Reason 95 – Part One – Why Edward, Earl of Oxford was “Shakespeare” — the Shadowy and Elusive Figure of Christopher Marlowe

This series now confronts the immortal but shadowy figure of Christopher Marlowe, the Cambridge student and government spy who was stabbed to death at age twenty-nine on May 30, 1593 – just when the initial copies of Venus and Adonis, carrying the first appearance of the printed name “William Shakespeare,” were on their way to the London bookstalls.

"Tamburlaine" was printed in 1590 without an author's name (click on image to enlarge it)

“Tamburlaine” was printed in 1590 without an author’s name (click on image to enlarge it)

Even though Tamburlaine the Great had drawn great crowds to the Rose from 1587 onward, Marlowe’s name had never appeared on any published work during his lifetime. Given that audience members seldom if ever cared to know who wrote the plays they attended (the way we seldom care to know the screenwriters of our movies), the commonly held assumption that he was “the toast of the town” as a popular playwright must be a fantasy.

Ironically, however, at the very moment of Marlowe’s death in 1593 the “Shakespeare” name was being launched as that of a new, heretofore unknown poet whose highly cultured narrative poem would soon be a bestseller reprinted over and over again. In fact the name of Shakespeare, on the dedication to Henry, Earl of Southampton, quickly did became the toast of the town, at least for those who could buy books and read them.

Dedication of "Venus and Adonis" in 1593 to Southampton with first printing of the Shakespeare name

Dedication of “Venus and Adonis” in 1593 to Southampton with first printing of the Shakespeare name

The nature of the relationship between “Marlowe” and “Shakespeare” has generated much academic uncertainty and perplexity. Scholars and biographers have pondered and dissected the inextricable entanglement of those two famous names, and of the works attributed to those names, without consensus. Oscar James Campbell in his trustworthy & valuable Reader’s Encyclopedia of Shakespeare (1966) notes the confusion:

“Because the chronology of the composition of Marlowe’s plays and those of Shakespeare is uncertain, and because of the dearth of information about Shakespeare’s activities during the ‘seven lost years’ [1586-1592], it is impossible to discuss with precision the literary interrelationship of these two playwrights … Whatever their personal relationship, it is demonstrable that Shakespeare knew Marlowe’s plays and poetry. There are hundreds of verbal echoes and dozens of comparable scenes and situations in the works of the two men. Frequently it is difficult to guess who is echoing or borrowing from whom…”

The traditional idea is that Will Shakspere of Stratford, being the same age as Marlowe but newly arrived in London, was so inspired by Tamburlaine’s commanding eloquence and unrelenting violence that soon he began to write parts one, two and three of Henry VI and then got to work on his own bloody play, Titus Andronicus. Exactly how such a miracle might have occurred – amid Shakspere’s supposed acting career, his moneylending activities, and so on – is beyond words.

With the Admiral's Men at the Rose

Edward Alleyn as Tamburlaine, with the Admiral’s Men at the Rose Playhouse

But Stephen Greenblatt in Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (2004) betrays no perplexity and no trouble at all comprehending the miracle. He imagines — he fancies, he supposes, he conjectures — that, just when Shakspere was “finding his feet in London,” he must have noticed the hoopla over Tamburlaine and “almost certainly saw the play.” And this “may indeed have been one of the first performances he ever saw in a playhouse – perhaps the first.”

Yes, and on the basis of what we see in the early plays, this “appears to have had upon him an intense, visceral, indeed life-transforming impact.”

(Hmmmm. The transformation — in just a few years — would have been from a young man who had never been inside a packed London playhouse to a dramatist not only surpassing Marlowe himself, but, of course, becoming the greatest playwright of the English language! By 1595 he would have turned out both Richard II and Richard III and, by 1598, completed no less than twelve plays including Love’s Labours Lost, Romeo and Juliet , King John and The Merchant of Venice!]

The 2007 production directed by Michael Kahn for the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington DC

The 2007 production directed by Michael Kahn for the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington DC

“Shakespeare had never heard anything quite like this before,” writes Greenblatt as he imagines the Tamburlaine experience, “certainly not in the morality plays or mystery cycles he had watched back in Warwickshire. He must have said to himself something like, ‘You are not in Stratford anymore.’”

[Do I hear a song coming on …?]

