Times Arts Editor

To use the kindly phrase much favored by Noel Coward, Calvin Hoffman was gathered up early last month, at the age of 80, in Sarasota, Fla., where he had lived for 20 years.

I have no doubt that he died, as he had lived, absolutely convinced that the works of William Shakespeare were actually written by Christopher Marlowe.

Hoffman, whose professional career was as a drama critic for a string of Long Island newspapers, spent 50 years in search of hard evidence to confirm his belief--based initially on the similarities he found in the two bodies of work--that the man called Shakespeare was in fact only a paid front for Marlowe.

Hoffman's theory was first given wide public attention in a long and sympathetic article by Robert L. Heilbroner in Esquire magazine in December, 1954. Hoffman's book, "The Murder of the Man Who Was Shakespeare," which had inspired the article, was published in 1955. It was murdered by a Stratfordian loyalist in the New York Times Book Review, but had an admiring review in Time.

The Marlowe theory is by a long shot the most colorful and dramatic of all the alternative notions about who wrote the poems and plays if the Stratford man, whom Hoffman called "an avaricious businessman and interval actor," did not.

The two men were born the same year, in 1564, but Marlowe is thought to have died in Deptford in 1593, significantly before the great "Shakespeare" plays were performed or published or, presumably, written.

To make the Marlowe theory work, he must have lived on beyond 1593, and Hoffman had no doubt that he did. Hoffman was sure that, in a plot worthy of John Le Carre or Len Deighton, Marlowe's death was a carefully arranged fake, to save him from imprisonment, burning at the stake or assassination as an atheist and possibly even a traitor.

History's version is that Marlowe was stabbed to death in a low tavern in Debtford on May 30, 1593, by one Ingram Frizer, sometime spy. For Hoffman, the timing was significant. Only a few days earlier, Marlowe had been arrested under a warrant issued by the Privy Council and was in effect released on his own recognizance.

The background of the case is the thickly entangled web of Elizabethan royal politics, in which heresy and treason could be linked crimes. Not long before, one of Marlowe's Cambridge pals had been burned at the stake for atheism. A fellow playwright, Thomas Kyd, had been tortured on the rack and had evidently pointed the finger at Marlowe as a fellow disbeliever.

Marlowe's powerful patron, Sir Thomas Walsingham, who ran a network of spies, was able to keep Marlowe out of prison. And, Hoffman devoutly believed, stage-managed the murder. Frizer and two others in the tavern's back room at the moment of the murder were Walsingham's men.

Frizer was arrested but released in a month by order of Queen Elizabeth on grounds he acted in self-defense. The next day, Hoffman found, Walsingham rehired Frizer, a swell gesture of forgiveness to the man who has bumped off your protege.

Hoffman speculated that the corpus delicti was not Marlowe but perhaps a luckless sailor or vagrant. Marlowe, Hoffman was serenely sure, took another identity, may have worked as a guard at the Walsinghams' Hedringham Castle in Kent. Marlowe presumably fed the plays to Walsingham, who saw that they were produced and finally published.

Near the end of his own life, Hoffman was hoping to follow a lead that hinted Marlowe had settled in Italy and died in Padua in 1627, long after Shakespeare.

The maddening problem, of course, is that no manuscripts exist in Shakespeare's hand, or Marlowe's, or anyone else's. But Calvin Hoffman was convinced that somewhere in the Walsingham family holdings there must be a chest of manuscripts.

As recently as 1984, Hoffman received permission to open a family vault in the church at Chislehurst, Kent, and persuaded the BBC to underwrite the excavation and film it. He found no manuscript chest, although there remained a tantalizing farther reach of the vault the diggers could not get to without disturbing some of the fragile coffins. This Hoffman would not do.

So Calvin Hoffman died with the Marlowe theory only a theory, just as the other alternative authorship claims--most persuasive now for the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere--fall short of irrefutable courtroom evidence.

The idea that Queen Elizabeth herself, who wrote some excellent sonnets that do survive, might have written as Shakespeare has been advanced by the retired geophysicist George Elliott Sweet in an updated edition of his "Shake-Speare: The Mystery" (Vantage, $13.95), first published in 1956. It is useful and intriguing not only for Sweet's provocative theory but for its careful look at the Elizabethan scene, in which the idea of Shakespeare as a front man grows less farfetched. Nearfetched, even.

Such satisfaction as has become available to the explorers of the authorship question--Hoffman, Sweet, Charlton Ogburn, whose "The Mysterious William Shakespeare" makes a passionate but scholarly case for Edward De Vere--is that they can no longer be dismissed as pipe-dreaming eccentrics. They may have achieved no conclusive answer, but they have opened the question so convincingly that it is no longer a certainty that the man from Stratford wrote a word, and every reason to suspect that he didn't.

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