Shakespeare and Marlowe: The Bard(s)

Jessie Mathewson 11 November 2016

For centuries now there has been weird and wonderful conjecture as to the identity of our most well-known playwright, and questions over the validity of the "Shakespearean canon". But recently this debate has intensified, following the controversial decision made by the editors of the New Oxford Shakespeare to attribute all three parts of Henry VI to both William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe.

A vast number of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays were jointly authored. Given that their writers were all living and working within a small radius, this is not surprising. But the idea of Shakespeare co-authoring it still causes a strange amount of unease, almost as if it diminishes his legacy. We know he collaborated with Kyd and Middleton among others, so co-authorship is not without precedent.

But what makes me suspicious about the Shakespeare-Marlowe connection is that the international editorial panel is led by Florida State University’s Gary Taylor, a critic who has spent his career looking for the influence of other playwrights in Shakespeare’s work, even when the proof is shaky. Indeed, Taylor has been a lynchpin in the critical move away from viewing the Bard in isolation.


Some of the methods used to finally confirm this association seem – to an English student like myself – fairly strange. Taylor and his peers used statistical analysis of "linguistic repetition" and "adjacency networks" (i.e. which words are used next to others). Apparently, all this data was enough to be able to ‘verify Marlowe’s presence in those three plays strongly and clearly enough’. But reading and interpreting literature is something expressly human: we react to texts and they shape us in a dialectical relationship. Algorithms can't replicate that.

What's more, we have few definitive versions of Shakespeare's plays. Hamlet famously exists in three versions, all quite different. We will never know whether the plays that we have today are true to Shakespeare’s intentions, or whether they were changed by contemporary editors, or even recorded through memorial reconstruction by an actor or audience member.

Although the co-authorship of Henry VI cannot be proven, and may be dubious, it could still have positive effects – namely, a resurgence in the performance and study of Marlowe. Living as a spy and gay icon, before being stabbed to death in a Deptford brawl, he has long been considered the bad boy of Elizabethan England. Typically, only Doctor Faustus and Tamburlaine grace the modern stage, but The Jew of MaltaThe Massacre at Paris and Edward II are all fantastic plays, dramatising the political tensions of late Elizabethan England.

The early modern literary canon will always be led by Shakespeare, but it should not be dominated by him. The New Oxford edition  certainly serves as a reminder of how little concrete information we have about the Bard. But if crediting the plays as co-authored leads to a renaisance for Marlowe ,on stage and in the classroom, it is no bad thing.