Shakespeare & Christopher Marlowe

Anyone watching “Shakespeare in Love” could scarcely have avoided all the in-jokes about Christopher Marlowe. Indeed, most of us have heard some form of debate about the link between William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe.

But then, in late 2016, came the announcement that no less august a body than The Oxford University Press were to credit Christopher Marlowe as co-author with William Shakespeare on three of his plays – Henry VI parts I, II and III.

But what did this announcement mean? Well, lots and … er … nothing at all.

Lots because after years of discussion, four Shakespeare scholars – Gary Taylor of Florida State University, John Jowett of the University of Birmingham, Terri Bourus of Indiana University and Gabriel Egan of De Montfort University – believed there was sufficient evidence for this significant step to be taken. This decision was backed by multiple pieces of research and articles, all rigorously peer-reviewed, which analysed the vocabulary and prose in these plays, looking for patterns and clues when compared with work known to be written by Marlowe.

Nevertheless, yet another Shakespearean scholar – Carol Rutter, professor of Shakespeare and performance studies at the University of Warwick – believes this doesn’t settle the issue. Her recorded view is “Shakespeare collaborated with all kinds of people … but I would be very surprised if Marlowe was one of them.” Hence my comment about it meaning nothing at all. It’s all still a matter of opinion among the great and the good of Shakespearean academia.

And so I got to wondering, why did people start to look for links in the first place? Well, it turns out that our greatest poet and playright was poorly educated, having left school aged fifteen. Further, from what we know, he never left this country, had no opportunity to travel, nor to learn foreign languages. He also had no experience of military life, legal matters or manners at court – all of which formed a part of many Shakespearean plays.

So, at the very least, people were looking for a collaborator – someone to fill in these gaps in Shakespeare’s knowledge and experience. And that’s where Christopher Marlowe comes in. A scholar with a Masters from Corpus Christi, Cambridge who had sufficient fluency in foreign languages to provide translations of such work as Cervantes’s “Don Quixote”. Lastly Marlowe had knowledge or experience of military life, legal matters and manners at court. Yet there is no evidence that the two great men ever met, there is only the overlap and similarities in their writings.

If not a collaborator, then what? And here, the icing on the cake is Marlowe’s death. Violent and conveniently-timed, for Marlowe had been called before the Privy Council charged with being an athiest and in spreading those beliefs. Almost immediately after his death, we see the first published works of one William Shakespeare.

And so we have the ultimate conspiracy theory – that Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare are, indeed, one and the same.  Or rather, that the playright was in reality Marlowe, having taken the name of an ordinary man, whilst that ordinary man went on living his ordinary life. Indeed, the will of William Shakespeare listed every pot and pan he owned, but no books, no quartos of his plays, no works-in-progress. For a playright, surely those would form the most important part of his legacy. There are also no Shakespearean works in his handwriting, indeed there is only one example of his signature. Not uncommon if he was just an ordinary man but, even then, his work was renowned.

So,  if William Shakespeare was barely literate, who did write the plays attributed to his name? Or is it all just some conspiracy theory that we’ll never be able to solve?


© Debra Carey 2017


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6 thoughts on “Shakespeare & Christopher Marlowe

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  1. Sigh! This “Shakespeare was actually Marlowe/Francis Bacon/the Earl of Oxford” conspiracy theory has been around forever. I’d think the scholars would have better things to do than try to pick apart the wonderful plays that have given us all so much joy. And considering how any of these plays were written and performed after Marlowe’s death, what were they – ghost written?(pun intended). I’ve read Marlowe. He wrote some memorable lines, but it’s a lot nastier than Shakespeare. Look at the difference between The Jew Of Malta and The Merchant Of Venice. You can feel sympathy for Shylock. For Marlowe’s character? Never! Shakespeare just couldn’t create a character who was totally horrible – even his Richard III is witty and capable of sucking you in – and he’s brave too, and dies well.
    If he helped in the Henry plays – well, he was there before Shakespeare. They were early plays and not Shakespeare’s best. Did you ever see the TV series by Anthony Burgess? Tim Curry as Shakespeare? It was rather nice. Shakespeare has written his very first play, one of the Henry VI plays. He is rather cocky because it’s a huge hit. But he meets Marlowe at the pub and Marlowe asks, “Where were YOU in the play?” and makes him think. He gets him to think about his beloved son Hamnet and inspires Shakespeare to write that very powerful scene with the don who has killed his father and the father who has killed his son…

    Anyway, I am going to continue to believe in Shakespeare till they discover a letter saying, “Dear Anne, you wouldn’t guess what’s been happening in London. There’s this bloke called Marlowe who wants to use me as his front…”

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I would just add that in the 16th century leaving school at 15 did not necessarily equal poorly educated. There are contemporary records of admission to Cambridge University as scholars of 13 and 14 year olds, and these were by no means precocious students; nor necessarily rich.

    Also, the themes Shakespeare dealt with were pretty common ones in the literature of the time, and although there was a sort of copyright it did not operate in the same way so there is no problem with Shakespeare re-working themes he had ‘found’ in the work of others.

    Not convinced about Bacon or the Earl of Oxford either!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sue, I just love your closing paragraph. Perfect! In fact, I think it is the perfect answer to all the conspiracy theorists.

    I don’t know the Anthony Burgess series and shall hot-foot online to find it. It sounds brilliant (and witty), and Tim Curry too?


  4. To be honest Alan, the differences between educational ages now and then did strike me. But it formed a big part of the conspiracy theorists argument, so I let it slide by.

    Interestingly, Himself has just read this and commented “Marlowe? He was a spy.” Clearly there’s yet more …


  5. There seems to be some proof that he was employed by Walsingham but it is less certain whether he was a spy or secret agent. The distinction , I take, to be that the spy is entirely passive observer but the agent acts as part of the group about which information is being collected. There is a letter from the Privy Council to Cambridge University virtually instructing them to award Marlowe’s MA, which they had been hesitant about because it had been inferred that he was going to become a Roman Catholic priest, on the grounds that he “had been of good service to her majesty.” An intriguing phrase which can initiate all sorts of conspiracy theories! 🙂

    It has also been suggested that the ‘drunken tavern brawl’ was a device to assassinate him because of his activities as an agent. Maybe.


  6. I can see why Himself insists that there’s no point in reading fiction as history has everything a person could ask for. Well, almost … when there are rich tales such as these out there. 😀


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