Sunday, November 7, 2010

Discussion: The Works of Marlowe

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*


  1. You state that Edward de Vere wrote a few (awful) plays under his own name. To my knowledge no plays written under the name of Edward de Vere or the Earl of Oxford have ever surfaced. Please tell me the names and the source of your information about these "awful" plays?

  2. Howard,
    As I mentioned in the post, I think Bill Bryson handles this discussion well in his biography of Shakespeare, which I read about a year ago. I've just pulled it off the shelf to check, and you're right: The criticism is of Edward de Vere's surviving poetry; apparently his plays have not survived. Thank you for pointing out the error!

  3. When someone says Shakespeare could never have written the way he did without a university education, I think of Abraham Lincoln.