In Search of Christopher Marlowe (Excerpt)

Between 1585 and 1593, Christopher Marlowe transformed the face of English drama. Before him, scholars say, neither true English blank verse nor genuine English tragedy existed. By 1593, the year he was arrested on suspicion of heresy, Marlowe had laid the foundations of what today we know as Shakespearean drama. Why are Marlowe’s revolutionary accomplishments largely unknown? Because Marlowe’s name has been reviled for four hundred years, his reputation in ruins. Shakespeare by contrast has enjoyed a never-ending rise in fortune bordering on deification.

Marlowe’s literary career was abruptly severed in 1593 just when he seemed on the verge of true greatness. Shakespearean scholar A. C. Bradley, writing in 1880, tells us:

Marlowe had many of the makings of a great poet: a capacity for Titanic conceptions which might with time have become Olympian; … That Marlowe must have stood nearer to [Shakespeare] than any other dramatic poet of that time, or perhaps of any time later, is probably the verdict of nearly all students of the drama.1

Before the arrival of Shakespeare, Marlowe alone demonstrated the ability to write “Shakespearean” plays. If Marlowe had remained alive after 1593 and continued to grow as a writer, his plays could have equalled the Shakespeare plays. Another Shakespearean scholar, F. P. Wilson, writing in 1951, made the case that

what we may anyhow believe is that in [1593] there perished at Deptford the only man of Shakespeare’s age who could have been a rival poet.2

But what if Marlowe did not perish in 1593? And what if, since he stood accused of atheism, blasphemy, and treason, it was impossible for him to publish work under his own name? And what if Marlowe were the victim of the worst form of literary blacklisting, in real fear for his life, writing and publishing in secret? Perhaps, if he had survived, he would not have been a rival of Shakespeare—he would have been “Shakespeare.”

In 1925, literary researcher Leslie Hotson scoured Elizabethan court documents and found the paperwork documenting Marlowe’s reported death and the events leading to it. Since that time, a wealth of new information about the life of Christopher Marlowe has been uncovered. It is now possible to put his life and the events surrounding his demise in context. A careful examination of that evidence suggests that Marlowe did survive the fateful 1593 meeting at Deptford and went on to write the plays and poems that were eventually published in William Shakespeare’s name.

In 1955, Calvin Hoffman wrote The Murder of the Man Who Was ‘Shakespeare,’ the first far-reaching claim of Marlowe’s authorship of the Shakespeare plays. In his introduction, Hoffman said his intent was to put William Shakespeare on trial for his literary life. But it is not Shakespeare who needs to be cross-examined. Instead it is the entire enterprise of two centuries of Shakespearean scholarship that must be held up to the light. When we do, William Shakespeare is found wanting. And one name keeps coming to the fore again and again: Christopher Marlowe.

Buy Now:
Marlowe’s Ghost

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