Case S02E06 – Slowburn Shakespeare, part 4 of 6 – Rich Man, Poor Man, Shakespearean Guy


Did Shakespeare really write, well, Shakespeare? Or is the Swan of Avon a five century old con? Part 4 of this slowburn mini-series looks at our last two possible contenders and weighs up the evidence. Below you will find data, audio credits, further reading, and a transcript of the podcast.

Audio credits

David Hilowitz – New Dawn
David Hilowitz – Angle of Light
Kei Engel – Prelude – Bells in Heavy Clouds
Scott Holmes – Postcards
Aaron Dunn – Minuet – Notebook for Anna Magdalena (cropped)


Case S02E06: Slowburn Shakespeare, part 4 of 6 – Rich man, poor man, Shakespearean guy

I’m not even going to pretend. I like this theory so much I’ve dedicated a whole episode to it and by the end I hope you’ll be in full agreement that it’s been worth every minute of your time. If nothing else, this one is a nice palate cleanser. We go from wild cipher chasing and apparent aristocratic monsters to intrigue, espionage, murder? But maybe not.

Without further ado, let’s get into our next candidate.


Welcome to en clair, an archive of forensic linguistics, literary detection, and language mysteries. You can find case notes about this episode, including credits, acknowledgements, and, far more than usual, many extra links to further reading at the blog. The web address is given at the end of this podcast.

The spy

So, alleged spy. I might have mentioned that. Also a poet. Playwright. Translator. Philosopher. Who is this man blessed with such a galaxy of talents?

Christopher Marlowe.

The first and only non-aristocratic candidate in this shortlist of five top theories, Marlowe’s fame is not simply inherited through lineage and money. His is the far more impressive artefact of a remarkable life.

Marlowe’s baptism on the 26th of February of 1564 was exactly two months before William Shakespeare’s on the 26th of April 1564, though his death seems to have happened considerably sooner than Shakespeare’s. Thirty years, sooner, in fact, in 1593, when he was only twenty-nine. Notably the works of Shakespeare started to appear seven years before Marlowe’s untimely demise, but they also blithely continued afterwards, as if nothing had happened, until 1613. And of course, that promptly raises a rather obvious question. If the events as told are true, how could a dead man spend the next twenty years writing the rest of the works of Shakespeare? Even a very determined artistic genius is going to find death rather a setback to their creative endeavors.

To answer this that question, and help us with some other issues later in this theory, we need to take a little detour through Marlowe’s spectacularly colourful and hotly debated life. Along with his birth, Marlowe’s life has some other interesting parallels with Shakespeare’s. William was the son of a glover. Kit, as Christopher was sometimes known, was the son of a shoemaker. After the loss of his sister, he became the eldest, with seven younger siblings, and all went fairly quietly through school until he received a scholarship and went to Cambridge University. Then things started to get interesting. At the age of twenty he got a Bachelor of Arts degree, but as he starts his Master of Arts degree, Corpus Christi records from 1584 to 1585 show extended University absences, and then, when he was back in attendance, personal expenses accounts show him spending rather more on food and drink than his scholarship could have long withstood. Where was he vanishing to? And where was the money coming from? Maybe he had a part-time job? Maybe he was already publishing? Or maybe there’s another explanation, which we’ll come back to.

Whatever the case, three years later, in 1587, the university began to nervously dither about whether to award him his Master of Arts. Rumours were circulating that he might have plans to become a Roman Catholic priest. Awkward if true. Queen Elizabeth I, a stout Protestant, took a very dim view of such matters. Only a few years earlier she had begun issuing a range of anti-Catholic laws. Laws that, amongst other things, explicitly criminalized acts like becoming Roman Catholic priests.

But then, of all things, the Privy Council wrote to the University. What is the Privy Council? It’s a concilium familiare – that is, a highly select group drawn from the church, the law, the military, and so forth, who advise the ruling monarch on various issues. It was, and is to this day, a powerful group, historically prone to occasional periods of corruption, sometimes attempting to steer the monarch, sometimes being used by the monarch as a convenient means of sidestepping due process. A curt reprimand from this group would have been akin to receiving a very dark look from the Queen herself. One did not play games with the Privy Council. So what was in that letter from this august group of powerful men to the University? Unfortunately, we don’t know. The letter is lost, but the records of its existence remain, in the minutes of the Privy Council Register taken on the 29th of July 1587, thus:

Whereas it was reported that Christopher Morley [Marlowe] was determined to have gone beyond the seas to Reames and there to remaine, Their Lordships thought good to certefie that he had no such intent, but that in all his accions he had behaved him selfe orderlie and discreetlie wherebie he had done her Majestie good service, & deserved to be rewarded for his fathfull dealinge: Their Lordships request that the rumor thereof should be allaied by all possible meanes, and that he should be furthered in the degree he was to take this next Commencement: Because it was not her Majesties pleasure that anie one emploied as he had been in matters touching the benefitt of his Countrie should be defamed by those that are ignorant in th’affaires he went about. (Privy Council Registers PC2/14/381)

This entry signs off with the titles of the Lord Archbishop John Whitgift, Lord Chancellor Christopher Hatton, Lord Treasurer William Cecil, Lord Chamberlain Henry Carey and Mr Comptroller James Crofts. That’s some remarkably powerful friends for a twenty-three year old shoemaker’s son still not quite fresh out of university. And it raises some fascinating questions. What is this “good service” that Kit has done for her Majesty? Why is the Privy Council so anxious to quash any rumours that might be damaging to this as-yet-unknown young man? What are these “matters touching the benefit of his country”? Clearly they’re remarkable enough that the Privy Council, and by extension, perhaps even the Queen herself, are directly interested in his personal affairs. But what were they? Historians have pored over the dates and documents and suggest that whatever this last matter might be, it seems to have happened somewhere between March 1587, towards the end of his studies, and the July of the meeting itself, about four or five months later, but beyond that, it’s all very murky.

