No English schoolchild can escape studying Shakespeare, and unfortunately for those students less interested in the Jacobean stage, he wrote more than enough to ensure that he is never missed from the English syllabus. By the end of secondary school, a student is sure to have studied (however reluctantly) at least two English plays, but may never have heard of his contemporaries amongst which we find Marlowe, Kyd, Middleton and Webster. Shakespeare has become a cornerstone for Englishness, and an appreciation for his work is as essential to English culture as a firm respect for an orderly queue system and a liking for Earl Grey tea.
There is no denying that Shakespeare’s work is of merit and deserves a place in the English cannon, but it is worth considering why he holds such a firm and established position there. When we go to a performance of Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, or Hamlet, we are watching plays which have been promoted and championed by organisations such as the British Empire Shakespeare Society for centuries, but if we were to go to a performance of Marlowe’s Dr Faustus or Tamburlaine the Great, our reaction is far less stigmatised.
Christopher Marlowe was born around 1564 and died at the young age of 29 as a result of a brain haemorrhage after being stabbed above the right eye in what was reported as a ‘tavern brawl’. Marlowe, however, was a shady character, surrounded by accusations of heresy and frequently shunned for his apparent atheism. Not much is known about the Corpus Christi student besides reports of his insubordinate and rebellious behaviour. History seems to have a habit of cutting the lives of these recalcitrant artists short, enveloping figures like Keats, Shelley, Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and Heath Leger in mysterious circumstances, and Marlowe’s life was one similarly curtailed; so that we might never know the effects any of his future work may have had on literature.
The young playwright was evidently influential in his time: the diarist Henry Oxinden records his effect on one ‘Mr Fineux of Dover’, who fell drastically under his spell, ‘and learned all Marlowe by heart, & divers other books. Marlowe made him an atheist.’ Fineux would apparently go to the woods at midnight and pray to the devil, in a manner which cannot help recall Marlowe’s Dr Faustus. Marlowe was also clearly popular, stirring his contemporary Robert Greene to a bitter comparison of his work to Tamburlaine the Great: ‘I have had it in derision for that I could not make my verses jet upon the stage in tragical buskins, every word filling the mouth like the fa-burden of Bow Bell, daring God out of heaven with that atheist Tamburlan.’ Marlowe’s writing was clearly appreciated and influential during his time, but seems to have been overshadowed by Shakespeare’s panoply of plays.
This year marks the 450th anniversary of Marlowe’s birth, and so with this in mind, it is perhaps time to take a closer look at Marlowe’s work. For as he writes in the prologue to The Jew of Malta; ‘I count religion as a childish toy,/And hold there is no sinne but ignorance’. Let us, therefore, dispel with our English worship of Shakespeare and inform ourselves of the writers surrounding him, so that we may not commit the sin of ignorance Marlowe warns us of.
Full information on the Marlowe Festival can be found at www.marlowefestival.co.uk/.