Was Marlowe Shakespeare?
Despite the problem of Marlowe’s well-documented assassination by government agents in 1593, Marlovians cling to this idea largely because of crossovers (direct quotes and similar phrasing) between his works and those of Shakespeare. It’s easier for them to imagine their hero as escaping the scoundrels who were out to kill him, stowing away on a ship to the Continent, returning shortly after under cover, and somehow managing to continue to write for the Stage under the name Shakespeare without any further cost in blood, freedom or publicity, than it is to face the reality in the facts as they’ve come down to us.
First, Marlowe was a commoner. This doesn’t mean he couldn’t have been a brilliant writer, for possibly, had he lived and had time to mature, he might well have achieved a level equal to that of the author of the Shakespeare canon. His brilliance is evident in the works that made him famous in his own right while still in his twenties. The question raised by his social status should be, how someone from a working class community far from London was able to write late 1590s plays shown to a public audience that, however subtly, point the finger at the most powerful individuals in the nation as wicked murderers, works like Hamlet and Richard III, and continue to do this over a period of time without any apparent repercussions?
So far I see nothing from the Marlovians that deals with this most obvious of questions. Who protected him? Who could have protected him from, first Leicester, then Burghley, then Robert Cecil? The high level lords who we know were his patrons both suffered, most obviously Ferdinando Lord Strange who was poisoned to death a year after Marlowe’s assassination, while Henry Percy Earl of Northumberland, who Marlowe also claimed as his patron (following his arrest in Flushing in 1591 on charges of coining) was imprisoned in the Tower for years on weak charges during Robert Cecil’s years of power. How then could the commoner who actually wrote the damning works manage to escape when even his patrons could not?
Second, none of the Shakespeare plays reflect anything we can assign to Marlowe’s biography. While we can easily point to the important incidents and events in the life of the Earl of Oxford as reflected in all but a few of Shakespeare’s plays, there’s nothing in any of them that fits with what we know of Marlowe’s life. Of those works we can be certain were his, Tamburlaine, Jew of Malta, Faust and The Guise, all are based on history or on recent events known to everyone in his time.
There’s an odd prejudice at work in authorship studies that seeks to attribute everything of value to a single writer. While literary history should send researchers looking to identify the creators of works of dubious authorship as members of a coterie, all too often they will fasten on one individual and attribute everything to him or her. In their search for similarities, they fail to examine the sometimes obvious differences. Yet, if Marlowe wasn’t Shakespeare, what’s the explanation for the many crossovers?
Marlowe as Shakespeare’s predecessor
Stratfordians deal with this by claiming that Shakespeare began his career by imitating Marlowe. Since Marlowe’s name was the first to be publicized (as the author of Tamburlaine c.1587) while the name Shakespeare wouldn’t appear until 1593 (on Venus and Adonis), ergo to wit: Shakespeare must be the imitator. Thus Shakespeare, certainly the most influential writer in all of English literature and also one of the most ideosyncratic––outpeculiarizing his most adroit imitators––is forced by the Stratford bio into the role of plagiarist of such minor writers as Anthony Munday and George Chapman. Have they no sense of the absurd? Most absurd is the idea that Marlowe invented blank verse, when in fact blank verse was in use by a number of writers, including the Poet Earl of Surrey, long before Marlowe. Don’t these chaps ever read any further than their primary subject?
In the current issue of Shakespeare Matters, Richard Waugaman’s article on Marlowe offers a good example of the confusion that our lack of understanding of the period can bring even the best of scholars. Striving to see Marlowe as the Rival Poet of the Sonnets, he interprets the crossovers between Shakespeare’s Sonnet 80 and Marlowe’s Hero and Leander as Shakespeare, i.e. Oxford, imitating Marlowe, his rival for Southampton.
This is an example of the kind of confusion that comes from examining the works of this period as though Shakespeare was the only false name ever to be used on a title page. In fact, his are only a few of the many works of the period that need a close look with regard to their authorship. As I’ve shown, though obviously not to everyone’s satisfaction, there were a number of works published during that period under the names of persons who could not possibly have written them, shadowy figures like Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, and so forth who have weak or nonexistent bios. Long ago I called for an examination of all the works of the imagination published during that period, not such a rigorous request when we consider how few these actually were in the 1580s and ’90s. When we begin looking at the works themselves and considering who was the most likely author of a particular work based on the time it was published, its style, and its content, the pieces will begin falling into place.
