Sunday, 2 May 2021

Jonathan Bate: Shakespeare and Marlowe as dramatic twins

In The Genius of Shakespeare, after a chapter about the Shakespeare authorship question, Jonathan Bate starts the chapter “Marlowe’s Ghost” by talking about the Marlovian theory. Some imaginative people think Christopher Marlowe must have been the real Shakespeare because Shakespeare’s career took off after Marlowe’s death—the theory is that Marlowe faked his own death then ran away to somewhere in Europe, probably Italy, to continue writing plays, under Shakespeare’s name. Bate argues that they’re wrong about the conclusion but right for noticing the timing—he suggests that Shakespeare and Marlowe were, in some sense, dramatic twins who were competing and being influenced by each other, and Shakespeare only became Shakespeare because of the death of Marlowe. 

Look at this (long) passage about characters: 

“Marlowe’s plays were noted above all for two kinds of character and one kind of action. The characters were the military overreacher (Tamburlaine the exemplar) and the scheming machiavel (the exemplar being Barabas in The Jew of Malta, but with the Guise in The Massacre at Paris following close behind). The action was the magical spectacle of Dr Faustus. Shakespeare responded. He created the first military hero on the Elizabethan stage who was not an overreacher but a true Englishman: brave Talbot. And he matched this character against a figure who was both Faustus-like conjuror and cunning schemer: Joan la Pucelle.

By dramatizing the war between Talbot and Joan, Shakespeare showed that he could split the Marlovian achievement into halves which could be joined together into a new dramatic whole. He thus overcame the central weakness of all Marlowe’s plays: their imbalance. In Marlowe until this point, the overreacher or machiavel or conjuror is so strong a presence, both linguistically and dramatically, that no one else in the plays has a chance of being fully realized.

The result of this breakthrough was that, for the first time, Shakespeare was pushing ahead in the game. If Thomas Nashe is to be believed, more than ten thousand spectators thronged to witness the Talbot–Joan clash. Marlowe responded in the manner of an elder brother who realizes that his sibling has the capacity to outstrip him. He began to be influenced by Shakespeare. His Edward II was almost certainly new when performed at court by the acting company of Pembroke’s Men around Christmas 1592; it was thus his last surviving play.

Here Marlowe reined in his mighty line and resisted the temptation to let a single character dominate the action. He followed Shakespeare’s example and turned to an English historical subject. He followed the Henry VI plays and made his central character a weak king, instead of the strong man who had been at the heart of all his previous dramas. He also followed the example of Shakespearean history in introducing a bevy of scheming barons. But because, unlike Shakespeare, he was not really interested in political questions – the clash between the need for legitimacy and the dire consequences of royal weakness – he couldn’t stop the play trying to turn itself into the kind of drama he had written previously.

He thought that the danger man would be Gaveston, a thrilling machiavellian schemer who could easily have dominated the action. Marlowe overcame this potential problem by copying Shakespeare’s device of splitting. Where Shakespeare had split Talbot and Joan, Marlowe split the single figure of the machiavel who trades on the king’s proclivities. He killed off Gaveston halfway through and brought him back in the figure of Spencer. (Shakespeare made a note of the technique: if a character is getting out of hand and threatens to upset the balance of your play, kill him off halfway through – Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet.) But in concentrating on the problem of Gaveston, Marlowe didn’t notice that the real danger man was Mortimer: he was the potential Tamburlaine or Barabas. The result is that there is a shadow of a play called ‘the rise and fall of Mortimer’ obscuring the tragedy of the fall of Edward II. The title-page to the 1593 quarto tried to accommodate it in the subtitle: The troublesome Reign and lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England, with the tragical Fall of proud Mortimer.

Shakespeare saw what Marlowe failed to see. In order to focus on the fall of the weak king, to make him the absolute centre of tragic interest, you must push the strong man all the way to the margins. In Richard II, which was Shakespeare’s reply to Edward II, Bolingbroke is never given enough space to command attention. The consequence of this is that analysis of his rise has to be postponed and given retrospective attention in the context of its results – the civil broils after he has been crowned as King Henry IV. And the consequence of this is that the analysis becomes bound up with his wayward son, Prince Hal. Henry IV regards the riotous behaviour of his son as punishment for his own pursuit of a crooked path to the crown. In moving from Bolingbroke to his son, Shakespeare reverses the Marlovian pattern of rise and fall into a new pattern of fall and rise, charted in Hal’s progress from a prince to a prentice to a king. And the consequence of this is that the Marlovian two-part structure could finally be overcome in the triumphant three-part structure of Henry IV/Henry V.” (Ch.4) 

So far I have only read Doctor Faustus, but I did think that Faustus had such a strong, dominant presence that all other characters were but shadows.  