Attending this play among the groundlings at the Rose, and staring up at Edward Alleyn playing Tamburlaine, was a “crucial experience” for him and a “challenge” that “must have been intensified when he learned that Marlowe was in effect his double: born in the same year, 1564 …”

Okay, enough! Enough of this imaginative fiction run rampant…

Let us return to 1593, when the sophisticated and highly cultured narrative poem, which “Shakespeare” called “the first heir of my invention,” was instantly popular among university students, aristocrats and even members of the royal court including young Henry Lord Southampton, to whom it was dedicated. This blockbuster would be joined in 1594 by an even more brilliant poem – Lucrece, also dedicated to Southampton, whose primary source was the story as told by Ovid in his Fasti, a work that would not be translated into English until … 1640!

We shall need even more imaginative fiction to explain how the young Warwickshire fellow pulled that rabbit out of the hat…

The first time Marlowe's name on this poem is in 1598...

The first time Marlowe’s name becomes linked to this poem is in 1598…

On September 28, 1593, the unfinished manuscript of another narrative poem, Hero and Leander, was entered at the Stationer’s Register by John Wolf, who described it as “an amorous poem devised by Christopher Marloe [sic].” But something happened to stop Wolf from printing the poem and it was five years until the initial edition was published by Edward Blount in 1598, attributed to Marlow; and this was followed in the same year by another edition from publisher Paul Linley, who advertised it as “begun by Christopher Marloe [sic] and finished by George Chapman.”

“Marlowe’s Hero and Leander is the best of the Ovidian romances,” Campbell writes. “It contains the most successful combination of the genre’s distinctive characteristics: descriptions of natural beauty, voluptuous development of erotic situations, and an ornate style. These are also the elements of which Shakespeare composed Venus and Adonis.”

hero and leander

Imagine that! Marlowe and “Shakespeare” were both writing the same kind of long, romantic, sensual, erotic poem based on Ovid; they were writing and/or completing their similar narrative poems at virtually the same time, in the year of Marlowe’s untimely death, when “Shakespeare” forged ahead by getting his masterful “first heir” into print and taking over the poetical limelight from there on.

Marlowe’s name appeared in print for the first time in the following year, 1594, when the play Edward II was published as by “Chr. Marlow” and another play Dido, Queen of Carthage was published as by “Christopher Marlow and Thomas Nashe.”

“No play of Marlowe’s is more closely related to one of Shakespeare’s than is Edward II to Richard II,” Campbell writes. “For decades scholars assumed that Marlowe’s was the first significant English chronicle history play, and that therefore he taught Shakespeare much.

“Recently, however, it has been established that Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy antedates Edward II; in other words, Shakespeare helped Marlowe; the combination of Shakespeare-Marlowe helped Shakespeare in Richard II.”

Reflecting the aforesaid academic perplexity, Campbell adds in classic understatement: “The intricacies of these interrelationships are detailed and complex.”

Part Two will look at the elusive, shadowy figure of Marlowe from a different angle, beginning to resolve this confusion by arranging the puzzle pieces — the seemingly inscrutable facts of the history — in a new way, bringing into focus of what I suggest to be the contours of a true, clear picture.

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23 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hank, wasn’t Livy’s History of Rome also a main source for this poem?

    • Yes, Howard, that’s right. Livy of course was several centuries earlier than Ovid. Thanks for mentioning it!

  2. Hank, the year of 1566 seems to be inaccurate.

    • Ha! Yes, by a cool 400 years! Thanks, Sandy.

  3. Hero and Leander is far too close to Venus and Adonis to be Marlowe’s. The style, vocabulary, sources… nothing match Marlowe. My idea, following Stephanie Hughes, is that this poem was written by Oxford probably in later years and attributed to Marlowe because he was already dead by the time (or just exiled, depend on which end you think Marlowe had).

  4. Hank, you’re taking the bread out of Ros Barber’s mouth. What a pity… I think you remember the reason of my terrible sorrow 🙂

  5. If Hank writes, there are hundreds of verbal echoes and dozens of comparable scenes and situations in the works of the two men of the same age [ with a seemless, non overlapping transition 1593 from highly popular Marlowe, superstar of the London theater to a yet unknown Shakspere] and that frequently it is difficult to guess who is echoing or borrowing from whom, then Hank consciously or unconsciously knows that this situation is out of any conceivable likelihood.
    I am certain that Hank in his second part (blog 96) will not arrive at the most plausible and logic, and only possible consequence that it can by no means have been the work of two men but of a single genius , who because of life threatening was forced to change 1593 identity and name masking and writing behind multiple pseudonyms (including living business man from Stratford).
    I am curius to read how Henk in blog 96 gets around that, declaring Edward the only possible genius and the solution of the problem?