We can only speculate, of course, but history and past examples suggest that one reasonable answer was espionage. In particular, one theory argues that he was a secret agent for Sir Francis Walsingham. In case it needs saying, spying was as much a major industry through history as it is now, and by definition, good spies don’t look like spies, at all, so for all we know, he might have been perfect. From the outside, seemingly just another unremarkable lower-middle-class young man, yet, as history would show, clearly smart enough to come up with convincing fictions when required. Anyway, if it really were espionage, the vague language around this employment and its benefit to Queen and country is exactly what one might expect. It really is rather hard to keep secret agents under wraps if someone is faithfully minuting all the details about them and then filing those records neatly away, so the ambiguity of the description would fit. Quite how these sentiments were expressed in the letter to the University itself, of course, we will never know, but I can imagine that the recipients at Cambridge gave a petrified squeak of dismay at the idea of defaming one of Queen Elizabeth’s personal favourites, and I imagine they expedited the removal of any blocks with all possible speed. Certainly, Marlowe’s MA was conferred exactly on schedule, and that same year, 1587, he set off out into the world to start his distinguished, if very short lived, literary career.

What did Marlowe’s six remaining years entail? Well, the evidence is scant. To guide use, we have legal documents, and we have literary texts, and then we have… a mess. We’ve done most of the legal and official records already, and we’ll get to the literary canon shortly, so for now, let’s wade knee-deep into the really dramatic stuff. Marlowe has been described, with who knows how much accuracy, as a carefully reasoned and convincing atheist, a forger of counterfeit coins, a practiced fighter, a magician, a libertine, an epicurean, and, of course, a spy. There were also insinuations about his same-sex interests, especially in light of how sympathetically his play Edward II depicts the doomed lovestory of the King and his nobleman, the Earl of Cornwall. And if all that together sounds like a lot, then there’s his death.

It all starts in May 1593. Posters go up threatening Protestant refugees, but one of them makes some fairly pointed allusions to the works of Marlowe, which by this point are fairly well known. The Privy Council steps in yet again, and one Thomas Kyd is arrested. Unfortunately, Kyd had spent some time a couple of years earlier working alongside Marlowe, and he absolutely throws Marlowe under the bus. Kyd describes him as disorderly, heretical, irreligious, intemperate, cruel, treasonous… These accusations would not just give the average Elizabethan aristocrat the absolute vapours, if proven against Marlowe many of them are crimes carrying the ultimate sentence: execution. When a warrant is promptly issued for Marlowe’s arrest, then, this is no small matter. The state might be playing along until it can find a way to make the Kyd problem go away, or the warrant might be sincere and Marlowe’s life could be in serious jeopardy. Two days later, on the 20th of May, Marlowe presents himself to the Privy Council, as the warrant requires, but it’s having a day off that day. Ten days later, on the 30th of May, Marlowe is dead.

Or is he?

If Kit’s life had courted controversy up to this point, it was as nothing compared to this final scene. There are many accounts, and I’ll try to summarise them briefly. In one account, Marlowe has gone to a tavern, and meets a rival in love there – a bawdy serving man. They quarrel, presumably about their lover, and Marlowe is fatally stabbed. In another version, he’s in a tavern – there’s a theme here – and a drunken brawl breaks out, and Marlowe is killed. In this narrative, his death is incidental, rather than intentional. For a long time there is much speculation and little in the way of fact.

But then it turns out that an inquest was ordered, and that it was carried out the very next day after his death. Remarkably, despite the intense interest in the matter, yet another highly relevant document, the inquest report, vanishes without a trace, and it is only rediscovered in 1925. That’s over three centuries later. Maybe the filing system was terrible, I don’t know. Anyway, translated from its original Latin, a heavily edited, the most relevant parts of that inquisition read:

Ingram ffrysar, late of London, Gentleman, and the aforesaid Christopher Morley, and Nicholas Skeres, late of London, Gentleman, and Robert Poley of London aforesaid, Gentleman, on the thirtieth of May […] met together in a room […] & there passed the time together […] & after supper the said Ingram & Christopher Morley were in speech & uttered one to the other divers malicious words for the reason that they could not be at one nor agree about the payment of the sum of pence, that is, le recknynge, there; & the said Christopher Morley […] moved with anger against the said Ingram ffrysar […] it so befell that the said Christopher Morley […] maliciously drew the dagger of the said Ingram which was at his back, and with the same dagger […] maliciously gave the aforesaid Ingram two wounds on his head […] whereupon the said Ingram, in fear of being slain, […] with the dagger aforesaid to the value of 12d, gave the said Christopher then & there a mortal wound over his right eye of the depth of two inches & of the width of one inch; of which mortal wound the aforesaid Christopher Morley then & there instantly died. […] Given the day & year above named &c. by WILLIAM DANBY Coroner.

