A number of posts in this series have looked upon authors in their 40th as either just beginning their career, or safely in the midst of it, but just as often we can see 40 as an elusive, unobtainable age, and such is certainly the case for Christopher Marlowe who died in 1593 aged just 29; yet he still maintained a presence on the stage in his 40th year, with the first publication of his most famous play Doctor Faustus eleven years after his death. Yet Marlowe’s early death has also been the making of his reputation, with fans and critics alike bewailing the absence of further plays and regularly arguing that had he lived, be it 40 or older, it might have been him, and not Shakespeare, who we study today.
Kit and Will were both born in 1564, but Marlowe had the drop on Shakespeare with a number of plays already on the London stage before the Stratfordian arrived. Fictionalised biopics of Shakespeare are always keen to identify Marlowe as an influence; in Shakespeare in Love Ned Allen wistfully refers to Marlowe as ‘the first of us’, and even in the recent Bill we see the ghost of Marlowe literally helping Shakespeare to write a play. And there remain many who believe Marlowe, like Tiny Tim, did not die, but escaped to Italy where he continued to write plays under the pen-name of, you guessed it, Shakespeare. To my mind, seeing Marlowe primarily as the precursor to Shakespeare – a sort of John the Baptist of the stage – is simultaneously limiting and misleading. To praise Marlowe purely for inspiring Shakespeare detracts from the merits of his own works, whilst claiming him as a trailblazer encourages us to unfairly perceive more to his work than there is. For one thing, Marlowe’s seven existing plays show a uniformity in genre – he never did get round to writing comedy, and even his one history play Edward II maintains an air of tragedy first and foremost – had he lived to write more it is probable that he would have tried to branch out, although that said in writing seven plays he already had opportunity to do so. Let it not be said that I am criticising Marlowe’s plays, far from it, but in praising them we should recognise what is there, and trying to identify
him as the one – the only one – who prepared the stage for Shakespeare distorts that message, and is ultimately a simplistic approach to recognising Shakespeare’s contemporaries: rather than recognising an entire culture of writers and actors it simply identifies one figure to prop up the star of Shakespeare. Better to not identify a single influence and look at Shakespeare within that context, rather than someone who emerges from it.
But back to Marlowe, were he 40. The year would have been 1604, which would mean him no longer being an Elizabethan playwright, but a Jacobean one. How would Marlowe have adapted to life under James I? For Shakespeare, it meant writing Macbeth, and seeing his company The Chamberlain’s Men renamed as the King’s Men. But if Marlowe was still on the scene, might it have been his company who received this honour? James himself favoured Ben Jonson above other playwrights, so the preference may well have still gone to the Chamberlain’s, unless Marlowe could have usurped Jonson’s place in the King’s heart. Marlowe’s classical education, so frequently flaunted in his plays, could well have seen him adapt to writing court masques to please the King, as Jonson did. Whether he would have succeeded as well in writing city comedies is harder to say as there is less in his existing canon to support this, though he would certainly have been at home with the gorier revenge tragedies being written by Webster, Middleton and Ford.
But all this counterfactualism avoids the inherent question of whether Marlowe could really have survived until 40. His death in Deptford, supposedly an accident during a brawl, has long been a focus for conspiracy theories of assassination, but even if we take it at face value, Marlowe’s death came at a time when he was being out-manoeuvred. The recent confession of Richard Baines was almost water-tight in its condemnation of Marlowe, identifying him as atheist, gay, a counterfeiter and even throwing in a dislike of smokers too. The confession ensured that there would be few who would not be offended, so it is clear that someone had it in for him; if the brawl in Deptford was a coincidence, it merely hastened an inevitable reckoning elsewhere.
As it stands, the strange tale of Marlowe’s death, and the curtailment of his work when it was still beginning, has in many ways been the making of him. The James Dean of the Renaissance stage, Marlowe is, to speak utterly unacademically, the coolest playwright of the age: a spy turned writer who died mysteriously whilst under persecution from the very government he had served. The danger of Marlowe living to 40 would have been the undoing of that mystique and limitation of the great range of possibility with which we have since imagined a hypothetical fuller life for him.
Marlowe at Buckingham: Marlowe is a key playwright covered as part of the preliminary module Plays in Performance, while Doctor Faustus is a set text for the final year module on Renaissance Literature.