One thing scholars, readers, playgoers and writers want to know is the relationship that Shakespeare and Marlowe had with each other. We know that both of these two towering figures knew each other, and most likely collaborated, but what sort of relationship was it and how did this collaboration work exactly? That sort of relationship was investigated in the play version of the movie Shakespeare in Love.
Recently, I saw a production of Shakespeare in Love at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater. The play is different than the film, which I think made the play much more alive—film and stage adaptations are singularly different.
Plays are always stilted—scenes, despite how they are constructed, always feel very much as if they are set atop the rigidity of stage and time; but films, like paragraphs, should flow seamlessly together, with little notice of the change from paragraph to paragraph—or scene to scene.
What was nice about the play was the reinvention of the relationship between Shakespeare and Marlowe. In the 1998 film, Christopher Marlowe is a sort of enemy of Shakespeare’s. Both admire each other’s work (though Shakespeare admires Kit more so than Marlowe admires Shakespeare), but both were seeming enemies at play (pun intended).
Shakespeare and Marlowe Collaboration, Best Friends
But in the play, Shakespeare and Marlowe are best friends. This changes the dichotomy of the story, making it all the more tragic when Marlowe is killed and Shakespeare feels as though he had a part in it.
The best scene in the play itself is the balcony scene (which seems to always be the best scene in most plays). This scene shows Shakespeare trying to woo the heart of Viola, but he seems totally inept. Marlowe slips in and helps Shakespeare along with verse telling him to woo her and that Shakespeare “is a poet” and should be able to talk to her.
Shakespeare is not able to talk to her. Marlowe feeds him lines like Cyrano feeds Christian lines when Christian tries to woo Roxane in Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano De Bergerac. The scene itself is seemingly identical and plays well within the confines of Shakespeare in Love. You can tell that Lee Hall, the playwright, was drawing a homage to Rostand’s Cyrano.
What’s also fitting and builds another level to the scene is this story from the New York Times in 2016 that recent analysis of Shakespeare’s earlier works, shows that for his play, Henry IV, Part 1-3, Marlowe had a hand in writing. It was customary in Elizabethan and Jacobean theater for playwrights to collaborate with more seasoned playwrights to help learn/teach ‘the ropes.’
Henry the Sixth, Part 1-3
The most recent controversy in Shakespeare scholarship comes with the publication of The New Oxford Shakespeare Edition of Henry the Sixth, Part 1-3; this publication acknowledges that collaborative authorship was commonplace in the Elizabethan theatre by attributing co-authorship of Henry the sixth to Christopher Marlowe.
This attribution caused quite a stir but then, Shakespeare has always been steeped in controversy. Whether it is the claim that Shakespeare did not write his own plays or that he potentially lifted an idea here or there, Shakespeare, the most notable and highly esteemed playwright of all time was heavily influenced by other writers. Like in the play, Shakespeare in Love, Shakespeare had influences—whether it be Marlowe or other writers.
Recent scholarship has seen fit to acknowledge the contribution of Marlowe. However, Shakespeare himself draws heavily on other authors in different ways, not just Marlowe. It has become an established theory that Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights collaborated on numerous works together.
Commonly, a more skilled and seasoned playwright would work with an upstart—or for Shakespeare’s case, an ‘upstart crow’.
Being a Writer in Elizabethan England
Examples of collaborative authorship do not end with Shakespeare and Marlowe. The concept of authorship and ideas of plagiarism and copyright did not exist in the Elizabethan or Jacobean periods, which is why many playwrights and writers of Shakespeare’s time worked endlessly on taking, manipulating, reinterpreting and sometimes snatching lines and ideas from sources.
As Bill Bryson wrote in Shakespeare: The World as Stage :
“[t]o paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, Shakespeare was a wonderful teller of stories so long as someone else had told them first.“
The ideas of many plays, whether they were Shakespeare’s, Marlowe’s or even Jonson’s were mainly taken from other sources. This was just the way playwrights worked, much like today’s Hollywood writers ransack bookstores and old films for new ideas to garner an audience.
Much of the work of Shakespeare and other Elizabethan playwrights’ are based on other, previous works: for instance, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus was based on The English Faust Book, and Shakespeare’s As You Like It was based on the Thomas Lodges’ Rosalynde.
It is without question that these previous works helped shape the works of Shakespeare and Marlowe.
Marlowe’s Voice in Shakespeare
Back to Shakespeare in Love….
The fact that Shakespeare in Shakespeare in Love is getting his voice from Marlowe really shows how fiction sometimes can be a step ahead of fact. And when Marlowe dies and Shakespeare, at the end of the play, sees the ghost of Marlowe, you can see that distinction.
Marlowe is no longer telling Shakespeare how to write, he listens as Shakespeare, now the writer as we know him, writes. It’s a not merely a coming-of-age story for William Shakespeare, but a coming-of-writing story—a story about how Shakespeare became Shakespeare, and its fantasies are met with the reality of study.