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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe's Death


This is the third in a series of articles about Christopher Marlowe's last days:

1. Thomas Kyd's Arrest


2. Shakespeare and Marlowe's Last Words







On 30 May 1593, Christopher Marlowe was killed.

He was the most famous, the most successful, and the most influential playwright in England.

Shakespeare came to London in about 1587, when Marlowe’s first play Tamburlaine was playing to huge crowds.

In the years after that, Marlowe continued to rule the theatres in London. Other playwrights scrambled to catch up to him, but there seemed to be no one who could beat him.

Until Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s earliest plays, like the Henry VI plays were immensely popular. Like Marlowe, Shakespeare seemed to be an overnight sensation.

While Marlowe and Shakespeare may never have been acquaintances or friends, they must have met each other at one time or another.

Marlowe could not ignore the success of this new playwright, who seemed to be the only one who could compete with him.

As Stephen Greenblatt writes, one of the earliest descriptions of Shakespeare was that he was a good man but that he was not a “company keeper” and he “wouldn’t be debauched.” If he was invited to go out he would be “in pain.” 

Shakespeare was a writer and he preferred to stay in his flat and write.

Christopher Marlowe seemed to be the exact opposite kind of man. Not only did he have a scandalous reputation but he was suspected of being an agent for the government. Harold Bloom aptly describes him as "a veteran street fighter, a counterintelligence agent, and generally bad news."

Marlowe seemed to want to be something more than just a writer, and he sought challenges and was willing to risk his life for some greater purpose.

If we look at Marlowe’s plays, it is clear that he was motivated by politics and each play was more controversial than the last.

Shakespeare, at this point, did not seem to be motivated by politics and he didn’t seem to want to run afoul of the Queen and her royal censors.

But all of that changed when Marlowe died.

He died under suspicious circumstances. He may have been murdered by government agents. Was he assassinated, or was it merely an drunken argument?

We may never know the answer.

But more importantly, what did Shakespeare think of his death?

Shakespeare may not have known why Marlowe was killed. He may have heard dozens of rumors and theories. It must have infuriated Shakespeare that he might never know the truth, the full truth. 

But in his period of history, at the dawn of the English Renaissance, it was almost impossible to know what was true or not. Stories and myths, like Robin Hood, were considered fact, not fiction.


Shakespeare must have been upset and sad when Marlowe died. Marlowe was a hero to every actor and playwright.

But he couldn’t have been surprised that Marlowe was killed. As far as Shakespeare was concerned, it was just a matter of time before Marlowe was in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people.

What would Shakespeare have thought when he heard the news of Marlowe’s death? What did he do?

He would have been afraid. The theatres had been closed for many months due to the plague. Marlowe was the greatest playwright, and his death may have meant that the theatres would remain closed permanently.

For all Shakespeare knew, his short career may have ended before it really began.

As soon as it was safe to do so, he probably would have gathered with friends and colleagues in a tavern, to spend the whole night drinking and telling stories about Marlowe. 

Imagine the greatest actors in London, or in history for that matter, gathered together to celebrate the life of Marlowe -- and roast him while they were at it!


Shakespeare may have thought it was a shame that other people, who had never met Marlowe while he lived, might not understand how brilliant, how talented, how devilishly funny Marlowe was.


As Shakespeare went back to his flat he may have wondered... what now?


What was Shakespeare going to do? He wanted to do more.

How he could he properly pay his respects to Marlowe? How could he publicly express the love and the admiration he had for Marlowe? 


And most importantly, how to make it funny and entertaining?


Well, Shakespeare was a playwright, so he would have searched his mind for some way to tell a story that was in fact a story about Marlowe.


I think that Shakespeare took Richard III, a play that he had already staged, or was working on at the time that Marlowe was killed, and re-wrote it for this purpose. 


Why did he re-write it? Because in re-writing a history play about King Richard III, he could create a public spectacle which served to celebrate the life and memory of Christopher Marlowe.


Shakespeare's play Richard III would be something of a Requiem Mass.


Much has been written about the influence that Marlowe had on Shakespeare, and on several of Shakespeare's characters including Richard III.


If Marlowe was such an influence on Shakespeare, then it stands to reason that these characters are descriptions of Marlowe himself.


In my version of Richard III, I explore the love/hate relationship between Shakespeare and Marlowe in the months leading up to his death.


Richard III is considered one of Shakespeare's masterpieces, and probably his very first.


It makes a lot of sense that Shakespeare's first great work was written for the purpose of remembering Marlowe, who was the greatest of them all... before Shakespeare, that is.


Shakespeare must have known that if he pulled it off, if he could conjure the spirit of Christopher Marlowe on stage in the form of bloody King Richard, he could have a huge hit.


Shakespeare knew that this play could announce that he was the undisputed and rightful heir to Marlowe.


I hope you take a moment today to remember Marlowe. Please raise a glass of something, and toast to his memory. 


Cheers,


David B. Schajer


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