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Filmmaker Michael Rubbo travels the country screening his controversial doco, Much Ado About Something, in halls and galleries like a picture show man. His film brings new focus to the question of Shakespeare’s authorship – with something of a coup, in having even the Globe’s Artistic Director admit to the problem, Rubbo tells Andrew L. Urban. Who wrote Shakespeare?

On a cooool winter’s night in August 2002, Michael Rubbo set up his state of the art DVD projection gear in a hall deep in (or is it up?) the Blue Mountains 90 kms out of Sydney, for the Mount Vic Flicks society, to screen his 86 minute documentary, Much Ado About Something, which marshalls the major arguments against William Shakespeare being the author of the greatest series of plays (and some acclaimed sonnets) in the English language. 

“After the screening,” he says, “about 30 of the 90 people in the audience trooped across to the Victoria & Albert guesthouse and sat in front of the fire arguing about it for hours. It was wonderful … this is why I’m a filmmaker.” That level of engagement with the audience is rare for filmmakers – especially on an ongoing basis - and Rubbo’s hooked on it. Over an extended coffee in Sydney’s Darlinghurst, Rubbo talks passionately about his film. He carries a bag of books on the subject; he responds to every question with alacrity and a depth of information that informs his opinions. But his attitude is not that of the oft-snubbed crank: he’s more like an enthused detective.

And Mount Vic Flicks was not an isolated incident, as Rubbo travels around the country like a picture show man, after a distributor and exhibitor knocked back the film. “Besides,” he says, “if it was screened in a normal cinema, we wouldn’t be able to have the debates afterwards, because they’d want to start the next session.”

Rubbo sees the subject as “wonderful mind food” and something to engage us all; but there is a rump of academic opposition that is centered on the Shakespeare industry based at Startford Upon Avon (where, Rubbo claims, Shakespeare’s birthplace is incorrectly identified). The academics who see themselves as the keepers of the Bard’s faith. And what Rubbo wants to achieve – and crusader is a new guise for him – is simply to have the Shakespeare defenders, scholars who pride themselves on purity of research and academic objectivity, “to drop the smug complacency and admit there is doubt about his authorship.” Or to put it even more earthily, to have them stop calling people like Rubbo “cranks who are like the people who believe the earth is flat.”

"an open debate"

Flat earth? Dear me, those Shakespeare defenders are hyperventilating. What Rubbo has documented is an argument, well researched and sourced, backed by credible sources – including Mark Roylance, the Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre – that is worth hearing. All he wants is an open debate.

“The Shakespeare industry is based on a myth – a charming myth…” he says. 

It took five years to finish the 86 minute film (a slightly longer version – Mike’s Cut - is also available), which identifies Christopher Marlowe as the most likely author, with Shakespeare as a collaborator who provided perhaps some of the earthy humour in the works. Marlowe is not a revelation: he’s been a suspect for ages. What’s new is a rigorous examination of the facts about both men, a piece of detective work by a journalist (or documentarian, if you prefer) which not only reports what is said by whom – but shows us them saying it, body language and all.

“I took so long to make this because I was determined to have no factual errors in the film. After I finished it, I sent copies to everyone for input and corrections…I wanted to give everyone the chance to tear it apart and shoot it down.” Now, Rubbo is like an eager pub fighter ready to take on all comers in a debate. “I want to be able to take on any scholar – anyone can tackle me…” He sips his coffee. “This is very audacious of me and I wouldn’t usually…” but since he began to follow this story, he’s changed from objective reporter to a man of position: he thinks Marlowe’s candidature for authorship of Shakespeare-credited works “has an irresistible elegance. Marlow was a spy, a homosexual and a highly educated man – all of those things give him an elegance and suitability for the part.” Shakespeare has none of the attributes. In fact, the most damning evidence against Shakespeare is his lack of education, which is well documented. He was a nobody, a dullard, a small businessman, but “with a pretty wit” that gave him a chance to be immortal. Thanks to another man’s effusive talent.