    • Thanks for dropping by. Well, you’ll definitely find out how, in what will be part two of Reason 95. I’m working on a brief writing project so will probably not post the second part until later in the week or right after the Memorial Day weekend. For all I know there will be three parts to the same reason. I agree with the single-genius point, by the way. Otherwise, even you might be convinced that Edward was the man … just kidding … but I do believe it’ll be a solid case. I look forward to hearing from you afterward.

    • Hi,

      independently of Hank, my humble advice is that don’t put much energy into the Marlowe-version. The real author was Oxenford, either they are the same person or not. The real proof will come, stay tuned.

  6. Whittemore, the idea of the author of Shakespeare being Marlowe is convinced, but watch out! there are differences between Marlowe and Shakespeare which makes the claim of the single-author somehow impossible.

    If the matter was Marlowe, I would put attention on his translation of “Amores” and “Hero and Leander”. This poem, alongside with “Edward II” as nothing to do with Marlowe, as far as my researchs have concluded. For example, the sources and the styles are quite differents. Also, the evidences to identify Oxford with Greene make Oxford busy at the begining of the 1590’s with ending his pen-name and start a new (thus Shakespeare in “Venus and Adonis”). I would bet on Stephanie Hughes’ thesis that Marlowe was a pupil to Oxford and Walsingham. Why of this two? Because Walsingham was thinking on preparing the public to a war with Spain and with Oxford went out to find young writers with good expectations to because persuasive writers to the propaganda. Something used, for example, in many movies during the II World War to make people choose sides and fight.

    I believe John Donne was also made a “pupil” of Oxford with this scheme, I’m with Mena by identifying Donne with Nashe. Hughes claim Marlowe absorved much of Oxford (this would justify the similarities of styles and phrases, but no an 100% match, failing in, for example, sources, Marlowe being less Ovidian like Oxford as Greene and Shakespeare). He, helped by his ambitions and Edward Alleyn, “rebeled” against Oxford and Walsingham. Henry Chatell, the most likely author of “Groatsworth”, must have knew this, and advised him before he was killed (or exiled, his death is polemic, we don’t need to be Marlovian to admit this).Edward Alleyn was also approched with his act of “treason” to the spymaster and the Earl of Oxford. He was the “up-start crow”.

  7. Oh, Whittemore, I was seeing news on Oxfordians and I found this, maybe is of your and many other writers’ interess: looks like Cardenio was finally found…

    • Thanks Francisco. We must read it:-)

  8. Hank,

    I’ve found the name of a certain Calvin Hoffman from the USA, who back in the 1950’s years already compared Marlowe’s and Shakespeare’s texts, and claimed that these were written by the same hand. Do you know this man’s works?

    • You seem to be a beginner, why do you inform yourself about Marlowe at a fine impressive personality being a convinced arch-oxfordian….

      • Who are you? Is your book available in English?

      • Total, complete beginner. Thus, I like to learn from professionals, like you. Please teach me.

    • Yes, it’s “The Murder of the Man Who Was ‘Shakespeare'” — proposing that Marlowe did not die but instead slipped away to the continent, where he continued to write under the Shakespeare name. I recommend Daryl Pinksen’s book “Marlowe’s Ghost” (2008) for anyone wanting to pursue that inquiry.

  9. Thanks, Hank.

    • “The murder of the man who was Shakespeare”… I’ve read about it sometime ago. Yet, I thought this book was nothing serious of the area, just fiction, like DaVinci’s Code.

      • There are folks out there taking it very seriously. I agree with you, however. And even if you were convinced that Marlowe did not die … which would take an awful lot … then relating his life to the works in any meaningful way would be sheer guesswork or fantasy. But yes, fiction is what it must be…

  10. I know people making a comfortable living from this guesswork. Meanwhile, ridiculung those knowing and proving the truth. How surprised she will be.

  11. HANK
    You asked (june 8) about my book,
    Unfortunately, my book “The true Shakespeare: Christopher Marlowe (Second Edition, december 2013) is published only in German. I could not find a publisher in England / USA, interested in an English translation.
    To interest the English-speaking countries at least for the theses of the book, I created an English part of my website (a] homepage / b]blog, c] QUIZ Questions) that makes you familiar with the ideas of the book as well as with a small selection of questions (s.Quiz) which can only be answered , when accepting Marlowe.
    Concerning the overwhelming amounts of direct and indirect arguments for Marlowe, the book had to be restricted to 700 pages.


    • Thanks. I’ll try to give it some publicity. You have obviously done a lot of work!

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