Australian director Mike Rubbo’s controversial feature documentary discusses the question of authorship in the writings of literary icon William Shakespeare. Four years of painstaking research and handheld Mini-DV filming lead the director on a quest to discover whether the true penmanship of Shakespeare’s output lay not in the bard himself, but in the capable and gifted hand of his contemporary, playwright Christopher Marlowe. Rubbo, guided by the conspiratorial doctrine of wealthy American author and Marlovian Calvin Hoffman, interviews many leading academics in an effort to discover the veracity behind this topical question.
As the director himself notes, for two hundred years debate has raged about the authenticity of Shakespeare’s literary achievements with abject criticism, just or unjust, levelled at his education in particular. Citing recently published examinations of Shakespeare’s life, Much Ado About Something promulgates the view that the famed playwright was, in reality, a culturally-bereft individual who raised both his children poorly and found fortune as a money-lender and astute property dealer.
Rubbo, as narrator, champions Shakespeare’s counterpart as his intellectual superior. He outlines the case for Marlowe as Shakespeare by espousing Hoffman’s beguiling theory that Christopher Marlowe’s life was not, as believed, murderously cut short at the age of 29 (the writer is alleged to have died from a vicious knife blow to his temple during a politically-motivated fracas).
Instead, in the documentary, Rubbo alleges that Marlow’s death was, in fact, a brilliant subterfuge that allowed the secretly still-alive playwright to establish a new life in Italy. Motivated by the need to escape from rancorous political elements within Elizabethan Court society Marlowe takes on the mantle of a cunning, ideological fugitive. A view attested to by contemporaneous evidence, in which it is suggested that the darling of Elizabethan theatrical society had moonlighted for the English government as a spy at the behest of the Queen.
For more information about the film see www.muchadoaboutsomething.com.
Three sonnets have been put forward as cryptic messages that Marlowe was the true author in exile of the works attributed to Shakespeare. It is from these sonnets that the titles for a number of the tracks on the album are taken.
No longer mourn for me, when I am dead,
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world, with vilest worms to dwell;
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ; for I love you so,
That in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,
If thinking on me then would make you woe.
O, if (I say), you look upon this verse,
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse;
But let your love even with my life decay;
Lest the wise world should look into your moan,
And mock you with me after I am gone.
But be contented: when that fell arrest
Without all bail shall carry me away,
My life hath in this line some interest,
Which for memorial still with thee shall stay.
When thou reviewest this, thou dost review
The very part was consecrate to thee:
The earth can have but earth, which is his due;
My spirit is thine, the better part of me:
So then thou hast but lost the dregs of life,
The prey of worms, my body being dead,
The coward conquest of a wretch's knife,
Too base of thee to be remembered.
The worth of that is that which it contains,
And that is this, and this with thee remains.
Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten;
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men's eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o'er-read,
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse
When all the breathers of this world are dead;
You still shall live -- such virtue hath my pen --
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.
And This With Thee Remains (excerpt)
The Globe Theatre
My Name Be Buried (excerpt)
The Coward Conquest (excerpt)
What was your initial musical approach in regard to Shakespeare and Marlowe?
I was so excited to work on this film. My earliest musical experiences as a chorister and as a listener were in the music of this period so the whole experience was like visiting a favourite childhood holiday place. I was concerned about pulling it off with the sort of low budget that Australian documentaries generally have for music – particularly as there was a need for a variety of period music, rich romantic music and dramatic music – but almost straight away I had the concept of 6 singers, 6 cellists and contrabass which would cover all the requirements of the film and stay in budget.
I felt it would be a unifying force to have the same instruments cross between the centuries. The cello has a very large range both in pitch and in expression and so gave me a lot of flexibility.
Your use of lyric writing here is identifiably synonymous with the humorous nature of the English madrigal. Where did you source your text?
