Spears, shakers, and fakers: the endless literary ‘whodunit’

By Orlagh Davies

Sunday 23rd October saw the equivalent of a bushfire sweep through the Western literary and cultural world, as Christopher Marlowe was credited as a co-writer with Shakespeare for Henry VI, Parts I, II, and III. A project consisting of 23 academics from across five countries undertook research in order to attribute the true playwrights to their relative texts. The news shot to the top of the ‘most read’ sections of almost all major newspapers in the UK and abroad. However, despite the rather detailed articles there were almost no references made to the plays themselves or to the ways in which Marlowe added his creative stamp to them. The only thing of importance appeared to be the broadening of Marlowe’s canon. For me, this raised the question as to whether authorship and giving credit for writing is truly important in regards to what is happening on-stage.

There is, of course, sometimes a synergy between authorship and text, particularly due to biographical considerations. A notable example of this could be The Bell Jar, one of the most influential works of American 20th century fiction. In this novel, Plath describes in excruciating detail events taken and distorted from her own life, as though she was looking through a bell jar as she wrote them. To be aware of her biography can make for an uncomfortable read, especially in the scene of the suicide attempt, but I must ask the question of whether my understanding of or the inherent value of the novel for me would be diminished if I did not know about its semi-autobiographical nature? Plath herself even first published the novel under the pseudonym of Victoria Lucas, and the biography of her early years was not widely known at the time of publication, which suggests that Plath did not consider a knowledge of the author to be of huge significance for the reader.

Yet it cannot be denied that there is something thrilling in exploring questions of authorship; the almost mythic qualities of Homer as a blind bard, reciting thousands of lines to the masses, strikes at a romantic quality that most us cannot help but find entrancing. For the naturally inquisitive, we wish to know more, we want to be the one that solves the puzzle. Like Cluedo, it is a literary whodunit; did Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, write the works of Shakespeare? After all, he did use the pen name of ‘Spear-shaker’ due to his prowess in tournaments; perhaps this is a vital clue! Or perhaps Marlowe, who is said to have died in a tavern brawl on 30th May 1593, simply faked his death and continued to write as Shakespeare! How utterly dramatic.

You may note my sarcastic tone. In my opinion, at least, questions of authorship – especially in regards to a case such as Shakespeare – can become important only if you wish to compare several works by the same author. Therefore it could be important for someone studying Marlowe to read his supposed work in Henry IV parts I, II, and III, but it must not be forgotten that these plays are, first and foremost, forms of entertainment. The aim of them is to pass away a few hours in an enjoyable fashion; from this perspective, authorship is meaningless (unless Stephanie Meyer chooses to write a play, in which case knowing her authorship would be important so that it could be avoided). However, for the many societies that seek to ‘discover the truth’ in regard to various writers across the millennia, this is a passion, and therefore cannot be simply dismissed. The problem arises when we become transfixed only by the author’s name, as opposed to actually reading what they put to paper; we must endeavour to avoid this as much as possible.

Image Credit: Kieran Lynam, via Flickr

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