6 Facts about Shakespeare’s Rival, Christopher Marlowe

by Colleen White

marlowYesterday, the New York Times announced that, for the first time, Elizabethan playwright and Shakespeare contemporary Christopher Marlowe will be listed as a co-author on one of Shakespeare’s plays. In their newest edition of the Henry VI plays, the Oxford University Press will credit Marlowe as co-author on all three parts.

It has long been speculated that Shakespeare was not the sole author of all of his works. (The custom of the time of writer’s collaborating on scenes, plays, and event open forum in bars makes this almost certainly true). But the decision to list Marlowe as an author on a major work is huge news for Shakespeare purists and Marlowe advocates alike, and opens the door for more controversy and comics for generations to come.

While no one escapes middle school without at least some knowledge about Shakespeare, surprisingly little is known about his greatest rival and now credited co-author.

Here are six facts about Christopher Marlowe:

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1. Marlowe was the same age as Shakespeare

Although the exact date of his birth is unknown, Marlowe was baptized in February of 1564, just two months before Shakespeare’s baptism. Marlowe also began writing earlier in his life, so that by the time of his death at age 29, he was already a popular playwright and a large influence on Shakespeare’s works.

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2. He had a Master of Arts degree

…Which almost wasn’t awarded to him. Marlow finished his Bachelors of Arts at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge in 1584 and went on to work on a Master’s degree. But with his coursework finished in 1587, the university initially refused to award him the diploma. There was speculation that he had converted to Catholicism and was looking to leave and pursue a career as a priest. The degree was awarded on time when the powerful Privy Council of the Queen intervened to offer their support and serve as a reference for Marlowe’s “good service” to the kingdom.

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3. He may have been a spy

That same letter of reference that allowed him to receive his Master’s also fueled rumors that he was a secret agent working for the Queen’s intelligence agency. The letter goes so far as to state that Marlowe was working on, “matters touching the benefit of his country”. Records from his time at university also show he was frequently away on lengthy absences, and had a dining budget much larger than most scholars. While these rumors have never been confirmed, the letter does seem to show that Marlowe was working for the government in some unknown capacity.

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4. His most famous plays were likely written for one man

Much of Marlowe’s early success can be credited to the star power of his actors. One of the players in particularly, Edward Alleyn, was a veritable superstar in his day. His unusually tall stature and pompous manner served as inspiration for Marlowe, and are traits seen in many of Marlowe’s male leads. Alleyn starred as the lead character in all of Marlowe’s popular works.

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5. Marlowe’s death is still a mystery

Ironically, one of the most well known facts about Marlowe is his death; he was stabbed in a bar fight. The story goes that Marlowe argued over the bill at a tavern, drew his blade against the tavern owner, and was stabbed in the scuffle.

But there is reason to believe that account is far from the truth. For one, the key witness who gave testimony of that account, Robert Poley, was himself a secret agent. Poley was legendary at the time for providing false testimony, going so far as to say on record, “I will swear and forswear myself, rather than I will accuse myself to do me any harm.”

The coroner’s report also gives conflicting evidence to the initial testimony, particularly around the nature of the injuries, and was seen as “very queer” by Marlowe’s contemporaries.

Those who don’t believe the official report give alternative reasons for his death, including murder by a jealous husband after an affair, accidental death during a money shakedown, assassination by the Queen because of ‘atheist beliefs’, and murder due to his spread of ‘Catholic propaganda’. There’s even a (completely unfounded) rumor that Marlowe faked his own death and continued to write under different names, including Shakespeare’s.

Books in the vault, Deck C, Folger Shakespeare Library, 9/11/09

6. ‘Big Data’ was used to confirm authorship

Scholars have been questioning the writing of Shakespeare’s works for over 300 years, but while it was long known Shakespeare collaborated with many other writers, there was no way to prove with whom and to what extent. With the advent of ‘big data’ as a tool for analysis, researchers were able to scan thousands of texts for unique patterns of word usage and phrasing. These were compared to known credited works for each author to identify and compare their signature style. Using these methods, Marlowe was found to be the primary writer of Henry VI part I, while Shakespeare stands as the sole author of part III. Who is responsible for part II is still up for debate.

 

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