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    Much Ado About Something

    Bill-lieve it or not

    Even if you don't buy a word of "Much Ado About Something," a documentary that tries to prove that Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare, it's a terrific joy ride for Bard lovers of all faiths.


    Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare? Documentary writer and director Michael Rubbo thinks not. And I have drunk poison whiles he uttered it. Okay, maybe I'm overreacting. I'll admit to watching most of "Much Ado about Something" with my arms folded, ready to bristle, which isn't exactly fair. But since Shakespeare and I share a birthday (also for him, his deathday), I feel as if I have a personal stake in preserving the reputation of the greatest playwright in history.

    Directed by: Michael Rubbo.
    Not so Rubbo. After reading the out-of-print "The Murder of the Man Who Was Shakespeare" by Calvin Hoffman, his piqued curiosity led him to create "Much Ado about Something," part exploration and part polemic, in which he examines the question of who wrote Shakespeare's works. Could it have been the William Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon whose formal education never went beyond grammar school, or was it one of numerous other candidates who may have helped this uneducated William perpetrate the most egregious literary fraud of all time?

    Rubbo chooses to pursue the most interesting of the Bard's contenders (and yes, I did mean that to be a capital B) — Christopher Marlowe, a professional playwright born in the same year as Shakespeare. For most of my life I've agreed with Shakespeare scholar Bill Browning, who says in the film, "The issue of authorship is a substitute activity for people, rather than looking at the plays. It doesn't help us." But when American author Calvin Hoffman died, he bequeathed over a million British pounds to Marlowe's alma mater at Cambridge. The lucky dog who manages to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Marlowe cheated death in that infamous barroom brawl in 1593, escaped to Italy and sent his plays to England via the earl of Walsingham, or via anyone, really, well that person gets half the money. I might even consider becoming a Marlovian myself for that kind of dough. Trouble is, I don't buy it. And that's okay, because I still had a marvelous time watching this movie.

    To make matters worse, this movie led a friend to inform me that Sir John Gielgud was an Oxfordian, too. I think I actually beat my breast.  

    Shakespeare's biography is full of holes — we simply don't know much about him — so there is plenty of room for supposition, and in this flick the suppositions are ample. Rubbo starts off interviewing some great scholars and a crackpot or two, throws doubt on the plausibility of Shakespeare's genius, and concludes with a theory of his own. The question-and-answer sessions are interspersed with footage from major motion pictures, i.e. Zefirelli's "Romeo and Juliet" and the more recent "Shakespeare in Love," as well as some rather silly re-enactments of life in 16th-century England. Some of the creative pro-Marlowe speculations are thought-provoking and even, dare I say, possible (the Inquisition gave Marlowe plenty of reasons to want to flee the country, since he was an atheist, a spy and a homosexual), while other theories are downright ridiculous (cryptic messages buried in epitaphs as proof of the great cover-up).

    Still, it's all great fun, whether you agree or not. Having uncrossed my arms to gesticulate at the screen, I found myself scribbling frantically, writing down everything those iconoclasts were saying and demolishing their postulates just as quickly. Yes, I did. The fact that I was yelling back at the screen (I watched "Much Ado about Something" at home, not in a crowded theater) is a good indication that Rubbo and his subject matter are terribly engaging. If not completely convincing.

      Marlovians point to themes of exile and loss in the plays and the sonnets as proof that Marlowe was pining away in Italy. I'm more prone to see these themes as part of the human condition, but hey, that's just me.
    A big part of what makes this film work is that it is packed full of titillative exchanges with experts of every hue in the scholarly spectrum. I was also surprised to learn that both Mark Twain and Mark Rylance, artistic director of the Globe Shakespeare Theatre, are Baconians (they think Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare's plays). Sigmund Freud, on the other hand, was an Oxfordian (he thought the earl of Oxford wrote them). To make matters worse, this movie led a friend to inform me that Sir John Gielgud was an Oxfordian, too. I think I actually beat my breast. Then I remembered that Gielgud was in that awful movie "Prospero's Books," and I was able to breathe normally again.

    Much of the Marlovian case is based on alleged "parallelisms" between the poetry of Shakespeare and that of their boy Kit. They point to similarities in the language, but I don't find it terribly strange that both poets refer to Helen of Troy as the "face that launched a thousand ships." (Maybe Homer was Shakespeare!) Besides, we know Shakespeare was a thief — he stole story lines and ideas from all around him, so why wouldn't he borrow a few choice phrases from England's most prominent playwright? This in no way diminishes his genius. In addition, Marlovians point to themes of exile and loss in both the plays and the sonnets as proof that Marlowe was pining away in Italy, an expatriate yearning for his homeland. I'm more prone to see these themes as part of the human condition, but hey, that's just me.

    All sides seem to agree that the question "Who wrote Shakespeare's works?" is a delightful mystery. Even we whose feathers are easily ruffled by the question itself are able to find great pleasure in Rubbo's trek through the Renaissance. Everyone loves a good detective story.

    FEBRUARY 13, 2002

    Reader comments on Much Ado About Something:

  • review   from michael Rubbo, Apr 19, 2002
  • Re: review   from Alan Knight, Jan 2, 2003
  • Saw the movie myself!   from Jennifer Lorance, Sep 23, 2002
  • Re: Saw the movie myself!   from Mike Rubbo, Jan 19, 2003
  • Re: Saw the movie myself!   from Jennifer Lorance, Oct 23, 2003
  • marlowe   from mike thomas, Sep 15, 2003
  • stratford   from mike thomas, Sep 16, 2003
  • marlowe2   from mike thomas, Sep 19, 2003
  • deptford   from mike thomas, Sep 20, 2003
  • Much Ado...   from Juliet Clark, Apr 13, 2004

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