Mmm. Well. If you hoped that official account would clarify matters, it really does not. At all. Firstly, the inquest was held by the Coroner of the Queen’s Household – in itself actually not remarkable because his death occurred within twelve miles of the monarch – but there was no local county coroner present, which technically invalidated the whole thing. Was that an accidental omission? Or a deliberate effort to keep the thing tightly under wraps? The inquest testimony, too, or rather its source, is extremely dubious. Who were these three men that Marlowe spent the day with? Well, it turns out, all three answered to or were employed by one or other of the Walsinghams – either Thomas Walsingham, or his far more famous relation, Sir Francis Walsingham. If you remember, Francis Walsingham is theorised to have been Marlowe’s handler, and whether he was or not, he was Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster and remains of the most famous figures in espionage throughout history. So, three Walsingham men are in the house, and the testimony at the inquest comes mainly from the two not directly involved in Marlowe’s death – Poley and Skeres. They claim that Marlowe got into a dispute with the third member of their group, Frizer, over money, and an enraged Marlowe lashed out at him with Frizer’s own dagger. A rash move for a man outnumbered three-to-one. Matters instantly escalate. Frizer fights back, snatches the dagger from Marlowe, and whether assisted by his two friends or not, Frizer stabs Marlowe super dexterum oculum suum – that is, just under the bony edge of the right eye, supposedly killing him instantly. The day after the inquest finished, only two days after his death, Marlowe is buried in an unmarked grave, and a month later his killer, Frizer, is pardoned.

Scholars and interested parties have been, unsurprisingly, sceptical. As I’ve noted, why no county coroner? That’s not completely damning because other cases with such irregularities occurred, but at the same time, those other cases of malpractice don’t indemnify this instance from premeditation. Why an unmarked grave? This could have been a mark of disgrace, yes, but could it also have been an effort to stop people digging up the grave and finding nothing? Or the wrong man? That aside, could such an injury as the one described actually kill Marlowe instantly? Medical experts argue that even if fatal, the wound would have taken at least five or six minutes to finish him off, and if the Coroner’s report can be inaccurate on that point, what else might be fictitious. Did the two Walsingham witnesses just make the whole thing up? One of those two men, Robert Poley, is described as a consummate liar, an agent provocateur for the state, and a “genius of the Elizabethan underworld”. The other, Nicholas Skeres, is a well-known confidence trickster. Not exactly a stellar line-up. The entry for Marlow in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography summarises the matter very nicely, as follows:

The nature of Marlowe’s companions raises questions about their reliability as witnesses. Nicholas Skeres was a swindler who, a month previously, had been accused in Star Chamber of ‘entrapping young gents’ (TNA: PRO, STAC 5/S9/8); in another case he ‘combined’ with Frizer to ‘undermine and deceive’ a young heir, Drew Woodliff (Hotson, 69–73). Robert Poley was the Walsingham spy who had infiltrated the Babington conspiracy; contemporary accounts of his cunning and ‘knavery’ abound (Nicholl, 31–3). Frequently employed on missions abroad, he had recently returned from the Netherlands, and was still nominally ‘in Her Majesties service’ when present at Deptford [that’s the scene of Marlowe’s murder] (chamber accounts, 12 June 1593, TNA: PRO, E351/542, fol. 182v). That the inquest’s account depended on these two men—the only independent witnesses of the fatal ‘affray’—is at the least unsatisfactory. They also brought to the scene certain high-up political connections: Skeres served the earl of Essex, whom he described in Star Chamber as his ‘Lord and Master’; Poley reported to Sir Robert Cecil, who correctly described him as ‘no fool’ (Cecil to Sir Thomas Heneage, 25 May 1592, TNA: PRO, SP 12/242, no. 25). That these links betoken some covert intrigue against Marlowe has yet to be proved, but they add to a sense that something more complex is concealed beneath the story of the ‘recknynge’. (Nicholl 2008)

But remember, this inquest report vanished for the next three centuries, and the absence of any official explanation to the matter left a huge vacuum in which competing theories happily mushroomed. Actually its arrival didn’t really make anything any clearer anyway – arguably it just made things even murkier still, but whatever the case, in the years after Marlowe’s death, people were already asking a lot of questions about what exactly had happened. Plenty of people presumed his death was genuine, but rather than accepting that it was the result of a brawl over money, they wondered if the motives weren’t much bigger. After all, intrigue and paranoia thrived just as much in the dark corners of the Tudor court as it does in the shadows of the halls of power today, and lots of powerful people might have reason to fear and loathe Marlowe. So perhaps it was a plot ordered by a Walsingham wife, jealous of his relationship with her husband, or by Walter Raleigh as a way to protect himself, by William Cecil as punishment for spreading Catholic propaganda, by the Privy Council for being a double agent, by the Queen for his atheism, and so on (Schmitz & Utzt, 2011).