The Rival Poet
First, Marlowe cannot possibly be the Rival Poet. Peter Moore has put all other rivals to flight with his cogent, fact-based 1996 essay on the subject. If Shakespeare is Oxford, and the Fair Youth is Southampton, then the only possible Rival Poet is the man who squelched Oxford’s hopes of becoming Southampton’s father-in-law by stealing the Fair Youth’s heart, namely the Earl of Essex, who certainly considered himself a poet, and was, of course, so considered by his friends and supporters, one of whom was clearly the Earl of Southampton. It should be obvious that while the naval metaphors in Sonnet 80 are meaningless in reference to Marlowe, they can easily be seen as referring to Essex’s maritime exploits in 1589 and ’91. This is history. We ignore it at our peril.
To see Marlowe as the Rival Poet is also to fall into the same error as those who propose George Chapman. These intimate poems were products of a Court coterie. They were written, not for publication but to communicate with other members of the inner circle of a high level Court coterie in a tradition passed down from the Courtly Love tradition of the early Middle Ages, and long before it in the educated coteries of ancient Greece and Rome. In the following generation both Donne and Harington, born into Court society, were members of such a coterie while writers like Chapman, Breton and Florio, mere tutors, were limited to writing eulogies and elegies for their aristocratic masters. A writer like Marlowe would never be admitted to such an intimate circle, no matter how good his writing or how close he might become with patrons like Lord Strange or Thomas Walsingham.
What Waugaman has actually done with his impressive and important list of comparisons of the language of Sonnet 80 with that of Hero and Leander is to offer substantial evidence that the same individual wrote both poems, and that he wrote them within a fairly short period of time while rereading, and probably translating, Ovid. Surely that individual was Oxford and that time was the late 1580s and early ’90s, a window of time before the marriages of Oxford to Elizabeth Trentham in 1592 and his daughter to the Earl of Derby in 1595 should by all rules of common sense establish an end point to most if not all the sonnets to the Fair Youth.
Who wrote Hero and Leander?
While we can be fairly certain that Marlowe wrote the versions of the four plays that form the core of his canon, we have no such assurance about the poems that were published over his name after his death. Hero and Leander was published in 1598 at the same time that Oxford’s plays began to be published as by William Shakespeare. However exciting and beautiful a poem, Hero and Leander was too tainted with homosexual nuance to publish as by Shakespeare, a name that by then stood for the Privy Council approved company that performed his works.
If we take the four core works as most representative of Marlowe’s writing, we find a number of things about Hero and Leander that simply don’t fit. While Shakespeare was obsessed with women, sex and passion, mostly male/female with some male/male, Marlowe’s core canon shows very little of either, and what he did write about, and for, his female characters (out of sheer necessity because the story required it) was pretty lame. Hero and Leander fits quite well with Shakespeare’s other long narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece; in each the theme of passionate love or lust is given a different scenario, and all three fit neatly into his style of the early 1590s. We know he knew the story well as he refers to it in a number of his plays. Nothing else attributed to Marlowe comes close.
In the press to get Oxford published in the late 1590s, if they couldn’t use Shakespeare’s name for Hero and Leander, why not use Marlowe’s, long since tainted by the accusations of homosexual passion and atheism that were published to distract from any concerns over the means by which he was eliminated from any further contact with the public. With no one to defend him (as Mary Sidney defended her brother when an unauthorized version of his sonnets was published in 1591), why not use it to get this work of one of Oxford’s most intensely creative periods out where it could be judged by posterity? Over and over we see the confusion that resulted from spur of the moment decisions by Oxford and his team as they confronted issues arising from questions about his authorship that clashed with his personal drive to get them established through publication.
Two other works published over his name at around the same time also fall outside anything else Marlowe ever wrote. The translation of Ovid’s Amores is nothing like his style as we know it from Tamburlaine, Faust, etc., and has the same problem as Hero and Leander in that it dwells on heterosexual love and desire, a subject either ignored in his plays or weakly portrayed. Like Hero and Leander, the Amores was far too sexy to be published as by Shakespeare, and as far as the bishops were concerned, far too sexy to be published at all since they ordered both it and Hero and Leander burned that same year along with other troubling texts like the satires by Nashe and pseudo-Harvey.
As Waugaman points out, Shakespeare begins Venus and Adonis with a quote from the Amores. At a time when the Bard was involved romantically with both a boy and a woman––the Fair Youth and the Dark Lady––it makes sense that he would turn to Ovid’s famous series that, much like Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, are a loose narration in verse depicting the course of a doomed affair. Inevitably bits from his reading and translation find their way into the poetry he’s writing, poetry that develops the voice that we know today as Shakespeare. Thus Venus and Adonis and Hero and Leander were both written by Oxford during the brief period that he was writing sonnets to the still girlish Southampton in hopes of binding him to himself through marriage to his daughter.
