The play: Doctor Faustus
The plot tweet: Faustus trades his soul for magical powers, wastes his time with petty magic tricks, gets dragged to hell by demons.
My favorite line:
Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place, for where we are is hell,
And where hell is must we ever be.
It boggles the mind, but a frightening number of Shakespeare "scholars" are doggedly trying to prove that his work was written by someone else. Maybe it was Francis Bacon, who had a university education and useful court connections. Maybe it was Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, who actually wrote a few (awful) plays under his own name. Or maybe, they say, it was Christopher Marlowe, who perhaps faked his death in that 1593 tavern brawl and then went into hiding, writing under Shakespeare's name.
I don't have much patience for these conspiracy theories, which seem to be based on the elitist idea that a provincial actor without a university education could not possibly have produced works of such genius. (See Bill Bryson's summary of this argument in his excellent Shakespeare biography.)
But the Marlowe-as-Shakespeare theorists drive me especially batty: Have they ever actually read Marlowe's work? Every time I do -- as I did this week with Doctor Faustus -- I am disappointed and underwhelmed. Doctor Faustus is little better than a souped-up morality play. The plot is nonexistent, the characters are underdeveloped and the poetry is flat. At the end of the play, I closed my book and thought, "That's it?" I had the same reaction several years ago to The Jew of Malta.
Granted, Marlowe was more successful than Shakespeare before his untimely death, and his early plays are regarded as better than Shakespeare's early plays. (Think of that scene in "Shakespeare in Love" where dozens of hopeful Romeos recite the same line from Faustus for their tryouts.)
For years, Shakespeare struggled to break free of Marlowe's influence, even after Marlowe's death. Thank goodness that Shakespeare did so and that he survived until retirement. Can you imagine a universe where Tamburlaine and Faustus -- not Hamlet and King Lear -- are regarded as the pinnacle of literary achievement? *shudder*