, not the dead can envy bite,
For after death all men receive their right.
Then though death rakes my bones in funeral fire,
I'll live, and as he pulls me down mount higher
Any educated member of Marlowe's circle would have known this, which has led many a Marlovian to speculate that the Venus and Adonis dedication was in fact a coded message, from a dead man to loyal friends.
After this point there is a gap of over a year, until William Shakespeare appears in the records again when he is paid for performances at Court (along with the actors Burbage and Kempe). Following this, there are no further mentions until 1598, when he is cited as the author of 12 plays. Shakespeare would seem therefore to have become quite suddenly a prolific and rather more than proficient writer. While it is now generally acknowledged that Shakespeare collaborated with other writers (as was the norm in Elizabethan times) at both the start and the end of his career, there is little evidence of a literary 'adolescence' in his writing. He emerged a fully fledged genius of a writer, with apparently little education and no experience. This hardly seems fair to other writers (though that's not to say it isn't possible) who have publicly sweated blood and tears in the perfection of their craft; little wonder therefore that so many have begrudged him this achievement.
Though none survive, legend has it that the manuscripts the printers received from Shakespeare were perfect first drafts - unmarked by errors, corrections or changes6. This is probably merely a part of the Shakespeare mythology; sprung up to emphasis what many see as the unparalleled nature of his genius. But it has also been suggested that Marlowe's handwriting may have been well known by the typesetters, who began to receive manuscripts from a playwright named Shakespeare in the years following Marlowe's death. If Marlowe lived and continued to publish his work in England, his work would have had to be copied out in someone else's hand - thus disguising its origins and in the process also eradicating the marks of its creation. In this context, the generous and unexplained bequest to a copyist that Marlowe's close friend and patron, Thomas Walsingham, made in his will, becomes another intriguing piece of circumstantial evidence in the Shakespeare authorship debate.
Conspiracy Theory Number 4: Marlowe of La Mancha?
There are those who suggest not only that Marlowe survived 1593, and went on to pen the plays of Shakespeare, but also that during his European exile he found time to translate the epic Spanish masterpiece, Don Quixote, into English. Though there would seem to be little reason to doubt that the author was Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, some dedicated Marlovians (and a few Baconians) go even further to propose that this Spanish masterpiece was itself a translation of an English original.
Don Quixote was published in Madrid in 1604. Somewhat coincidentally, there is evidence in diplomatic records of the time that an Englishman by the name of Christopher Marlowe was in Valladolid, Spain, in 1599, at the same time as Cervantes; and there is further evidence that this Marlowe was planning to return to England in 1603. The first English translation of the book (still considered by many to be the best) was published in 1612, and attributed to a man of mystery - one Thomas Shelton. Shelton was said to have been the ubiquitous Walsingham's brother-in-law, though it is also claimed that this identity was a nom de plume for an even more mysterious figure. The translation is universally acknowledged as being the work of an extremely talented and experienced writer, but no other literary work can be connected to anyone of the name Shelton. Some Marlovians speculate that this was because Shelton was another creation of Marlowe, used either to disguise his masterful translation, or even his actual authorship of Don Quixote.
Conspiracy Theory Number Four thus proposes that even though Cervantes himself was an actual person (just like William Shakespeare of Stratford), his identity was borrowed by Marlowe, the real author, to allow the book to be published. Though Cervantes had written several plays before Don Quixote, and a collection of stories afterwards, nothing that he produced ever matched Don Quixote in either quality of the writing or popularity. The conspiracy theorists propose that this was because Cervantes was merely an impoverished would-be writer that Marlowe encountered during his stay in Spain, who was persuaded to 'front' the book in return for a share in the profits and the entirety of the acclaim. Don Quixote, they assert, was first written in English and then translated into Spanish (which would explain the quality of the English version and the way in which the poems have all been translated into English with both rhythm and rhyme). With Walsingham's help, Marlowe would then have been able to publish the book, abet as a translation, in England and, shortly afterwards, the rest of the world.
Similar theories attribute to Marlowe’s pen the sublime translation of the King James Bible (attributed to 47 anonymous writers), and any number of more minor plays, poems and prose works. Most of these theories hang on slender clues, using coincidences of phrase or word to construct elaborate Elizabethan puzzles, or making connections from seemingly random names and dates. Many of these theories are intriguing, amusing and suggestive, but to write all that has been attributed to him in the years following his death, Marlowe would surely have had to have worked himself into yet another early grave.
Literary historians have pieced together the generally accepted story of Christopher Marlowe's life and death from the scanty and scattered records of the time. While this is usually presented as historical fact, it is actually as much a construct from incomplete, ambiguous or contradictory sources as any of the more sensational theories out there. The same is also true of the life of English literature's greatest son - William Shakespeare. Whether through time, accident or design, the history of these two men has become obscured to the point where all we can say for sure is that they existed. It would therefore be unwise to dismiss the alternative theories outlined above as complete impossibilities, no matter how improbable they might seem. It would, however, be equally unwise to take these theories as facts, replacing one construction with another.Yet is any of this really important? Can the details of the lives of men long dead hold any meaning for us today? After all, we still have the plays so what does it matter who really wrote them? But that, perhaps, is the point. These plays explore important and often controversial issues that continue to resonate with audiences everywhere; they have become a part of the world's heritage, part of the English Literary Canon - elevated to a status that acknowledges both their own worth and the worth of a society that values them. For this reason, their origin is important.
Shakespeare has come to symbolise authority; he is quoted by politicians of every persuasion, he is compulsory for study in every British school, his holographic image even validates credit cards. But what if this man was really Marlowe? What if the creator of these plays was in truth a rebel continually at odds with the political, social and religious establishments of his day? Shakespeare as an atheist, an anarchist, a homosexual, a criminal, a spy? If any of these allegations were true, would the authorities be so keen to maintain his status as a British icon? Would we read his plays in the same way, or would they open themselves up to new and alternative meaning? Most of Marlowe's alleged crimes are no longer an offence in Britain today, but many of them still pose a threat, or a challenge, to established authority. Could a man like Marlowe take the place of Shakespeare, and become an officially sanctioned example to us all?
Complacency is never good; far too often we are encouraged to accept opinion and theory as fact. Conspiracy theories are fun, but they also open up for debate subjects we are otherwise taught to treat as gospel truth, offering us alternative views on our history and our society. Perhaps this is where their value truly lies, reminding us that, despite what we are told, the truth isn't out there to be found, because the truth will always be open to interpretation.