The translation of Lucan published at the same time as the Amores and also attributed to the long-dead Marlowe, deserves a chapter of its own in any book on Marlowe or the authorship question. Famous for the teasing dedication to Edward Blount by Thomas Thorpe, who would publish Shakepeare’s Sonnets ten years later with another peculiar dedication, termed by one commentator, a “dank pit in which speculation wallows and founders,” whatever else may be said of it, the style couldn’t be more different from that of Tamburlaine.
As I’ve explained elsewhere, the scenario that makes the most sense to me has Marlowe discovered at Cambridge by someone, perhaps Walsingham, who had family ties in Kent where Marlowe was born and raised. As an undergraduate at Cambridge, his reputation as a poet and a scholar could have spread fast in the small world of 16th-century literature. This took place during the period that I believe Walsingham and Oxford were recruiting writers for the propaganda push that Walsingham, with Oxford’s help, hoped would get the nation prepared to fight the Spanish. McMillin and Maclean trace The Famous Victories of Henry V (later Henry V) to the Queen’s Men during this period, written on purpose to demonstrate to illiterate provincials how the English had succeeded in qwelling a serious threat from the Continent a century before.
Marlowe began his studies at Fisher’s Folly in 1584, just as Oxford was beginning to write for the recently formed Queen’s Men. The periods when he was absent from Cambridge over the following years until 1587 jibe with the periods when the Folly group (later known to scholars as the University Wits) were preparing and producing new works for the London holiday season. Thus the crossovers between Marlowe’s language and plays like The Contention between the Houses of York and Lancaster (revised for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men as the Henry VI trilogy), and The True Tragedy (later revised as Richard III), plays that McMillin traces to the Queen’s Men, fit well within the period in question.
When Marlowe and actor Edward Alleyn defected from the Oxford/Burbage/Queen’s Men group in 1587 to produce Tamburlaine with Lord Strange’s company at the Rose, they were admonished by Greene (Oxford) and Nashe (Bacon) in Menaphon (1589), with Marlowe warned by Greene in Groatsworth to be careful (1592). But Marlowe, on a roll, and urged on perhaps by patrons eager to curtail the Cecils’ rising power, was not deterred. He continued to write one provocative play after another until the death of Walsingham in 1590 opened the door to Robert Cecil’s takeover of his office as Principal Secretary. Absorbing Walsingham’s corps of spies and operatives into his own service, Cecil used some of them to rid the London Stage of Marlowe, and others to blacken his reputation so that no one cared that he was dead or how he got that way. Now it was Robert Cecil who was on a roll.
It’s hard not to see Robert Cecil as the force behind the poisoning of Marlowe’s patron Lord Strange the following year, and the arrest, torture and execution of the influential Catholic poet Robert Southwell the year after that. For personal reasons as well as political and religious, Cecil hated and feared the English Renaissance writing establishment and set out to destroy it as soon as he got his hands on Walsingham’s office. These executions mark a turning point in the history of the English Literary Renaissance. From then on the battle between the idealists and freethinkers and the ideologues and power politicos was deadly serious, threatening not only works of art, but their authors’ lives as well.
Once we begin to see this period in its true light, we will understand a good deal about Shakespeare and his fellow pseudonymous writers that at this time remains mysterious and confusing.
The only possible scenario for the writing of Hero and Leander that fits the history of the period has the Cambridge undergraduate Christopher Marlowe studying playwriting with Oxford at Fisher’s Folly for periods of a few weeks to months from 1584 to 1587. During this period the brilliant neophyte adopts with genius aptitude Oxford’s style as we know it from The Contention and The True Tragedy. By making it his own in the superhit Tamburlaine, the Star Wars of its time, Marlowe forces his former tutor to come up with something new. For a year or two in the early ’90s Oxford enjoyed parodying what was by then known as Marlowe’s style in the mouths of comic characters like Pistol or the suitors in Taming of the Shrew, something that helps to date at least one version of these plays, as it’s unlikely he would have found pleasure in satirizing his former rivals after their suspicious deaths in 1593 and ’94.
Following the publication of Hero and Leander in 1598 (or perhaps ’99), there must have arisen the suspicion that the poem was Shakespeare’s due to its similarity to the other two narrative poems for which he was famous. This would explain Touchstone’s obscure reference to Marlowe in Act V of As You Like It (that repository of asides on the previous decade of literary history): “Dead shepherd now I find thy saw of might, whoever loved that loved not at first sight,” if not to establish for those who mattered that the overly sexual Hero and Leander was Marlowe’s, not his. Why on earth would he bother to credit the least important, and least likely character in the play if not for such a reason? And why would the editors of the First Folio have left it in, if not for the same reason?