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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