William Shakespeare: The Conspiracy Theories – Part 2

(Continued from Part 1) But a greater threat to the family’s existence is the fear of denunciation. John Shakespeare could be arrested at any time because of his sympathies for the old, Catholic faith.

Everywhere in the country, private homes are raided by the queen’s men. They’re looking for Catholic priests and their supporters who might be plotting to kill the Protestant Queen Elizabeth.

Since Elizabeth’s coronation in 1559, the conflict between the English crown and Rome has escalated. Pope Pius V is no longer prepared to except the persecution of Catholics in England. He chooses the most desperate remedy, the excommunication of the Queen by the grace of God.

This means that Queen Elizabeth of England is declared an outlaw. Her subjects are called upon to rise up against her, whoever supports her now risks his own excommunication. For Elizabeth this is not only an immense provocation, but a serious threat.

William Shakespeare grows up in an age of extreme political tension. Murder, massacre and virtual civil war. Catholics and Protestants are at each other’s throats and Elizabeth I is constantly threatened by the Catholic powers of Europe. In such a climate everyone is under suspicion, even in the countryside.

Shakespeare, now 18, sets his mind to courtship. The lady of his choice, Anne Hathaway, daughter of a wealthy peasant farmer. She’s 8 years older than he is so is he looking to improve his position or does he have to marry because Anne is already pregnant? Four months after the wedding she gives birth to a son, one year later there are twins.

But Shakespeare disappears from Stratford, leaving his family behind. One possible reason, poaching in the deer park of Thomas Lucy, owner of Charlecote, a country house near Stratford. Another reason, fear of religious persecution. Lucy, an evangelical, persecutes recusant Catholic families in the area, including Shakespeare’s mother’s relatives. Lucy has already sent one of them to the gallows.

Whatever the cause of Shakespeare’s disappearance from Stratford, he’s gone for more than seven years. What did he do during this time? Did he travel in continental Europe learning the languages he must have known to write the plays? Did he study in the library of some great benefactor in England? We simply don’t know, there are no documents. No wonder these are known as Shakespeare’s lost years. We don’t even know when he arrived in London.

London is a metropolis with 250,000 inhabitants. The most opulent pastime is theater going. The theaters are situated on the outskirts of the city in notorious neighborhoods known for crime and prostitution.

They’re a magnet for all kinds of shady characters and also for London’s young literary lions. One of the central figures is the charismatic dramatist, Christopher Marlowe. He is a star. Within a very short period of time this Cambridge scholar has established himself as a brilliant leader of a circle of young writers and performers, among them, the best known actors of London’s theaters.

Nobody knows how Shakespeare came to London. Perhaps he came with a traveling theater group or all by himself to try his luck in this dynamic city.

Marlowe is at the height of his career, having won fame with his impressive theater debut, Tamburlaine the Great. Marlowe is also the first dramatist turn the medieval legend of Dr. Faustus into a stage play. The tragedy of a scholar turned magician who sells his soul to the devil and ends up in hell.

Marlowe would have been an important role model for Shakespeare, both were about 30 years old, Marlowe at the height of his career. He popularized blank verse on the English stage, unrhymed iambic pentameter, five beats per line: “To be or not to be? That is the question.” Shakespeare’s works rest entirely on this meter, of which he became the master.

Marlowe’s historical drama about the Asian warlord Tamburlaine the Great, ancestor of the Mogul dynasties in India is a hit with Elizabethan audiences. What role would this young ambitious author play in the life of Shakespeare? In the authorship debate about Shakespeare’s plays, Marlowe is one of the most fascinating candidates.

This theory leads to a story of treason, conspiracy, espionage, and political murder. There is one well known painting which is believed to represent Christopher Marlowe at the age of 21, at the beginning of this career. It was discovered only half a century ago in Cambridge, where Marlowe once studied. In contrast to Shakespeare, Marlowe had completed grammar school in his home town of Canterbury and received a scholarship to study at the University of Cambridge.

He soon turns out to be one of the most gifted students of his generation and here, Marlowe meets a man at the center of power, with far reaching consequences for himself and perhaps for William Shakespeare.

The Privy Council, highest advisory body to the Queen. Sir Francics Walsingham is Elizabeth’s closest advisor in her struggle against the Pope. He is both Minister of Foreign Affairs and head of the English Secret Service, the first professional Secret Service in the history of Europe.

England is in serious dangers from the powers of Spain and France. Elizabeth has no choice but to agree to Walsingham’ s ambitious plans to have Catholic Europe infiltrated by a network of English spies.

The Queen isn’t just worried about the threat of foreign invasion, terrified of falling victim to an assassination attempt, she constantly monitors the members off her own household. One of her maids is said to have died after wearing a poison dress. The atmosphere at court is strained.

Yet she keeps a close watch on England’s state affairs, another task she has delegated to the head of her Secret Service. Looking for qualified agents, Walsingham recruits Marlowe, amongst others. He’s already gained renowned as an author of plays during his years as a student. At the same time, he’s known as being reckless, adventurous, and unpredictable.

Walsingham will put him to the test. His chief agent cultivates a spy network, they are to observe opposition against Elizabeth on the continent, especially in Spain and France, strongholds of the Jesuits.

Marlowe was highly intelligent and hungry for adventure. Like Shakespeare, he came from humble beginnings, his father was a shoemaker. How tempting therefore, to take a job with the Secret Service on a good salary. It would bring him into contact with some of the most influential men in Elizabethan England. Marlowe was sent to France, but rumor has it that he was a chancellor and a gambler and people began to say that he was secretly working for the Catholic courts. The university authorities in Cambridge therefore took the decision to deny him his Masters degree.

Hampton Court, Royal Residence, Western London. Here the Privy Council, England’s highest political advisory body, meets when the Queen is in residence.

The Privy Council discusses what to do with the young poet. The archbishops, the bishop of London, a number of judges, and Elizabeth’s spy master Walsingham are members of this august council. But they cannot agree on the case of Marlowe and advise the Queen to be cautious. Warsingham, in contrast, tells her to trust Marlowe.

Continued: Shakespeare Conspiracy Theory Part 3