Regular visitors know that I teach Richard III and Edward II at A Level – coincidentally, plays which seem to have appeared within months of each other, in or around 1592. Marlowe doesn’t get discussed much in the circles I move in online, and Edward II often feels even more overlooked – so when someone wanted to talk about the differences between Kit and Will on /r/shakespeare (after watching a performance of Tamburlaine), I couldn’t resist diving in. Here’s an edited extract of what I said:
They’re very different voices, and characters, the playwrights – take note, anyone who believes that CM was WS. Marlowe was an exciting, provocative, groundbreaking playwright, who contributed to the creation of drama as we know it. His work is fresh, urgent, dangerous, sexy. And very rough round the edges. Also, his output is limited. Think of it as the first few albums of the Stones or The Beatles. Or Elvis, when he was still being filmed from the waist up. Part of Tamburlaine‘s popularity at the time might have been its revolutionary novelty?
As far as we can tell, Shakespeare was more cautious, more placid, and better placed to take what Marlowe had done and polish it. He was also an actor himself, and of course, time and regularity of performance has polished Shakespeare too. By 1592, if Richard III does come from that year, we’re already getting into our stride, and on the cusp of what people tend to categorise as the best of Shakespeare … name your mid-career Beatles/Stones album accordingly. Marlowe had simply written a lot less by then. And so we reach the eternal ‘if only he had lived …’
The relationship between the two playwrights is undeniable without us having to resort to conspiracy theory, certainly. I’ve already mentioned that Jonathan Bate devoted a chapter to it in his superb book, but Lawrence Danson’s take in his work on Dramatic Genre (already proving an excellent read), piqued my interest because it refers more specifically to Edward II, and promises to do so in great depth later on (I’m only 50-odd pages in):
Marlowe, like Shakespeare [with Richard, Duke of Gloucester’s soliloquy in 3 Henry VI], experiments with the sinuous sound of a mind in self-creative motion. In Edward II – a tragedy which at several points invoked the De casibus mode – Piers Gaveston, the king’s lover, is an attractive object of romantic desire and also a cunning social climber […]
Gaveston is a character about whom we cannot make up our mind: an attractive villain, a victimizer and a victim, a political parasite and a loving friend. And in King Edward himself, to an even greater degree, Marlowe created a character at once contemptible (irresponsible, petty, selfish) and capable of inspiring the kind of sympathy which Shakespearian tragedy requires for its characters.
I’m reminded of how much I (perhaps ‘we’, given the popularity of plays like Hamlet and Macbeth) love soliloquy. If nothing else, it gives us unrivalled insight into what a character is thinking – I talk in class a lot about it providing a subjective honesty that we can trust above all a character’s pronouncements when other people are on stage. Henry V’s pre-battle musings are far more affecting for me than his rousing speeches, and his ‘I know you all, and will awhile uphold the unyoked humour of your idleness’ is as chilling as anything Iago says. It can create an enexpected empathy with monsters: how else could we side with Richard, or vicariously enjoy his Machiavellian tactics on his way to the top?
What this makes me want to do, at the end of my Marlovian Summer, is reappraise the plays I teach in the light of each other – not as writing styles by competitors, with the more obvious Shakespearean comparitor, Richard II, waiting in the wings. I want to map Richard Gloucester against Mortimer jr, but also, and mainly, against Gaveston – taking on this idea of a new breed of character on the English stage: the man who looks in the mirror and makes a conscious decision (conveyed to us through soliloquy) about who he wants to be. I need to go away and think about this, because I suspect I’ll view Gaveston in a far more sympathetic light than I have done up until now.
Lawrence Danson, Shakespeare’s Dramatic Genres (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2000)