|Shakespeare by Fernando Vicente|
How close were Marlowe and Shakespeare?
The editors of the Oxford Complete Shakespeare believe Christopher Marlowe collaborated on the three Henry VI plays … but are they right?
Friday 28 October 2016 13.00 BST
Friday 28 October 2016 13.00 BST
By crediting Christopher Marlowe this week as the previously unacknowledged co-writer of Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy, the New Oxford Shakespeare’s editors have added another portrayal of Marlowe – the handy helpmeet working with a less experienced writer, and apparently not seeking recognition for the results – to the wildly contrasting other versions of him (and of his relationship, if any, with Shakespeare) offered by novels, plays and screen fiction. Here are some of them:
Seminal but solo
In the conventional account of his career, Marlowe had written at least five plays, starting with his 1587 smash hit Tamburlaine, and the narrative poem Hero and Leander, by the time of his much-speculated-about death in a knife fight in Deptford in 1593 – but, unlike most of his Elizabethan peers, idiosyncratic Kit is not viewed as having added to his CV as a team-writer. Shakespeare, also born in 1564 but a comparatively late starter (he staged his first play in 1590/91), paid graceful homage to him in As You Like It and was clearly influenced by him in choice of subject and individual passages. But there is no documentary evidence of them meeting, let alone pooling resources.
Dream team collaborator
In the Oxford complete Shakespeare, published on 27 October, Marlowe is credited as co-writer on the title pages of all three parts of Henry VI for the first time in a Collected Works; and reportedly is regarded as the lead writer on Part One, the debut covering England’s defeats in France after Henry V’s death that gave the young Shakespeare a deceptive reputation as a jingoistic chronicler of war (hitherto Marlowe has been cited among possible collaborators on it, but with others seen as more likely). How the partnership worked is unclear: the academic editors behind the project have said the playwrights may have written together, or a draft could have been handed on or around (like team-authored scripts in Hollywood today) for additions and rewrites.
|Christopher Marlowe (1585), by an unknown artis|
The idea that the playwrights collaborated is anticipated in John Madden’s Oscar-winning Shakespeare In Love, scripted by Tom Stoppard, where Marlowe is Elizabethan theatre’s undisputed No 1 (“there’s no one like Marlowe”, says Henslowe, and almost all the audition scene hopefuls choose the same speech from Doctor Faustus). Yet to pen a single word of “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter”, Joseph Fiennes’s Shakespeare, a struggling wannabe with writer’s block, is set on the course to greatness when Marlowe, played by Rupert Everett, suggests an Italian setting, romance entangled with a family feud and the death of Romeo’s best friend in a fight. Anthony Burgess’s Marlowe bio-novel, A Dead Man in Deptford (1993), similarly sees them as star writer and occasional sidekick, and specifically as partners on Henry VI Part One.
First advanced in the 19th century, the “Marlovian theory” – that the story of his death in 1593 was a ruse, and he continued writing plays billed as by Shakespeare – was turned into docu-fiction in Ros Barber’s verse novel The Marlowe Papers, winner of the 2013 Desmond Elliott prize. Facing a trial for heresy, Marlowe flees across the Channel and becomes an exile creating works supposedly conjured up by a merchant from the Midlands – and somehow it works. A comparable arrangement is talked about in Peter Whelan’s 1992 RSC play The School of Night (where they are friends but also rivals as both playwrights and suitors of a Dark Lady figure) as a solution to Kit’s arrest for his atheistic views and links to the titular free-thinkers; but in the end the official version of his death turns out to be true.
Bumped off by the Bard
Based on the best-known variant of the so-called “anti-Stratfordian” theory - that the plays attributed to Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, Roland Emmerich’s 2011 film Anonymous posits that Marlowe stumbled on the secret and was killed by the provincial nobody (a boozy, devious young actor paid to be the De Vere conspiracy’s frontman once Ben Jonson declined the role) after confronting him. But not in 1593, apparently, as Kit is seen still alive in the late 90s.
Ben Elton’s BBC2 sitcom Upstart Crow wittily inverts the Marlovian theory, depicting Shakespeare as authoring Marlowe rather than vice versa. Marlowe, a philandering, swaggering Elizabethan 007 resembling Rik Mayall’s Lord Flashheart in Blackadder, needs to be seen as a poet as a cover story for his spying; so David Mitchell’s verbose Warwickshire family man produces plays for the playboy spook who gave him his break in the theatre including Tamburlaine and Doctor Faustus.