But a few were more creative and went even bigger still. What if, they said, it was more elaborate than that. What if he actually didn’t die at all. Maybe this was all a subtle plot to allow him to fake his own death? He supposedly worked for Sir Francis Walsingham, after all, and the three Walsingham men at the house would have been in on it. So could the Privy Council and the Queen, of course. Or they weren’t in on it, but his three friends couldn’t stomach the idea of killing him, so they all agree to pretend to their paymasters that the matter has happened and Marlowe is obliged to go into hiding not just from accusers like Kyd, but from everyone. Whatever the case, conveniently staged death would have dealt with the awkward matter of the warrant out for his arrest, and settled a few other issues too, and all Marlowe would have to do is move a few miles away, suitably alter his appearance, and assume a convincing new identity. After all, travel in the 1500s was difficult. Even twenty miles could put someone out of their old world and into an entirely new one that might as well have been as distant as the moon. Also, even if someone happened, by pure chance, to stumble from that old world into the new one and glimpse him, there were no CCTV cameras, no fingerprinting, no DNA tests. No matter how much they might suspect the truth, it would have been impossible to prove and easy to argue against. There was, after all, a dead Kit Marlowe buried in a church somewhere.

Anyway, you get the idea. And, most relevant to this miniseries, you can also probably see where Marlovia – the theory the Kit Marlowe was Shakespeare – takes dramatic flight from this late-stage exit. Marlowe dies in a fight (but not really), and then he’s buried in an unmarked grave (but not really), and the curtain closes on his short life (but not really). Because now he’s free, perhaps doing even more espionage for Queen and country, perhaps staying as far out of sight of the Queen’s men as he possibly can, but all ways round, conveniently unencumbered by a lot of the previous baggage that had been getting in his way. The rumours and warrants and accusations all die with him. However, Marlovia argues, as a poet and playwright, he would have been devastated at the idea of never practicing his art again, and he had an obvious solution on hand: his tradecraft. Kit Marlowe dies, and Shakespeare is born. For convenience, his baptism is exactly two months different, he comes from the same social class, and his father makes things for feet, rather than for hands, but here the similarities end. Now he is transformed from epicurean man-about-town to hard-working husband and father.

So what about Marlowe’s publications? From leaving Cambridge to his spectacularly contentious death, Marlowe seems to have written at least six plays – one for each year he had left before his departure from the limelight. As usual, the precise canon is messy, for many of the same reasons that Shakespeare’s canon is also messy. Attributions on texts are not always clear. Sometimes there are no names, or multiple names, or initials. Sometimes people have put Christopher Marlowe on texts that seem pretty obviously to not be by him, presumably to flog them to unsuspecting buyers. Essentially, just like Shakespeare, there exists a handful of core works – these six plays – that most people seem to agree on, and then there’s a lot of heat and not necessarily much light around the periphery. On the basis of the accepted works, Marlowe is regularly described as one of the most eminent Elizabethan poets and dramatists. In fact, in his lifetime, Kit was far more highly celebrated than Shakespeare, and Marlovia argues that during this time, William Shakespeare “disappears from all biographical research just at the moment when Marlowe first comes on the stage”. Then, shortly after Marlowe’s death, Shakespeare’s star is suddenly in the ascendant.  The reasoning here, of course, is that Shakespeare’s increasing eminence after Marlowe’s death is a direct result of Marlowe thereafter dedicating all his literary prowess to his publications under Shakespeare’s name.

As a result of the possibilities left by his life and death, and this shift in Shakespeare’s popularity, in 1819 and 1820, anonymous articles were published in The Monthly Review suggesting that Marlowe and Shakespeare were the same person. In fact, rather than Marlowe being Shakespeare, some proposed the argument the other way around. Maybe Shakespeare had actually been moonlighting as Marlowe? But this is all external evidence. Timelines. Biographical details. Circumstantial alignments in the various little stars of the Elizabethan theatrical world. However fun the whole spy-poet-turned-Shakespeare theory in general, with nothing more concrete to sustain it than mere speculation, after a short period of interest, it sank gently into the depths of time. That is, until over a century later, when Calvin Hoffman revived it in 1955 by taking a longer look at the internal, linguistic evidence.

In broad terms, Marlowe’s writing was not only stylistically similar to Shakespeare’s, it also seems to have influenced it. In some cases, really quite a lot. For instance, Marlowe popularised unrhymed iambic pentameter, and this was picked up by Shakespeare in many of his writings (Schmitz & Utzt, 2011). And there are other key examples that Marlovia points to.

Take Marlowe’s Jew of Malta play. In it, Barabas sees Abigail on a balcony and above him, and he says…

But stay! What star shines yonder in the east?

The lodestar of my life, if Abigail!

Compare with this:

But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?

It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!

That’s right. Those are Romeo’s famous lines when he sees Juliet, on a balcony, above him. I’d be very surprised if most people don’t recognize the immediate proximities here in both plays. Of course, this could be pure coincidence? And I could be the true Tudor heir to the throne. The problem here is we don’t know why this has happened. If Shakespeare simply copied, then it’s important to acknowledge that Marlowe seems to have had an exceptionally high degree of influence over Shakespeare’s work compared to other contemporary dramatists.