The chapter is fascinating and should be read in its entirety: Jonathan Bate also writes about Marlowe’s influence on Shakespeare’s language and Shakespeare’s inventions, Richard III, female overreachers in Shakespeare, Edmund, Marlowe allusions in As You Like It, the connection between The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice, etc. Shakespeare didn’t come out of nowhere—he learnt from, absorbed, was influenced by, subverted and reacted to the work of his predecessors and contemporaries.  

Another interesting point: Bate notes that Iago says “I am not what I am” but the same thing can be said by almost every one of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters, as pointed out by Lionel Trilling: 

“Hamlet has no sooner heard out the Ghost than he resolves to be what he is not, a madman. Rosalind is not a boy, Portia is not a doctor of law, Juliet is not a corpse, the Duke Vincentio is not a friar, Edgar is not Tom o’ Bedlam, Hermione is neither dead nor a statue. Helena is not Diana, Mariana is not Isabella.” 

I’ve just realised that all the plays I’ve read have some kind of acting, some character pretending to be someone else or something that they’re not. 

Bate now says: 

“Marlowe’s characters invest everything in their aspirations; Shakespeare’s are more flexible. They are not what they are. That is surely because Shakespeare was an actor and Marlowe was not; it is also one reason why Shakespeare’s characters have a richer, more varied and continuous stage afterlife than Marlowe’s.” (Ch.4) 

I’ve never thought about the significance of being an actor on his writing, but perhaps Bate has a point there. 

Near the end of the chapter, after writing about the relationship between the 2 writers and Marlowe’s influence on Shakespeare in both plays and poems, Jonathan Bate argues that Shakespeare triumphed over all of Marlowe’s plays except one, and the one play by Marlowe that he couldn’t drown was Doctor Faustus.   

I should read more Marlowe. Shakespeare fans should check out The Genius of Shakespeare


  1. Not only was Shakespeare an actor, but he was a close associate of several people who were, in what must have felt like a new art, apparently astounding actors. I can imagine him making characters more complex and interesting in part because he knew Will Kemp or whoever could handle whatever Shakespeare threw at him. Or maybe he thought "Let's see what Kemp can do with this!"

    Bate's book sounds excellent. Deep, readable.

    1. Oh yeah, I haven't thought of that. Interesting thought.
      I'm enjoying the book a lot. The early chapters made me think, I knew most of these things already, but this chapter is excellent. You should check it out.

    2. Olivier had a theory that Rochard Burbage may have once boasted to Shakespeare that he could handle any role Shakespeare could write, and Shakespeare said "We'll see about that!" and wrote "Othello".

    3. Hahahaha I like that.
      My favourite Shakespeare- Burbage story is this one:
      "One evening when Richard III was to be performed, Shakespeare observed a young woman delivering a message to Burbage in so cautious a manner as excited his curiosity to listen to. It imported, that her master was gone out of town that morning, and her mistress would be glad of his company after Play; and to know what signal he would appoint for admittance. Burbage replied, ‘Three taps at the door, and “It is I, Richard the Third.” ’ She immediately withdrew, and Shakespeare followed till he observed her to go into a house in the city; and enquiring in the neighbourhood, he was informed that a young lady lived there, the favourite of an old rich merchant. Near the appointed time of meeting, Shakespeare thought proper to anticipate Mr Burbage, and was introduced by the concerted signal. The lady was very much surprised at Shakespeare’s presuming to act Mr Burbage’s part; but as he (who had wrote Romeo and Juliet), we may be certain, did not want wit or eloquence to apologize for the intrusion, she was soon pacified, and they were mutually happy till Burbage came to the door, and repeated the same signal; but Shakespeare popping his head out of the window, bid him be gone; for that William the Conqueror had reigned before Richard III."

  2. Marlowe is worth your time; I'd just keep in mind to not expect Shakespeare because he's not Shakespeare, of course. Which sounds obvious but I know a number of people who were temporarily put-off because they couldn't shake the comparison. Marlowe massively influenced Shakespeare, as you rightly point out; but ultimately they were aiming for different ends.

    I think it helps if you organize these writers by generations like G. K. Hunter does, where the University Wits (Marlowe, Greene, Nashe, etc.) all come from a very different background than the actor William Shakespeare. Sorry, this turned into a lecture. I was really only trying to recommend you also read (or skim through) Hunter's English Drama 1586-1642: The Age of Shakespeare because it is incredibly illuminating albeit very academic.

    1. Hahaha I know what you mean. I expect nobody to be like Shakespeare, but even then...
      I'm aware that Shakespeare's different from the University Wits. Have to read more to see what they're like though.

  3. I actually really love Marlowe - perhaps his plays don't work quite so well as plays, in terms of dramatic construction, but oh, the language, oh, the emotion!

    1. Haha, which of his plays is your favourite?


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