It is unlikely that Christopher Marlowe wrote much,
if any of the plays popularly attributed to him. The writings are inchoate and
his poetic attempts juvenile and fragmentary. Some works have been added to his
alleged collection to pad out the dearth of what is a small body of work for one
claimed as a major dramatist, and to provide a semblance of excellence that
escaped him in his lifetime. This is not surprising when we understand
from the evidence that exists regarding his life, that he was an indifferent student,
had little or no involvement with Tudor drama and was an incompetent government agent.
Perhaps the most outrageous of claims that have been made for Marlowe is that
Shakespeare copied his style. Many have used the lack of recorded evidence of Shakespeare's life
prior to 1592 to make all sorts of claims.
Dearth of recorded evidence is essential to the conspiracy theorist.
Marlowe and Shakespeare were the same age and with similar backgrounds, though Shakespeare was
in a better position regarding his grammar school education.
There is no question of seniority between them
except that bestowed by work experience, and in this respect Shakespeare is very much senior
to Marlowe. Shakespeare was dedicated to the stage – he had begun as an actor
and evidence suggests that he continued to act throughout his career.
When we first hear of him in London early in the 1590’s he was already an accomplished
actor/playwright with years of practical experience behind him.
The idea that Marlowe could teach such a man anything at all is, quite frankly, risible.
Again, the only reason to suppose Marlowe’s supremacy is his university education,
yet his BA was average and his MA awarded for Services to the State with
no reference to his supposed high scholarship at all.
It is impossible that Marlowe could teach Shakespeare anything –
rather the opposite. In fact, if Marlowe did scratch a few lines and someone like Shakespeare
had not coached him, he would never have managed to write for the
playhouses at all; he simply did not have the experience even if he had some ability.
In 1587 we are asked to believe that Marlowe suddenly turned up in London
as a fully-fledged playwright without
any previous credible work to have built a reputation on. When we find actual
records that mention Marlowe it is never in a literary capacity. He is arrested on
a charge of murder along with Thomas Watson, a notable poet and playwright of
the day, but nowhere is there a mention of his fame as a poet or playwright. It
is only after his death that this countefeit persona emerges, until then even Marlowe
himself was unaware of his supposed literary fame.
To a poet/playwright well-tuned lines are a valuable commodity.
Shakespeare would have produced these automatically while writing a script,
even when he was doing it for the benefit of someone else. They would stick in
his mind and it is inevitable that he would use them again if appropriate
to a new work. If the lines were those he had produced
in collaboration with other playwrights, there was no reason why he should
not recycle them. It is, therefore, incorrect to assume that because a
line found in Shakespeare echoes a line in Marlowe, that this proves Marlowe
was the originator and Shakespeare a plagiarist.
It is difficult to find genuine and original lines that can be positively attributed
to Marlowe because, as scholars are forced to admit, the plays are a compilation
of several different pens. Thus Marlowe was given a contrived literary reputation that
relied heavily on the work of others, leading to the invention he was Shakespeare’s
mentor. In turn, this claim relies on
the spurious argument that because Marlowe appeared on the record before Shakespeare,
this confirms some kind of premiership. An argument such as this would be understandable
if Marlowe had been older than Shakespeare and with an existing body of work
to back up his status. This is not the case and it was Marlowe’s contacts
from his subversive activities that promoted him into the public arena,
not his ability as a dramatist. Shakespeare had to work his way forward
entirely on merit as he had no immediate patron to promote him.
In the end, everyone wanted a piece of the Marlowe persona. The State machine
wanted the populace to believe that some sort of justice had been served by his death;
the Puritans wanted to advertise the deserved death of a sodomite, atheist and general blasphemer
to confound the hated player groups; the players' fraternity wanted to use a scurrilous reputation
to sell seats in the playhouses and to sell printed copies of his supposed works.
Thus Christopher Marlowe was reborn not in the flesh, but as a marketing icon.
If there were no existing opinion on Marlowe and, coming fresh to it,
we were asked to construct the probable course of his life from the actual
evidence we have, then the claims of genius made for him would not, could not,
be made. This cannot be said of William Shakespeare. In his case we have a
strong body of circumstantial evidence backed up by twenty-five years of
documented and actual involvement in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre.
His was an involvement where he interacted in person with other contemporaries
in the players' fraternity. He simply could not have fooled them for so long
and anyone who examines the historical details we have must reason so.
In all the records and contemporary accounts we have of Marlowe,
nothing, not a shred of positive evidence points to his involvement
with the Elizabethan theatre before his ignominious death in 1593.
His Collected Works should be properly ascribed to an
anonymous group of Elizabethan dramatists and poets who collaborated
under the name Christopher Marlowe for their own profit.
In this respect the works have some value as a record of how the
business worked at this period.
They are not, nor should they be considered as a singular set of works.
Clearly there were two Marlowe’s: the man who lived a subversive and
clandestine existence prior to 1593, when he was murdered,
and a fictitious construct who came into being only after that murder.
It is the confusion between these two personas that has provoked the idea
in some minds that Marlowe lived on after his proclaimed death.
Certainly that death was suspicious, it was a murder after all,