Monday, December 1, 2008

Marlowe, Shakespeare, and the style issue: a question for Daryl Pinksen, author of Marlowe's Ghost

Q: Daryl, what do you say to those who argue that Marlowe's style differs from Shakespeare's? Thus, the argument goes, Marlowe could not have authored the plays we attribute to Shakespeare.

Daryl: Thanks, Carlo. They do have a point, the mature Shakespeare style does differ substantially from Marlowe's, but here's the rub: the early Shakespeare style also differs substantially from the mature Shakespeare style. As a result, comparing Marlowe's style to the mature Shakespeare tells us little. Here is what we need to ask: are the styles of late Marlowe plays and early Shakespeare plays similar enough to suggest that they could have been written by the same person?

Many people don't realize that until the 1960's, it was common for scholars to argue that Marlowe co-authored early Shakespeare plays. As far back as 1886, scholar A.W. Verity said, "Among the plays assigned to Shakespeare there are four of which it is practically certain that Marlowe was a part author; they are of course, Henry VI, parts I, II and III, and Titus Andronicus." To many scholars' ears, early Shakespeare simply sounded too much like Marlowe to ignore. Assigning early Shakespeare plays wholesale to Marlowe was unacceptable, so they compromised by speculating that the early plays had been co-written by the two men. But things have changed since then. In the last several decades, these claims have nearly vanished from the literature.

Nonetheless, a survey of scholarship on Shakespeare and Marlowe dating back over a century confirms that the styles of the two bodies of work are closely related. Take this 2002 quote from a giant of Shakespearean scholarship, Harold Bloom, who said, "Marlowe . . . was Shakespeare's starting point, curiously difficult for the young Shakespeare to exorcise completely," adding, "that means the strongest writer known to us served a seven-year apprenticeship to Christopher Marlowe." So why is it that we continue to hear how different their styles are? I have a theory. . .

In undergraduate English programs, students read Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth -- the mature Shakespeare masterpieces. If they are required to read a Marlowe play, it will likely be Dr. Faustus, the play most associated with Marlowe. Marlowe does not fare well in the comparison. The instructor will then guide students through a "compare and contrast" of the two playwrights' styles. Even the dullest student will easily see the differences between Shakespeare masterpieces and early Marlowe. For many students of English literature this will end their study of Shakespeare's contemporaries, and they will depart with the firm, albeit superficial, conviction that the styles of Marlowe and Shakespeare are markedly different, and proceed to ridicule anyone so blind as to suggest otherwise.

A more honest approach would lead to a very different conclusion. Dr. Faustus was written before 1588, when Marlowe was in his early 20's. Hamlet and Lear were written after 1600, when Marlowe (and Shakespeare) were in their mid to late 30's. A fair comparison would examine plays written closer to the same time. If students were to begin their studies with an early Shakespeare play, like Richard II, and then read a late Marlowe play, like Edward II, plays separated by only a handful of years, they would find it hard to believe that they were written by different playwrights. Or imagine instead if students were to begin their Shakespeare studies by reading Hamlet (1600) followed immediately by Titus Andronicus (pre-1594). They might find it hard to reconcile the two plays as the product of a single author. Yet most accept that these two plays were written by the same person because we quite reasonably make allowances for writers to grow over a long career.

When we eliminate the variable of time, the styles of the Marlowe and Shakespeare plays are indistinguishable. Placed in chronological order, the plays reveal the continuous evolution of a single writer, the blacklisted accused heretic, Christopher Marlowe.

© The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection, December 2008

Click here to purchase Daryl Pinksen's Marlowe's Ghost.

Click here to reach Daryl Pinksen's website.

Click here for another piece by Daryl Pinksen on style similarities.

From the International Marlowe-Shakespeare Society, what the scholars say about the similarities between Marlowe and Shakespeare.

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Anonymous said...

well said, Daryl.

Anonymous said...

a reasonable argument that captured my experience in college . . .Faustus with Hamlet wasn't a fair match.

Anonymous said...

a good argument

Anonymous said...

This is a very important piece and it's a very sensible line of thinking that Pinksen puts forth

Anonymous said...

this site is addicting and the more i read here the more am i convinced of marlowe

Unknown said...


Anonymous said...

very interesting

Anonymous said...

Excellently stated!

Anonymous said...

a very helpful article and Mr. Pinksen makes sound points.

Unknown said...

Mendenhall himself emphasised that this methodology cannot definitively establish the identity of two authors, but is very good at demonstrating why two authors could not be identical - as it seems to have done very effectively in regard to comparing the Baconian and Shakespearean works. Peter's interesting work on the time evolution of writing styles between 1584 and 1613 has only plotted data for the Marlovian and Shakespearean works. I would be much more impressed with Peter's plots if the established works of several other contemporary authors could be plotted on the same timescale, with a demonstration that the Marlowe works match the Shakespeare best fit line far better than do the works of other authors. I would suggest trying the works of Jonson, Kyd, Nashe, Peele and Greene for starters.

John Hermann

Peter Farey said...

Hello John,

The question of how well Marlowe's plays do or do not fit the Shakespeare trendline is of course quite irrelevant to the purpose of either of the two most recent pieces of mine. Furthermore, the only way in which I have used such figures in the past has been to show how, unless the passage of time is taken into account, simply comparing the styles of Marlowe and Shakespeare is a useless way of proving that the works were by different people, much as Daryl also argues so well here. The nearest I have come to using this as evidence for Marlowe as "Shakespeare" is to say that once such trends are considered then the figures would tend to support our claim rather than (as it might otherwise seem) to refute it.

My earlier paper already contains such data as are available for the works of Beaumont, Chapman, Daniel, Dekker, Fletcher, Greene, Heywood, Jonson, Kyd, Herbert (Mary), Lyly, Marlowe, Middleton, Munday, Nashe, Peele and Porter which are used to show that such a trend was part of a general movement in style. Showing the extent which the works of any single writer did or did not follow a similar trend would seem to be a fairly pointless exercise, and at the moment (since Middleton is the only one for whom any sort of trend is discernable from the data available) very time consuming.

Peter Farey