Mostly they are singing “fa la la” which is a common phrase in English madrigals and I think in this context gives the score a wonderfully subversive quality. At other times they sing “dubba dubba dubba” which is a more contemporary sound that I suppose is influenced by the Swingle Singers adaptations of Bach.
There are a few moments associated with the English Inquisition and their torturous methods where I used a verse from the ancient hymn Ave Maris Stella that goes:
Solve vincla reis
Profer lumen caecis
Mala nostra pelle
Bona cuncta posce.
Which means something like:
Break the sinner’s fetters
Bring light to the blind
Remove our evils
Pray for all that is good.
Given the overtly confining nature of writing Baroque counterpoint, at any point did you seek to embellish these boundaries either harmonically or melodically or did you maintain a rigid approach that eschewed modern practices in favour of accepted voice-leading?
While the film may be discussing an issue of the 16th-17th centuries it is a film of the 21st century interviewing people of our own time. These apostates and dissenters are lively and passionate debaters and give the film a personality that is often lacking in talking head documentaries. At times I felt the film was as much about these people and the nature of their fervent zeal as it was about Marlowe and Shakespeare. So I think the music needed to come from a modern point of view and consequently the restriction of writing in the period style was not only unnecessary but quite undesirable. Instead there are many influences and playful nods to the period and as I said before I had a wonderful time writing and recording this score.
Yes, that makes it quite a different challenge to scoring drama. There are a number of re-enactments in the picture as well as the interviews so we thought the best approach was to score some sections to picture in my usual manner but also to provide quite a bit of music that could be moved around by the editor. Consequently I needed to be very careful to stay within a limited set of keys so that each piece could match any other piece; this, conveniently, is in keeping with major works of the pre-equal temperament period like Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610.
What of the need to provide seutres between your music and that of the other composers noticeably featured in Shakespearian film extracts during the course of the documentary? Surely this presented an orchestrational challenge?
The most challenging was after an excerpt from Shakespeare In Love. The rights were obtained for exactly that segment but not to continue the soundtrack under our pictures. This meant that Stephen Warbeck’s score was brought to an abrupt close mid-note. I needed to create a seamless transition from his rich string section to my seven strings and from Stephen’s composition to my “But Be Contented” as though it was all one composition.
And the pizzicato double bass in the cue, “As You Like It”. How did that come about?
There is a filmed segment of a scene from As You Like It from the BBC production that I felt could do with some unobtrusive but bouncy and humorous support. The bass is pitched well below the actor’s voices and so doesn’t compete for attention. I also knew Kees Boersma would be playing and jumped at the opportunity to give him a rare solo. In the end I think the cue was replaced with another but it was used elsewhere in the film.
How did the members of the consort rise to the challenge of altering their instrumental tone and technique in order to imitate late Renaissance instruments?
Period techniques have been embraced and absorbed by Australian musicians. There are a number of specialist groups such as the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. But most interesting is Richard Tognetti’s work with the Australian Chamber Orchestra where even romantic and contemporary music is informed by early music practices. It means there is a clarity and briskness in the music which has audiences very excited.
So it only took a few words to the strings to get the two styles of playing I wanted. It was fairly self-evident in the music anyway. The Song Company specialise in early music so they just did their thing.
Text and questions by Glen Aitken
The soundtrack was made available on a limited release CD Unreleased Titles by Magic Fire Music for the Soncinemad 2007 film music festival.
The Song Company
Nicole Thomson, Soprano
Ruth Kilpatrick, Soprano
Jo Burton, Alto
Paul McMahon, Tenor
Mark Donnelly, Baritone
Clive Birch, Bass
Pro Musica Sydney
Adrian Wallis, Violoncello 1
Rachel Valentine, Violoncello 2
Rohan de Korter, Violoncello 3
Svetlana Bogosavljevic, Violoncello 4
Patricia McMeekin, Violoncello 5
Andrew Hines, Violoncello 6
Kees Boersma, Contrabass
Conducted by CG
Studios 301 Sydney
Recorded and mixed by Christo Curtis