Sometimes people turn to stylometric analyses as silver bullets to kill off these sorts of questions immediately. Such an extremely degree of confidence is misplaced, in my view. Like any approach, stylometry is really only as good as its execution – at some point I’m going to do the QSUM controversy which illustrates this in terrifying detail – but also, even if carried out meticulously, it can only inform. It cannot prove. If ever linguistic analysis is presented as though it can rise to the level of proof – not just evidence – but proof, then it would be worth taking a very careful step back from whoever is promoting it, and checking over their credentials.

Anyway, the useful thing about stylometry is that it can test a lot of countable features relatively quickly in comparison to other parts of the same dataset, or other datasets. You can test whatever amuses you – everything from feminine endings to function words – and plot the results over time too, to see if your author has changed in style from the start of their career to the end, or after a major life event. And timeline is a key factor in this case. Remember Shakespeare’s lost years? Those seven years from 1585 to 1592 when there are no records of him? No official documents. No plays. Nothing. And remember that Marlowe’s published works all appear within this timeframe. These then stop, suddenly, in 1593, one would presume mainly as a result of his death. And most of Shakespeare’s work is dated from around 1592 onwards. If there is overlap, it’s probably small, and given how woolly records are back then, rather than overlapping, the two chronologies could even be perfectly contiguous. Marlowe stops, and Shakespeare starts. We don’t know for definite but either scenario is feasible. Shakespeare is born, does nothing literary that we know of, and then vanishes. Throughout that time Marlowe’s writings begin to appear, but then he dies. Shakespeare almost immediately reappears, and now he’s dramatist and poet. It’s certainly interesting, but if you look hard you could find any number of coincidences like this, so that, alone, tells us very little.

Back to stylometry, with this timeline in mind, rather than informing us that Marlowe and Shakespeare were likely different authors, according to Peter Farey, all the stylometric analyses put forward so far that plot the results over time show that Marlowe’s work supposedly fits in just where Shakespeare would have been on his developmental arc at the beginning of his writing career. In other words, according to Farey, yes, the results between the canons show differences, but those differences can be accounted for by Marlowe’s relative lack of age and experience, and at the point that he supposedly transitions into his Shakespeare identity, these new writings pick up precisely where he has left off in his literary progress.

But there are qualitative arguments, too. Some suggest that there are hints in Shakespeare’s works that he is Marlowe, and therefore not dead. One such example is the opening of Sonnet 71:

No longer mourn for me when I am dead

Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell

Give warning to the world that I am fled

From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell:

In fact, a recurring question for Shakespearian scholars is who the sonnets are supposedly by – the implied writer of them, since there is a general agreement that they are not autobiographical. Their themes, ideas, and characters do not seem to link especially well with the known life of Shakespeare. By contrast, if he had faked his death, Marlowe’s life would have undergone a radical shift. He would have had to change home and friends. When he got back into his arts, we would have been obliged to work with a new theatre and associate with different actors, patrons, and associates. Inevitably he would have come into contact with new ideas and experiences. And he might have been doing all of this under a cloud of dishonour. Some point to Sonnet 25 as evidence of this:

Let those who are in favour with their stars

Of public honour and proud titles boast,

Whilst I, whom fortune of such triumph bars,

Unlook’d for joy in that I honour most.

Great princes’ favourites their fair leaves spread

But as the marigold at the sun’s eye,

And in themselves their pride lies buried,

For at a frown they in their glory die.

The painful warrior famoused for fight,

After a thousand victories once foil’d,

Is from the book of honour razed quite,

And all the rest forgot for which he toil’d:

Then happy I, that love and am beloved

Where I may not remove nor be removed.

It certainly reads like the bitter lament of a once-successful person fallen from grace. This supposedly carries on in the next three sonnets which beg for a return of good opinion, allude to weary travels, and intimate at a desperation to return. The other sonnets, too, talk of disgrace, guilt, and fallen fortunes – all very odd when compared with Shakespeare, the Stratford glover’s son, but seemingly very understandable if viewed from Kit Marlowe’s perspective on the world.

Others point to Shakespeare’s plays, too, and point out how many of them deal with similar themes to those that Kit Marlowe would have endured if he really did fake his own death. Just a few of these include switching identities, catastrophic events, being banished, falling into absolute disgrace, and, no surprise, death. So many deaths. Real deaths. Presumed deaths that actually aren’t. And, of course, faked deaths. In his 2014 book, Will In the Word, Greenblatt summarises these themes thus:

Again and again in his plays, an unforeseen catastrophe—one of his favorite manifestations of it is a shipwreck—suddenly turns what had seemed like happy progress, prosperity, smooth sailing into disaster, terror, and loss. The loss is obviously and immediately material, but it is also and more crushingly a loss of identity. To wind up on an unknown shore, without one’s friends, habitual associates, familiar network—this catastrophe is often epitomized by the deliberate alteration or disappearance of the name and, with it, the alteration or disappearance of social status. Shakespeare’s characters repeatedly have to lay claim to a gentility that is no longer immediately apparent, all of its conventional signs having been swept away by the wild waves. (Greenblatt 2014: 85)

Intriguingly, however, Marlovia doesn’t seem to be at pains to try to make too much of these parallels between Kit’s life – and death – and the events in the plays. The argument from their side is, the plays are just too rich. There are just too many events and circumstances. With time and effort you could make them appear to match up with anyone. But they do note that sometimes, some allusions or in-jokes or snippets are inserted that are very difficult to make sense of without some external explanatory factor, and Marlowe being the author could, in some cases, actually be the key to understanding them, or at least, to understanding their existence, even if we still can’t retrieve the intended point.

