Could Christopher Marlowe have equalled Shakespeare's achievement?by Justina Crabtree / August 27, 2013 / Leave a comment
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…