Monday, April 20, 2015

The Similarity Between the Marlowe and Shakespeare Coats of Arms by Dave Randall, with Donna N. Murphy

A short time ago I was looking up something in Burke’s The General Armory of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales when I decided to check the entries for Marlowe.1 There are several coats-of-arms for various branches of the Marlowe family listed; most are what are called "canting arms" and display a heraldic device called a martlet, which is basically a sparrow without feet, and are a pun between "martlet" and "Marlowe." The one that caught my eye, however, was this entry: "Marlow, or Marley, Or, a bend sable":

These arms are identical to those granted to John Shakespeare in 1596, minus the spear which appears on the Shakespeare arms: 

Since there is no date associated with the Marlow/Marley arms, it is probable that they were in use prior to what is called the "first visitation" in 1483, when all of the arms in England were first recorded and a comprehensive list compiled by the heralds. 

Since we know little about John Marlowe's ancestry, we cannot say whether he was from a family entitled to bear arms, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility; many relatively humble people (like Shakespeare's mother) were from armigerous families. We also do not know if Marlowe was related to the branch of the family that used these arms. Yet this may not have mattered, if the point was to associate the names “Shakespeare” and “Marlowe” via heraldry. 

Might this be another authorship clue? Might some friend of Marlowe have influenced or bribed William Dethick, the Garter King of Arms who granted John Shakespeare his arms, to assign the Shakespeares a coat-of-arms almost identical to the Marlowes? Might he have done so to signal “those in the know” regarding the true authorship of the “Shakespeare” works? 

In 1602, York Herald of Arms Ralph Brooke accused Dethick of improperly granting a coat-of-arms to 23 “mean persons,” including Shakespeare. He also alleged that Shakespeare’s design was too close to that of Lord Mauley:

With the aid of William Camden, playwright Ben Jonson’s former mentor, Dethick successfully defended his decisions regarding Shakespeare and the design of the coat of arms.2 It was Jonson who satirized Shakespeare’s coat-of-arms via the character Sogliardo in Every Man Out of his Humour (wr. 1599), and then later sang Shakespeare’s praises in the Bard’s First Folio, 1623. Diana Price has proposed that Jonson knowingly differentiated between the actor from Stratford-upon-Avon and the main author of the Shakespeare canon.3 

In sum, if all of this is merely a coincidence, it is a very strange one.

© Dave Randall and Donna N. Murphy, April 2015

1Burke, Bernard. The General Armory of England, Scotland, and Wales (London: Harrison and Sons, 1864), Vol. II. 
2Donaldson, Ian. Ben Jonson: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 160-161.
3Price, Diana. Shakespeare's Unauthorized Biography (, 2012), 66-75, 202-15.