Two examples include a character in Merry Wives of Windsor mixing up Marlowe’s well-known song, Come Live With Me with the words from Psalm 137, the most famous song about exile in existence. And then the character Touchstone in As You Like It apparently jokes about “a great reckoning in a little room”. Remember that Marlowe’s argument was over a bill – a reckoning, and he was supposedly killed in a little room in a house in Deptford. If Marlowe and Shakespeare were contemporaries, there’s a great chance they would have known each other, and even been friends, or at least, friendly. It’s certainly strange, then, for one playwright to joke about the murder of another – a bright young star who was, in so many ways, just like Shakespeare himself. Unless, of course, Kit is in on the joke, and then it’s a laugh at everyone else’s expense.

Also, reassuringly from my perspective anyway, Marlovia doesn’t go off the deep end looking for acrostics and ciphers and so on. This hasn’t stopped all of them. Some see the curse on Shakespeare’s tombstone as a gigantic acronym. Others have discovered messages hidden in the Sonnets. As you can probably tell, I’m generally skeptical of all these approaches because if you torture your algorithm and your data enough, it will tell you whatever you want to hear. I have similar reservations about ambiguous passages and their potential for multiple meanings. Again, if you try hard enough, you can find a way to infer that a sentence that appears to say one thing means something else entirely. Words like face and figure lend themselves to literal, figurative, and metaphorical usages, and depending on which the reader chooses, they can seem to insinuate the dark and dramatic into otherwise quite ordinary sentences.

I do like this theory of Shakespeare the Spy who ended up out in the cold. It’s fun. And no surprise, there’s a world of Marlowe fan-fiction out there. Famous poet and secret agent is disgraced after something, maybe a mission, goes wrong. Sensationally fakes his own death and flees in exile to start a new life. Becomes even more dramatically celebrated than before. I mean, there’s a lot to work with here. But it’s time to touch back down and acknowledge that the theory isn’t watertight. For a start, whilst Marlowe was of a very similar social class to Shakespeare, records of his education do exist. He attended King’s School Canterbury, then as we know, he spent almost seven years at Cambridge – if we pretend like he didn’t vanish for lengthy periods of time during his degrees, that is. Also, with the best will in the world, it’s rather difficult to hide a person for the rest of their life, and in this case, a good thirty years. If he was publishing as Shakespeare, he clearly wasn’t keeping himself out of sight all the time. And there’s other evidence, too, that whoever Marlowe and Shakespeare were, they do seem to have been two different people. But we’ll get back to that, a bit later.

For now we must leave the espionage and intrigue behind, and move onto the fifth and final candidate for the role of Supreme Bard. Not a spy this time, this one was, yet again, an aristocrat, but he had the distinction of living a much more interesting life than either Bacon or de Vere. Almost as interesting as Marlowe’s in fact. Our last Shakespeare is…

The adventurer

William Stanley. 6th Earl of Derby. Most Noble Order of the Garter. Eventually husband of Elizabeth de Vere – yes, eldest daughter of none other than Edward de Vere, the monster. Stanley was also incomprehensibly over-related to about five hundred Dukes, Countesses, Lords, Baronesses – I spent a while trying to disentangle some of it but honestly it’s migraine-inducing. The most salient – and for the Stanleys, the most dangerous fact is that they also possess lineage that leads directly back to King Henry VII. Why would that be an issue? Well, Henry VII’s son and next on the throne was Henry VIII. He produced three children, and his son, Edward VI, would take the throne at nine years old. But Edward wouldn’t even make it to adulthood. Based on the symptoms, it seems like he contracted something like bronchopneumonia, and eventually died at the age of fifteen. Thus he was succeeded by Mary, the eldest sister. However, she too would only rule for a few years before falling ill and dying aged just 42 during a flu epidemic. So the crown reverted to the last surviving child, Elizabeth I. She would indeed take the throne and rule for an astonishingly long time, but by the time she had reached her forties and had no children, people began to realise that with her, Henry VIII’s line would die. Who, then, was next in line to the throne? A quick search of the family tree showed that the crown would default to Henry VIII’s younger sister, Mary Tudor, and then pass down through her offspring. Mary Tudor also had three children, but the son would die as a child, leaving two daughters to vie for the throne. The younger daughter, Eleanor the Countess of Cumberland would have just one child, Margaret, Countess of Derby, and her two surviving children would be her eldest son Ferdinando, and his younger brother William, our would-be Shakespeare.

