Marlowe, Shakespeare and imagination

There’s a new remainder bookshop in Camden (everything £2, including many decent history books) – such a dangerous thing. And how I came to spend the afternoon reading a rather curious text: History Play: The Lives and Afterlife of Christopher Marlowe, by Rodney Bolt.

It’s what might be termed an imaginary history – heavily researched in part, with a lively account of later 16th-century London — then leaping off from a restaged version of Marlowe’s murder (a handy body-double is roped in) and following the not-really-dead playwright around the cities and courts of Europe, while he pens in his spare time the plays that Shakespeare will take credit for in London. (It ends with him sailing off to the New World, with a ship sinking along the way that becomes The Tempest.)

Now I’m unfashionably convinced that Shakespeare was actually Shakespeare — being a dedicatee of Ockham — but it does make for a fun read, although if you are going to go for alternative “authors” for Shakespeare I much prefer Robin P. Williams’ Sweet Swan of Avon, which has Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, holding the pen.

But Bolt does write in a lively style, and has a real ear for an anecdote. I didn’t now that our term euphemism comes from the title of a prose romance, Euphues, by John Lyly, a Marlowe contemporary, which boasts “a peculiar, heightened style”.

Such fastidiousness wasn’t for the stage of the time, however. Bolt notes that “furious fenestraclasm” was a favourite mode of dramatic criticism: “In 1583 Trinity paid ‘for lv foot of newe glasse in the hall after the playes’, and subsequent to that took the precaution of ‘taking downe and setting up the glass wyndowes’ for the duration, while St John’s paid for ‘nettes to hange before the windowes of ye Halle”. (p. 39)

And Bolt is clear on the multiculturalism of this heaving, shifting Europe, in which, he says, strolling English players, crossing borders and language, were a major part: “The English comedians’ spontenaiety and vividness so enthused audiences that it revolutionised northern European theatre, turning what had previously been stuff, formal receitation into drama. … In Frankfurt, according to the 16th-century traveller Fynes Moryson, both men and woman ‘flocked wonderfully to see their gesture and Action, rather than heare them, speaking English which they understood not’, and at Elsinore in 1585, the citizens flocked so ‘wonderfully’ to a performance in the town hall courtyard that they broke down a wall.” (p. 76)


  • Rayyan
    August 17, 2008 - 12:27 am | Permalink

    Hi Natalie – thanks for the post! Can you suggest a definitive essay or article that lays down the case for whether or not Marlowe wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare, please? I’m not too bothered as I generally see no reason to question the accepted wisdom on the matter (another devotee of the Razor!) but it would be interesting to judge the evidence for myself, nonetheless.

    Great blog – keep posting.



  • August 17, 2008 - 7:42 am | Permalink

    “…our term euphemism comes from the title of a prose romance, Euphues”

    No, it doesn’t. It comes from a Greek root. Lyly’s romance gave us EUPHUISM, which means something quite different.

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  • Evil Clanger
    September 9, 2008 - 11:04 pm | Permalink

    Concerned about WS authorship? The best solution is simply to read the plays, lots of them, before getting stuck into authorship research.

    A large chunk of EM drama was co-authored or rewritten. There were multiple texts – initial mss., printed copies, prompt copies, fair copies and edited copies. The names in the register and on the title pages are not always accurate.

    Note that perhaps the best and most carefully edited copies include the Jonson and WS F1s. Jonson nudged his folio through the press himself making changes as it was printed and the WS F1 was produced by those who had intimate knowledge of both the man and his drama.

    A dedication from the dramatist to a known patron in a quarto can suggest an element of reliability in the origin of the text, but even this can be deceptive. EM plays were written rapidly like modern sitcom episodes and then altered again for performances.

    Keep reading the texts (peruse criticism warily and use any works of literary theory you purchase by accident as doorstops). Don’t start with WS, start with earlier drama, the morality tradition, and Marlowe, move forward to WS and then on to the dramatists who nudged him out of popularity. You’ll soon get a feel for it.

    Marlowe’s works are a good proving ground. Dido, his co-authored university play. Tamburlaine, innovative for its time but it still feels early and pre-WS. The Jacobean feel of the earliest quarto (1633) of Marlowe’s ‘Jew of Malta’ (edited by Heywood and probably revised post-1600).

    You’ll soon get a feel for the position of WS in all this and detect him developing his approach to structure and language from the bits of chronology that we have of his canon, his strengths and weaknesses, and eventually how provincial his comedies must have seemed when the city comedies such as those of Middleton filled the London stages and he began to pass out of fashion.

    It is always a bad idea to read WS in isolation. His plays were neither written nor performed in such a way.

    There is no short cut and no better approach than to read as much drama from the period as you can.

    The Latin university plays of the time are important, but beyond many readers’ reach. But you should read at least one euphuistic novel as they are written in English-it just won’t feel like it after the first 20pp.

    To warn you all, dear readers, about 30% of critical works are crap and maybe 90% of theoretical texts (I’m including some pretty heavyweight univ. presses here and being generous to the theorists). In the WS industry the figure for crap criticism goes up to over 50% and is higher still for the issue of authorship, which attracts loons like an X-File convention. Academics, esp. those in the US, have to churn stuff out at speed and the quality suffers. You have been warned.

  • January 14, 2010 - 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Hi Natalie,
    A very interesting write up.
    Have you read the book My Truth.
    It was published in 2006.
    At the moment I am working on my next book and this will be coming out in the summer.

    Kind regards
    Brenda Harwood

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