We are continually asked why Shakespeare had to hide his true identity. That’s a hard question because the answer is so complicated. Yes, the true author was a man addicted to privacy. Yes, there was a “stigma of print” associated with publishing original works of the imagination. Yes, the patrons were just as constrained to hide their part in the story as were the writers. But why?
Today we see Theater, particularly Shakespeare’s, as High Art on the level with Opera and classical concerts. We may be told that in the 1580s it was regarded by the Establishment much like concerts by bands like KISS and Black Sabbath were seen by people over thirty in the 1970s. But it doesn’t register––we’re too stuck in our own mindset. We simply don’t see how it could be. Well, it could be, and it was. A range of attitudes and fears conjoined to make the London Stage (and the periodical press) seem a threat to almost everything the Reformation and the Crown held dear.
Look at the situation from the Crown’s point of view: If the Court Stage had the power to affect the thinking and beliefs of the Court community, how much more power would the actors and their playwrights have with the opening of these two yearround theaters that potentially reached every sector of the London population plus those provincials who came to town during court terms to do business?
There must have been more than one Court official watching this phenomenon with anxiety, more than one who had more than an inkling of the tremendous power that had just been handed over to the actors, who were not exactly renowned for their strong sense of civic responsibility. However, as long as Oxford, one of their own, was doing most of the writing, and was, as I believe, nominally in charge of what writing was done for these two theaters, they could trust that some measure of control remained in place.
Now look at the situation from the point of view of the actors and the theater managers. Now that they had these theaters generating income at the door, their allegiance was divided. No longer did they owe it solely to the patrons who paid their stipends and provided their venues. Now they owed it as well to the public who paid their pennies at the door.
For them to succeed, to pay the rent and put food on the table, week after week, month after month, it was the audience who must be pleased, whose needs and desires were beginning to trump the needs and desires of the patrons who until then had always been their primary means of support. This is why I say that it was the opening of the commercial theaters that was the first step towards functional democracy. For the theaters, the bully pulpit of their times, it was the audience who would determine what they produced, by voting, with their pennies, for the kind of plays they wanted to see.
The Burbages must have felt this, but they never forgot that it was just as necessary to please their patrons, a major factor in their eventual and astounding financial and artistic success. So it was not the Burbages who brought about the first real showdown over this new-found political power, but their rivals, who were out to take the Burbages’ London audience away from them. And how were they to do that? By staging the most popular play ever produced in London up to that point.
Sometime in 1587, the entrepreneur Philip Henslowe built the second full scale public theater in an even more accessible area than Burbage’s. This was the Rose Theater, located in the Southwark district just south of the Thames near the old bear baiting arena. Possibly simply by chance, much more likely by well-considered conspiracy, shortly after the Rose opened, the apprentice playwright, Christopher Marlowe, and a handful of actors, among them Oxford’s trainee, Edward Alleyn, broke with Burbage and went to the Rose where they proceeded to stage Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. Christopher Marlowe had the power to pull in a working class audience and he used it. Oxford, his credit gone, was cast aside, his controls ignored. This was business. Marlowe, Alleyn & Company were determined to make their move in the brave new world of the public theater, come what may.
Tamburlaine was England’s first superhit. With the tall, powerful Edward Alleyn spouting Marlowe’s mighty line it seemed the London audience would never tire of it. For as long as the record shows that Henslowe played it, it continued to fill the auditorium and the money-box. It was a phenomenon on the level of James Lucas’s Star Wars in the 1970s. It’s true that as the record also shows, Shakespeare’s Henry the Sixth was a close contender, but Shakespeare knew how to please an audience without outraging the authorities, something Marlowe didn’t understand. Or perhaps he trusted his patrons to protect him.
How can it be that for centuries historians have ignored the truth behind the assassinations of Marlowe and his patron, Lord Strange, blandly accepting the government versions with a shrug. Don’t such things matter? Just because there’s no surviving evidence of outrage over Marlowe’s plays doesn’t mean the Crown simply ignored them. Of course it cared. This is what we get when mainstream historians ignore literature and literary historians ignore politics.
How could a government, panicked over the safety of its sovereign and a powerful religious establishment equally worked up over the morals of its constitutents, not have taken umbrage at the staged humiliation and execution of a monarch by an upstart shepherd and then, in Tamburlaine II, the burning of a holy book onstage! It was supposed to be the Koran, but the illiterate English public knew nothing of Middle Eastern history. It didn’t matter what the characters were named or what costumes they wore, for them these plays were based on local events and were taking place in present time. To them there was only one holy book, the Bible. Surely it was this that dubbed Marlowe an atheist.
So why didn’t the Crown take action against the play, the theater, and its owners as they did a few years later against the play the Isle of Dogs and the Swan Theater? Why wait until the plague closed the theaters and cleared the streets, giving them (or I should say “him,” the real leader in this cleanup opperation) the opportunity to isolate Marlowe, condemn him, and do away with him without any public fanfare? The answer is simple: they were afraid of riots.
The Rose and Alleyn were hugely popular. Had any action been taken against any one of the three, the play, the star, or the theater, there would have been a public outcry on a grand scale. The Isle of Dogs, on the other hand––largely by Ben Jonson, still barely an apprentice––was simply not popular enough to cause riots. The Swan theater was new, no one had yet acquired any loyalty to it, and with the Rose on the south bank and Burbages in the north still functioning, it would not be missed. And there were other reasons as well, as there usually are.
Most important perhaps, having learned from Marlowe’s popularity, those involved were better equipped to see trouble coming and so nip it in the bud. By killing Marlowe (or, more likely, having him transported to the Continent) they ensured that his most recent play, The Massacre at Paris, would be the last of its kind. By killing his patron, Lord Strange, the following year, they ensured that henceforth patrons would watch their companies more closely.
And it’s not as though Marlowe and company hadn’t been warned. We know they were because eight months before his arrest there was just such a warning in Greene’s Groatsworth of Witte, where the warning was stated as clearly as it could be without being said in so many words. How was it that Greene put it? That Marlowe better quit his atheistic writing, for “little knowest thou how in the end thou shalt be visited.” How could anything be more pointed than that?
Although most playgoers remained in the dark about their loss, as have the historians ever since, Marlowe’s fate would have sent a very effective message at the time to everyone in the theater community. A few months after his death, when Tom Nashe praised Leonard Aretine as “one of the wittiest devils that ever God made,” adding, that he had forfeited his life to his belief in “free speech,” (perhaps the first time the phrase “free speech” was used in print), many took it as a comment on Marlowe.
Such freedom comes with a price. Marlowe paid the price as have so many writers before and since, but for the English-speaking people, by the mid-1590s the genie we call freedom of speech was out of the bottle and––imprison, poison, or hang whom they would––there was no putting it back. Nor has there been ever since.