Marlowe: A playwright, a spy, a rival

Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlowe was born in the same year as William Shakespeare, 1564, in Canterbury, England. Marlowe was largely seen as the ‘forerunner of Shakespeare,’ a graduate from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Marlowe quite literally set the scene for Elizabethan literature, having realised the potential of English blank verse, and sparking the beginning of English Tragedy as it is known today.

‘he could have been murdered by a love rival, stabbed in the eye during a fight, or simply never died at all’

A. C. Swinburne (1908), writes that, ‘Marlowe is the greatest discoverer, the most daring pioneer, in all our poetic literature. Before Marlowe there was no genuine blank verse and genuine tragedy in our language.’ Admittedly, Swinburne does not outline how Marlowe effectively pioneered blank verse while Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, was the first in English records to use it. 

Marlowe’s ‘daring’ nature almost defined him during his life (albeit short-lived) as it was navigated by his rumoured status of ‘spymaster,’ — a secret agent for Elizabeth I. Arguably, this vocation in espionage soon led to his murder ‘by the monarchy’ (The Guardian 2016) in Deptford, May 1593 at the age of 29 years old. However, countless theories provoked by the missing location of Marlowe’s body, suggest that he could have been murdered by a love rival, stabbed in the eye during a fight, or simply never died at all — in which case Marlovians contend that he lived a successfully prosperous life writing under the pseudonym of Will Shake-Speare. 

Irrespective of Marlowe’s ephemeral life, some of his most notable works, and in chronological order of publication are that of: Tamburlaine the Great (pub. 1590), The Tragedy of Edward II (pub. 1594), The Tragedy of Dido, Queen of Carthage (pub. 1594), Hero and Leander (pub. 1598), The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (pub. 1604; 1616), and The Jew of Malta (pub. 1633). Marlowe is renowned for his historic and tragic plays. Arguably these are far from the jovial nature of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, documenting and romanticising regal figures, for he intricately endorsed theology and universalism into his works. Perhaps, this distances Marlowe from identity theories in relation to the great Bard.

In 2016, New Oxford Shakespeare credited Marlowe with joint authorship on the three part plays of Henry VI, allowing Marlowe’s influence on Shakespeare to evolve from theory into semi-concrete practice following the analysis by 23 leading academics. Gary Taylor, professor from Florida State University, revealed that, ‘sometimes rivals collaborate’ (The Guardian, 2016) — a bold claim to say the least. Implicit in his writing Taylor drew upon the collaborative element of Marlowe and Shakespeare’s relationship, while maintaining that they were stock ‘rivals’ so to speak.

Marlowe’s contribution to dramatic Renaissance and subsequent influence on Elizabethan literature was profoundly more than many critics claim.’

We know that extensive classical and neoclassical contexts influenced and can be found in Marlowe and Shakespeare’s works ranging from Ovid to Plutarch, despite Marlowe being the scholar with a command of ‘Latin, Greek, French, Italian and Spanish’ (The Marlowe Studies, 2009) — the languages of such neoclassical works. In terms of stylometry, words which were typical of Marlowe were becoming increasingly more established at the height of his career, though Shakespeare is commonly associated with inventing upwards of 1700 words. John Baker, as summarised in The Marlowe Studies (2009) concluded that the ‘richness of Marlowe’s vocabulary easily encompassed Shakespeare’s and that many works were indistinguishable.’ Given Marlowe’s high level of education, which exceeds that of Shakespeare’s, Baker criticises Shakespeare’s capacity as a writer and places Marlowe on a pedestal of praise.

In scrutinising the creditability of authorship, are the works of both writers tarnished? Or rather, are they instilled with a newfound sense of value? For choosing to believe academic studies and credit Shakespearean literature to one of his contemporaries surely changes our entire outlook on the text. I think especially when it comes to commercial success, the debate and general study is amplified in the hope of selling physical copies of conspiracy books. As an English literature student, I find the conversation surrounding dubious authorship profoundly interesting; yet I am more inclined towards appreciating the texts of these writers above all. I believe biographical information — as important as it may be to inform our understanding of a text — should be used to supplement our critical appreciation viz. not dictate it.

Nonetheless, amongst Stephen Greenblatt’s writings, he overrides the possibility of a collaborative element in that, ‘the two immensely talented poets, exactly the same age, were evidently locked in mental emulation and contest.’ For Shakespeare, collaboration was not a foreign aspect; towards the latter phase of his writing career, he did collaborate with other writers to form many of his romantic ‘tragicomedies’. Pinksen’s (2008, p. 51) advocacy for Marlowe is also transmitted through his sweeping statement in the chapter ‘Vile Esteem’: ‘Nearly three centuries after his death, Marlowe was still not free from the forces of ignorance that conspired to keep his name out of the book of honor. Nor is he now.’ Therefore, Marlowe’s contribution to dramatic Renaissance and subsequent influence on Elizabethan literature could be exceedingly more than many critics claim.

Marlowe may be known today as one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, but we should acknowledge the playwright as timeless in his own right. With perpetual authorship debates tending to take precedence over literary appreciation in mainstream academia, is it time for us to put the conspiracies to rest and celebrate the playwrights’ works for their ingenuity alone?

Further reading:

Pinkson, D. (2008). Marlowe’s Ghost: The Blacklisting of the Man Who Was Shakespeare. Canada: iUniverse.

Shapiro, J. (1991). Rival Playwrights: Marlowe, Jonson and Shakespeare. New York: Columbia University Press. 

By Sophie Farmer

Image: Ann Longmore-Etheridge via Flickr

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