Film studies Shakespeare as fraud

Thursday, January 2, 2003

Was the Bard a fraud? Did someone else really write the great plays and sonnets we attribute to William Shakespeare? This literary and historical mystery is the subject of the 90-minute documentary essay "Much Ado About Something" on "Frontline" (8 p.m., PBS). Directed by Australian filmmaker Michael Rubbo, "Something" sorts out the opinions of the many literary sleuths and conspiracy theorists who consider the Shakespeare "myth" to be the biggest literary cover-up in history.

Through the centuries, many have come to doubt that one individual could be responsible for the incredible output of plays and poems attributed to one William Shakespeare, a man of humble origins raised without a formal education. Shakespeare doubters have included Henry James, Mark Twain and Sigmund Freud. The father of psychiatry even wrote a book arguing that Shakespeare contemporary the Earl of Oxford was the true genius behind "Hamlet." Through the years, others have theorized that Francis Bacon was the real Bard. The classic television ensemble comedy "SCTV" even lampooned the Shakespeare-Bacon debate with a sketch titled "Shake & Bake."

Much of "Much Ado About Something" concentrates on the modern proponents of the theory that Shakespeare's playwright rival and contemporary Christopher Marlowe was the "real" Shakespeare. These "Marlovians" speculate that Marlowe did not really die in a bar fight in 1593, but instead faked his death and escaped to Italy, where his talent flourished. Marlovians argue that this explains why so many Shakespeare plays involve false identity and Italian settings.

Others aren't so sure. "To me, the people who think that Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare are either American snobs, or great British eccentrics," says Jonathan Bate, author of "The Genius of Shakespeare" (Oxford University Press, 1998). Even Susan Hunt, the wife of a passionate Marlovian, can't stand to see Shakespeare debunked. "The English take in Shakespeare with their mother's milk," says Hunt. "We love him." Viewers who love Shakespeare, the man and the myth, will appreciate this quirky little film.

Tonight's other highlights

Cult choice

Kirsten Dunst stars in the 2000 drama "The Virgin Suicides" (9:15 p.m., Showtime), written and directed by Sofia Coppola and featuring a moody soundtrack by Air.

Series notes

Late night