That’s a complicated narrative to keep track of, so it really boils down to this very simple fact. This tenuous but direct link back to the dead King Henry VII put the Stanleys in precarious proximity to the throne. Far enough away that they could neither benefit from its protection nor make a realistic claim for ascendancy. But also close enough that no one, especially the Queen herself, could write them off as immaterial. After all, a little death here, a little marriage there, and the Stanley position could shift dramatically so that they stood to directly and legitimately inherit the crown. Or they could be found traitors, and summarily executed in public as a spectacular warning to anyone else having such lofty ideas. Monarchs have historically not dealt kindly with upstart near-relations making grabs for power, and even the merest suspicion of duplicitousness or engineering or conniving could be fatal. As a prime example of this, the eldest brother Ferdinando that I just mentioned, had died suddenly in his early thirties of an entirely unexpected and very abrupt, violent illness. This wasn’t a time when crime labs could test for poisons, so no one really knew whether it was a natural event or premeditated murder, but untimely deaths in the highest echelons of the aristocracy were numerous enough that everyone’s paranoia was permanently set to kill. And more, Ferdinando’s death left William Stanley, through his mother, as someone who could, in just the right circumstances, be an heir. Maybe. This was a very unstable position to occupy. He was a prime target for conspirators plotting to overthrow Elizabeth and install a new monarch, and he was high on her watchlist of potential traitors. A spiteful word or a misrepresented action could be enough to bring his life to a very early conclusion.

To put it simply, this was all rather limiting for William Stanley. Politics was dangerous. If he got loud or seemed to be amassing support or looked like he was accruing too much power, things could get very ugly, very quickly. Better to be a little quieter. Stay local. Bother the people in his own back yard. And this was what he did. But also, perhaps figuring that some sort of tiger-wrestling lifestyle might be safer than hanging around the Tudor Court, he also went on hair-raising adventures.

After graduating from Oxford, possibly in the company of the young poet, John Donne, Stanley spent three years travelling. According to the rather fantastic stories in circulation, in France he busied himself with love affairs and duels, in Italy he disguised himself as a bishop for the purposes of traveling, in Egypt he fought and killed a tiger, in Anatolia he was saved from execution by a love-struck Muslim noblewoman, and on through Moscow and Greenland, back to Europe. Getting a strong Gilderoy Lockhart vibe here. And anyway, even if I didn’t, just one original source of many of these tales is to be found in a ballad, Sir William Stanley’s Garland, that quite specifically exaggerates the whole affair for fun. It starts out by claiming that the three years of travel were actually twenty-one, and that he travelled most of the globe rather than just half a dozen countries. To try to pin this down a little, did Stanley travel? Yes. Documentary evidence points to him doing so. Did he probably engage in various affairs on his way around? That’s too much within the realms of probability. Did he kill a tiger with his bare hands? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say, no.

Anyway, when Stanley wasn’t abroad possibly seducing courtiers and throttling tigers or at home playing big political fish in the local pond, what else did he do? Well, apparently, he wrote, and we come by this information from… espionage. Come on. en clair is never more than three degrees removed from secret agents here. Let’s be honest.

But for real, though, in 1599, it seems that Edward Somerset, the 5th Earl of Worcester had a spy on his payroll named William Sterrell. Sterrell’s job was to try to further the Roman Catholic cause in the country. Remember, Queen Elizabeth, a strict Protestant and took a such a dim view of Roman Catholics that she enacted all sorts of anti-Roman Catholic laws. From Sterrell’s perspective, then, replacing Elizabeth with a monarch who had Roman Catholic sympathies would be an excellent move. As part of this grand scheme, Sterrell was attempting to find high-level figures who might be encouraged, or forced, into helping, and the Stanley family had long been suspected of harbouring Roman Catholic sympathies. Yet another reason why the surviving Stanley might have had moments of anxiety. And as I said in the beginning, with just the right series of very lucky – or contrived – events, William Stanley could, just about, maybe inherit the throne. But before any of that could happen, he would need to be convinced to play along with the plot. If you have a carrot at one end – the crown – in a plot as big as this, it’s extremely wise to have a stick at the other. Your would-be king might get cold feet. Worse, he might get caught and feel obliged to tell everyone everything. It just made sense to have enough leverage over such a person to keep them on task and silent. Thus, William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby, became one of Sterrell’s principle objects.

The Roman Catholic plan was bigger than just England. It involved a number of countries in Europe – various other heads of state, and of course the Pope too. To keep this whole network up to date, Sterrell sent back regular reports back about his various dealings, passing information out of the country to places like Antwerp, Brussels, and Rome. No surprise though, given what he was up to, he often used pseudonyms, and it just happens that several of his letters penned under the name George Fenner were intercepted, and in them he writes about William Stanley. I can only read his report as one of irritable disappointment. Will the 6th Earl of Derby be helpful in some way to the Roman Catholic cause? It seems not. Tersely, Sterrell laments that, “The Earl of Derby is busye in penning commodyes for the common players”.

Honestly. The Elizabethan period. You couldn’t even sit and write a play for the masses without some Tudor spook peering critically over your shoulder.

