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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