How would we remember Shakespeare if he had died at 29? His career as a playwright would have lasted only a few years, starting in 1590 with the crude popular success The First Part of the Contention Betwixt the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster (now known as Henry VI, Part II). His last and best play would probably have been Richard II; scholars would study the fantastically violent Titus Andronicus and the intellectual burlesque Love’s Labour’s Lost. But the creations that make Shakespeare Shakespeare—Romeo and Juliet; Falstaff and Hal; Hamlet, Lear—would be lost forever. Shakespeare would take his place as the second most promising of the Elizabethan dramatists—behind his exact contemporary, the prodigious Christopher Marlowe.
In reality, of course, it was Marlowe who died at 29, leaving behind only seven plays, while Shakespeare lived to the ripe old age of 52. Marlowe’s reputation is further shadowed by the fact that Shakespeare deliberately re-imagined each of his major plays (in an act of “anxiety of influence” much studied by Harold Bloom), reducing Marlowe’s works to the unhappy status of precursors. Yet as the new Penguin Classics edition of his plays shows, Marlowe was far more than a failed or forestalled Shakespeare. He was an entirely different kind of writer: narrower and less gifted than Shakespeare (who wasn’t?), but for that very reason more pungently personal. To read Shakespeare is to enter a universe; to read Marlowe is to meet an individual human being.
To put it another way, Marlowe himself seems like a character out of Shakespeare—a real-life Hamlet, or perhaps Iago. Certainly his life, from the little that is known about it, was almost preposterously dramatic. Born on February 26, 1564, the son of a Canterbury shoemaker, he earned a scholarship to Cambridge in 1581; he would remain there, on and off, for six years, more than a fifth of his life. Like the courtier Baldock in his Edward II, Marlowe could claim, “my gentry/I fetched from Oxford, not from heraldry.”
In the “off” years, however, Marlowe was pursuing a time-honored hobby of bright young British academics: He was a secret agent, serving Queen Elizabeth’s minister Walsingham as a spy on the Continent. When Cambridge threatened to withhold his degree on the suspicion that he was preparing to flee to the Catholic seminary at Rheims—a defection no less serious in the 16th century than Kim Philby’s to Moscow during the Cold War—the Privy Council itself intervened. Marlowe’s sojourns among the Catholics, it assured the university, were “in matters touching the benefit of his country.” No wonder that when Marlowe was murdered in a Deptford tavern in 1593 there was speculation that the government was getting rid of a man who knew too much.
Add to the intellectual and the spy Marlowe the heretic, and the legend is complete. Ten days before his death, Marlowe answered a summons to explain why he was in possession of blasphemous pamphlets. Three days after he was murdered, an informer named Richard Baines wrote the famous “Baines note,” testifying that he had heard Marlowe utter various blasphemies. These were a mixture of adolescent naughtiness—”That St. John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and … used him as the sinners of Sodoma”—and proto-Nietzschean contempt: “That the first beginning of religion was only to keep men in awe.”
Marlowe’s outsized legend would not survive, however, were it not for the plays that complete and transcend it. Unlike the Protean Shakespeare, Marlowe did not share out his intelligence equally among his characters. Instead, each of his five great plays—Tamburlaine the Great Parts One and Two, The Jew of Malta, Doctor Faustus, and Edward II—is dominated by a single figure, all very like their creator: charismatic, unscrupulous, and titanically ambitious. Like Milton’s Satan, Marlowe’s heroes compel awe, and even a sneaking respect, simply because of their superhuman pride. It makes sense that Marlowe’s plots are rudimentary, often no more than a series of tableaux. His plays are designed not as imitations of life, but as echo chambers for their heroes’ magnificent rhetoric.
Doctor Faustus is Marlowe’s best play: Faustus is the closest of all his characters to Marlowe himself, an intellectual hungry for real power. Even when he has the Devil at his command, Faustus’ fantasies are those of the lifelong student: He wants to know about astronomy and geography, to hear Homer recite the Iliad, to see Helen and Alexander face to face. When Shakespeare came along and transformed Faustus into Hamlet—another tormented graduate of the University of Wittenberg—he turned Marlowe’s specialist into a generalist, the typical modern man. Yet it is Faustus who keeps the purity of the archetype and has inspired so many later writers’ parables of the modern intellectual, from Goethe to Thomas Mann.
In a sense, all Marlowe’s heroes are versions of Faust: Each sells his soul in order to attain the infinite, to transcend all limitations. The glory and the danger of that transaction are what bring Marlowe’s plays to life, even when their plots are monotonously gruesome. In a sense, the plays are best read as lyric poems, various expressions of the same sensibility. Barabas, the murderous Jew of Malta (greatly deepened by Shakespeare’s Shylock in The Merchant of Venice), yearnns for “infinite riches in a little room.” Mortimer, the usurper in Edward II, brags that “I stand as Jove’s huge tree,/ And others are but shrubs compared to me”; when he is finally brought low, he shrugs it off, since “seeing there was no place to mount up higher,/ Why should I grieve at my declining fall?”
But the most simply, brutally Marlovian of all his heroes is Tamburlaine. The first part of the garishly violent Tamburlaine the Great was a breakthrough hit—a sobering glimpse of the taste of Elizabethan audiences, since even a Tarantino movie would have a hard time competing with its repetitive sadism. (When the captured emperor Bajazeth complains that he is starving to death, Tamburlaine tells him: “I will make thee slice the brawns of thy arms … and eat them.”) Yet beneath the torture and butchery, Tamburlaine is the story of a man like Marlowe who is born with nothing, demands everything, and nearly gets it. Kingship, in this play, is not a political institution but a metaphor for human perfection:
Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous architecture of the world
And measure every wand’ring planet’s course,
Still climbing after knowledge infinite
And always moving as the restless spheres,
Wills us to wear ourselves and never rest
Until we reach the ripest fruit of all,
That perfect bliss and sole felicity,
The sweet fruition of an earthly crown.
It is a black irony worthy of his own plays that it was the reticent Shakespeare, and not the vaunting Marlowe, who finally won that “earthly crown.”