Anyway, based on this secret report intercepted in 1599, nearly three hundred years later, in 1891, James Greenstreet would propose William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby, as a candidate for the position of Shakespeare the Adventurer. His argument was that the spy’s contemptuously dismissive comment actually revealed that Stanley was secretly penning unknown works, and that these unknown works could be identified within the Shakespeare canon. And to be fair, there is a sort of logic here. As I’ve noted many times now, Sterrell was indeed a spy with the task of forwarding a cause. To that end, his job was to hunt out and report back high quality intelligence. In his world and for his agenda, the personally damaging secrets of an aristocrat like Stanley would be invaluable as leverage, collateral, even as a form of trade. Sterrell was likely absolutely primed to detect anything along the lines of a secret penchant, and as I’ve also said many times by now, an aristocrat couldn’t realistically choose to write dramas for the lowly commoner – especially not someone tentatively in line for the throne. It would be like discovering that Prince William was writing episodes of Coronation Street. So there is some juice to this lemon, then, but unfortunately, just as James Greenstreet was developing his theory of Shakespearian authorship, in 1892, he died suddenly, aged only 45. Three years later, in 1895, his work was picked up and developed along biographical grounds. Like Oxfordia, Derbia, if you can call it that, developed the links between the plays, their probable writer, and Stanley’s personal life – his travels, his nobility, his education, and so forth.

The real enthusiasm, however, arrived with the chemist Arthur Walsh Titherley. Titherley meant business and he tried everything – analysing Stanley’s handwriting, gathering genetic evidence, highlighting Stanley’s connections to the theatre through his financing of drama companies, pointing out the identical first name and initials that William Stanley has to William Shakespeare, the way both Williams would occasionally sign off as just Will, even quite angrily trying to disprove other candidates… It’s not a zero-sum game Titherley. And actually, some of his criticisms of other candidates showed a weird glass houses lack on insight into his own arguments. But anyway, all of this external biographical circumstantial evidence is stumped by one huge problem. If William Stanley did pen dramas and poems, we don’t know what they are. I mean, setting aside the presumption that he wrote the Shakespeare canon, obviously. Works under his own name are either lost to the mists of time or they haven’t been formally identified as his. So as usual, we can find plenty of external evidence – the coincidental links back and forth between Stanley’s life and the various events in the plays, but there is simply no internal evidence – no language, and therefore no way to perform any sort of authorship analysis.

Cipher, traveler, monster, spy

So now we have had all our five candidates.

William Stanley, the adventurer, fighting tigers one day, appearing in secret intelligence reports the next. Only circumstantial evidence though. No writings to compare with the canon. If he were on Twitter, he’d only ever retweet the nice things other people said about him. Shakespeare status: doubtful but difficult to categorically discount.

Then there was Christopher Marlowe, probable spy, definite writer, possible faker of own death. Plenty of his writings exist and links to the canon are not merely present, some are very striking. If he were on Twitter, he would be killing it. Shakespeare status: just about possible but mainly because I just really wish it were true.

Our third candidate was Edward de Vere, aristocrat, monster, temperamental disappointment. Like Stanley, however, none of the evidence presented rises above the level of circumstantial, and the parallels in his case can be found in plenty of others besides. If he were on Twitter, he’d bitterly subtweet about upstarts, but with way too many of those crying-with-laughter emojis? Shakespeare status: extremely doubtful.

Our fourth candidate: Sir Francis Bacon, newly made nobleman, epic lightning rod for absolutely fantastic cipher-based conspiracy theory, unexciting writer of essays. There is linguistic data available for analysis, yes, but, unsurprisingly, the difference in the genres of writing lead to differences in the results. If he were on Twitter, he’d randomly tweet Francis Bacon one day, thus giving rise to Francis Bacon day, which he would not really understand what was happening. Shakespeare status: possible, but, all things given, not very likely.

And then there was the group theory, which I keep side-stepping because reasons. Mysterious, foreshadowing reasons. Moving on, surely, then, the story is over?

Ha! Not even slightly. We haven’t got close to answering the question, Who wrote Shakespeare? yet. But where do we go from here? Well, what happens when you move out of the era of circumstantial biographical conjecture and cryptographic cosmological overlays, go all 21st century, and get computers involved? What happens if you call in the forensic linguists? Or, better yet, what happens if you do both at the same time?

Tune into the next episode to find out.

Spoiler: it is at least as wild as anything you’ve heard so far.

End of part 4 of 6.

If you’re interested in more Shakespeare content, from linguists, at Lancaster, then search the internet for Future Learn, Shakespeare’s Language. This free online course is all about both revealing meanings and exploring myths, and as a bonus, you get introduced to corpus-based methods for analysing Shakespeare’s language. What’s not to love!


The episode was researched and fact-checked by my research assistant, Rebecca Jagodzinski, and my intern, Debbi Tomkinson, and it was narrated and produced by me, Dr Claire Hardaker. I am also extremely grateful for all the input I’ve had from the renowned Shakespeare authority, Jonathan Culpeper – creator of that online course I mentioned – who has patiently entertained this whole miniseries idea from inception to gruesome, bloody execution.

However, this work wouldn’t exist in its current form without the prior efforts of many others. You can find acknowledgements and references for those people at the blog. Also there you can find data, links, articles, pictures, older cases, and more besides.

The address for the blog is And you can follow the podcast on Twitter at _enclair. Or if you like, you can follow me on Twitter at DrClaireH.

Credits, sources, and more

See Casenotes for S02E03 Slowburn Shakespeare, part 1 of 6 – Who Wrote Shakespeare?