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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Shakespeare and Marlowe's Last Words

This is the second of three articles written about the last days of Christopher Marlowe:

1. Thomas Kyd's Arrest

3. Christopher Marlowe's Death

On 20 May 1593, the famous playwright Christopher Marlowe appeared before the Privy Council to answer to the charges of heresy.

As I wrote recently, Marlowe’s flatmate and the fellow playwright Thomas Kyd had been arrested on the suspicion of writing posts around London which the authorities considered heresy.

He was tortured, and he implicated Marlowe.

An arrest warrant for Marlowe had been issued on 18 May.

It is surprising that Marlowe waited an extra day to appear before Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Council.

What was he doing?

He doesn’t strike me as the kind of man who would run from a fight.

If anything, he probably relished the opportunity to stir up even more trouble and face the Council immediately.

Would he have visited Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange, Earl of Derby? At that time, Derby may have been the aristocratic patron to Marlowe, Kyd and even Shakespeare.

Would Derby and Marlowe have prepared Marlowe’s defense strategy together?

Ferdinando Stanley

At this point in history, Derby had a very good claim to the throne, and was quickly becoming a threat to Queen Elizabeth.

Derby had attracted many of the greatest actors and playwrights, and his playing company, Lord Strange’s Men was one of the very best in London.

If Marlowe visited with Derby, and if Shakespeare was employed by Derby, is it possible that Shakespeare saw Marlowe, even if only briefly on 18 or 19 May 1593?

If Marlowe did speak with Shakespeare, I often wonder what they would have said to each other?

Both playwrights, in early 1593, had been almost entirely out of work since the theatres were closed almost continuously since June 1592 due to the plague.

Marlowe’s career may have been stalling. He was at work on his poem Hero and Leander. When there was a break in the plague in late January 1593, his last play, The Massacre at Paris was performed.

The play, which dealt with the religious violence in France and specifically the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre would not have been appreciated by Queen Elizabeth and her court. The last thing they would have wanted an audience to see is a bloodbath of religious violence on stage.

Meanwhile, Shakespeare’s career was going very well. He had just published his erotic poem, Venus and Adonis. It was the Fifty Shades of Grey of the Elizabethan period, and he must have been enjoying some of the greatest success of his career.

They were not entirely friends and nor were they entirely enemies. I think Marlowe liked Shakespeare but looked down on him. 

They were born only a few weeks apart, Marlowe in February 1564 and Shakespeare in April 1564. Marlowe’s father was a shoemaker. Shakespeare’s father was a glovemaker.

Marlowe went to Cambridge. Shakespeare’s family could not afford to send him to university.

Marlowe became an overnight success right after university.

Shakespeare’s success came quickly, but not as fast as Marlowe's.

Marlowe and Kyd had blazed the trail for future playwrights like Shakespeare, and I think Marlowe would have always looked at any future playwrights, no matter how talented, and especially if they showed true talent like Shakespeare, as inferior.

I like to imagine that Shakespeare would have told Marlowe not to rock the boat. He may have begged him not to jeopardize the remarkable freedom they had enjoyed as actors and playwrights, the kind of freedom England had never known before.

The theatres were closed. If Marlowe, as London's greatest playwright, disturbed the peace between the theatres and Queen Elizabeth, she might just decide to close the theatres permanently.

She had allowed them to flower and develop, and had allowed playhouses like The Theatre to be built, the first theatre built for plays in England since the Roman times.

The Theatre in Shoreditch

Shakespeare wouldn’t want to stop being a playwright. He belonged in a theatre. To him, very little else mattered.

Theatre in England had just been born, and Shakespeare would have pleaded with Marlowe not to kill it in it's infancy.

I think Shakespeare's words would have fallen on deaf ears.

Marlowe strikes me as the kind of man who would destroy the entire theatre community if it helped score a political point against the Queen.

I think Marlowe would have mentioned Venus and Adonis, which I'm sure he would have read immediately, and probably made fun of Shakespeare for having written Elizabethan mommy porn.

I think that Marlowe would have antagonized Shakespeare. Marlowe may have known that Shakespeare was likely to eclipse his own fame and success, so he would have asked if Shakespeare thought he was better than him.

Shakespeare would have said no, of course. He would have politely told him that he, Marlowe, was the greater and more significant artist.

I think Marlowe would have thanked Shakespeare for his advice.

Then he would have told Shakespeare to go stuff it.

Whether it was on 18 or 19 May, or shortly after, the last words between Shakespeare and Marlowe would probably not have been very kind.

Shakespeare and Marlowe
Were they the best of friends and worst of enemies?

Shakespeare would have been even more worried after seeing Marlowe.

Marlowe went to the Privy Council on 20 May. For some odd reason, there were not in session and did not hear him.

Within days, Marlowe was dead, under suspicious circumstances. He was only 29 years old.

Ferdinando Stanley would die, on 16 April 1594, under suspicious circumstances. He was only 35 years old.

Thomas Kyd, whose career was ruined, would die in August 1594, most likely from the wounds he suffered while tortured in prison. He was only 35 years old.

In late 1594, Shakespeare was at a terrifying and crucial point in his life. His greatest friends and rivals in the theatres were gone, but so too was his patron.

Shakespeare was free to dominate the theatre scene in London. All he needed to find was a new patron, who could provide him with political cover.

Shakespeare must have thought himself lucky to have both Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex and Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton -- not just one but two noblemen who were eager to become Shakespeare’s patrons.


David B. Schajer

Related Articles:

Ferdinando Stanley and the Chandos Portrait of Shakespeare

Hamlet and the Massacre at Paris

Fifty Shades of Shakespeare

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