“Marlowe also has the depth of life experience…” which Shakespeare doesn’t, says Rubbo. But this rests on the veracity of one crucial piece of historical information: Marlowe’s death. According to records, Marlowe died in a knifing in 1593 aged 29. Rubbo’s film examines the evidence that this was a fake death. That Marlowe, an atheist in exile in Italy avoiding the inquisition (among other dangers) staged his early demise so he could move more freely in a disguise. And did. And if he did, he could well have written the works published as Shakespeare’s. (The movie, Shakespeare In Love, includes a scene, curiously enough, in which Marlowe (Rupert Everett) gives Will (Joseph Fiennes) valuable creative advice…)

Imagine for a moment a character like Marlowe, the Oscar Wilde of his day perhaps, an erudite, educated, vibrant and complex man whose creative abilities were uncontainable – he was like a flowing river, oozing with the gift of writing. And if Marlowe is the 16th century’s Oscar Wilde, was William Shakespeare its Paul Hogan?

"Marlowe and Shakespeare were collaborators"

After his lengthy research and his initial start as an objective reporter, Rubbo has come to believe that Marlowe and Shakespeare were collaborators. He says Dolly Walker Wraight, one of his interview subjects, has traced Marlowe back to England in his guise as Monsieur LeDoux. He sees a scenario where the two men worked as a duo.

“I just want to Shakespeare scholars to stop shooting the messenger and engage in debate,” he says. At least John Bell, the founder of Australia’s Bell Shakespeare Company, sent him a four page letter – not exactly encouraging Rubbo, but engaging in debate. “He wrote that you’d have to have a tin ear to compare Marlowe’s and Shakespeare’s works…” which some people say seem identical, but Rubbo says that’s too subjective to be meaningful. 

Rubbo is not alone; an American doco titled The Shakespeare Mystery aired in 1988 and there are hundreds of books on the subject, albeit mostly academic and out of reach for the average consumer. But there is one special book, published recently by America’s Greenwood Press, titled Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography, by Diana Price, which is generally regarded as the most powerfully argued and ‘clinically’ examined case against the Bard.

"Price's text revisits the terrain of the Shakespeare authorship problem and sweeps away the detritus of conjecture. In doing so, she clarifies our understanding of why some of the problems related to Shakespeare are so vexing, contentious, and fascinating,” wrote Daniel L. Wright in Shakespeare Bulletin (winter 2002). 

Price does not, however, nominate anyone for the authorship – she simply demolishes Shakespeare’s claim to it. Among the new evidence and arguments introduced in the book: comparative analysis of literary papers trails for Shakespeare and his contemporaries; analysis of theatrical documentation showing that Shakespeare was a theatrical financier and business agent – but not a dramatist.

It’s the response of the entrenched Shakespeare academics that frustrates Rubbo, like D. Traister writing about Price’s work in Choice (May 2001): "A deeply uninteresting exploration of a question that, for most scholars, is even more deeply unnecessary. Collections with a focus on Shakespeare and a fetishistic desire for "completeness" will acquire the book. So too might collections that specialize in extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds."

Flat earth…madness of crowds… it’s easy to see the contempt with which the Shakespeare lobby treats any questioning. 

"it’s just a wonderful mystery, a game..."

I ask Rubbo what happens at these screenings he holds. “People are a bit stunned. At first they think it’s a bit of a lark. Then when the film gets onto solid ground, they’re stunned. Many have doubts about Shakespeare…and a few are left unswerving believers. But you see, Shakespeare’s defendants feel very strongly…they feel anger. But to me it’s just a wonderful mystery, a game…”

As we end our conversation and walk out into the sun of a Sydney spring day, I hear a song play in the privacy of my brain: “They all laughed / When Christopher Columbus said that the world was round…”

Published September 19, 2002

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Christopher Marlow – hedunit?

& Mark Rylance of The Globe

Marlow scholar John Baker with Mike Rubbo

Rubbo’s touring picture show travels through Sydney in September and October, before moving on to Melbourne. For screening dates and tickets, call Chili Films: 02 4382 1866 or 0408 721 867


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