Let’s play a simple game of word association. If I were to say “English literature,” I’d happily bet that you would volunteer “William Shakespeare.” Yet during his lifetime, Shakespeare’s leading role as our most famous playwright and poet was not assured. Enter Christopher Marlowe, a writer from similarly modest beginnings—son of a shoemaker and writer of contentious dramatic verse that pulsates with life. Born months apart in 1564, both dramatists were influenced by one another’s work as they vied for popularity and commercial success in the buzzing world of Elizabethan theatre. Yet this rivalry was cut short in 1593 when Marlowe, aged just 29, was fatally stabbed in a tavern brawl by his crony Ingram Frizer. This autumn, the National Theatre are reminding audiences of Marlowe’s visceral drama with their production of Edward II, which opens on 28th August.
Whilst Shakespeare lived to the old age—by Elizabethan standards, at least—of 52, writing 37 plays alongside his sonnets and other poems, Marlowe was denied the opportunity to make as substantial an impact on English literature. What if the destinies of these playwrights had been exchanged? What if Marlowe had lived to enjoy a flourishing literary career, whilst Shakespeare found himself looking down the blade of Frizer’s twelve-penny dagger?
Marlowe had the talent and ambition to rise to the top. His plays are fascinated with self-creation and the struggle for greatness. In Tamburlaine the Great, Part 1 and Part 2, Marlowe constantly reminds us of Tamburlaine’s lowly upbringing as a Scythian shepherd and his steep climb towards his present position of power. Marlowe’s most famous play, Doctor Faustus, presents the audience with a protagonist who refuses to accept the humble status into which he was born. Faustus commits to “necromantic books” in order to reach the “omnipotence” he so desires. There is an echo in all this of Marlowe’s own life—his academic gifts catapulting him away from his modest background to become a scholarship boy at Cambridge. In Marlowe’s plays genius, courage and graft are essential for success.
Of course, Marlowe’s preoccupations may well have developed throughout his literary career. His late work, “Hero and Leander,” shows him moving away from drama to poetry. For me, the text hints at two areas Marlowe might have explored further had he lived. Firstly, Marlowe may have become keen to exercise his technical virtuosity as poet, no longer wanting to confine his skills to the narrower demands of dramatic dialogue. “Hero and Leander” is an epyllion—or mini epic—occupying the space between shorter forms such as the sonnet, and the epic. Both extremes are different tests of a poet’s skill, requiring the ability to convey intense emotion in relatively few lines while maintaining narrative impetus.
The second element of “Hero and Leander” that hints at themes Marlowe might have gone on to explore is the poem’s fascination with female emotion. Marlowe’s work is rarely celebrated for its women—in Doctor Faustus, Helen of Troy is conjured up by the protagonist yet remains a mere spectre, while Tamburlaine presents women as mere accessories to the terror brought about by the title character—but his late poem offers a suggestion that he might have gone on to create female characters as memorable as Cordelia or Lady Macbeth.
And what about a world without Shakespeare? Is it even possible to imagine this? The English language is full of his coinages. Without him, nobody would “melt into thin air” (The Tempest), nor would there be “method in our madness” (Hamlet). We’d never be “in a pickle” (The Tempest), nor would we ever be a “laughing stock” (The Merry Wives of Windsor). Things would never go “full circle” (King Lear), or be achieved in “one fell swoop” (Macbeth). Shakespeare is attributed with either the invention—or first recorded usage—of a number of words, including “bedazzled” (The Taming of the Shrew), “bloodstained” (Henry IV, Part I) and “bump” (Romeo and Juliet).
Alongside his influence on the English language, Shakespeare did much to shape our aesthetic tastes. He was arguably the first dramatist to create truly rich, three-dimensional characters, a progression away from the Medieval morality tradition. This may be one of the greatest debts owed to Shakespeare’s work. The critic Harold Bloom took this argument further in his controversial 1998 book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, in which he argued that Shakespeare it responsible for shaping our modern conception of human psychology.
However, who’s to say that had Marlowe lived and Shakespeare died, we would not today be reading about Marlowe’s “invention of the human”? At the time when Shakespeare was working, many writers—including Marlowe—were engaging with similar questions of personal identity and the way in which the individual can shape his own destiny. Just look at characters like Faustus, and, of course, Edward II, who sacrifices his family and status for his gay lover.