This book is #41 on my Classics Club list.
Shakespeare’s identity is so contested in some circles that scanning a list of possible alternative ‘real Shakespeares’ these days can feel a little like watching audition videos for Big Brother (or just about any reality TV show screened after 8pm). There’s so many wacky and even worrying choices that you begin to wonder if you’ll ever reach the end of them. Christopher Marlowe is somewhat of a crowd favourite on both So You Think You Can Write Blank Verse? and Who Wants to be Shakespeare?*. His is a tale of trial over adversity, mostly because he died in 1593, about twenty years before Shakespeare’s last known play was performed.
Other than this slight mortuary hiccup, however, the Marlowe-as-Shakespeare story is attractive to many because it would be a fantastic tale if it were true. Marlowe is presumed to have been a spy for Elizabeth I’s government. He was killed in a tavern brawl, but many think that it was actually an assassination. Others think that Marlowe staged the whole thing, and continued working as a spy, while simultaneously churning out volumes of poetry under the pseudonym of Shakespeare. It’s a storyline worthy of the great James Bond himself, although I’m not sure that Bond writing screenplays on his days off would have made for a very exciting movie.
In any case, thanks to the speculation surrounding Marlowe’s life and death, reading his work can easily become a case of searching for Shakespeare rather than searching for Marlowe. I turned to his most famous play, Doctor Faustus, in order to try and get to grips with this man, who was such a well-respected playwright in his own right.
Marlowe’s most famous play, Doctor Faustus, is based on the story of an academic who sells his soul to a demon (if you’ve spent any time at a university you’ll know this is not as unusual as you’d expect). He enjoys several years on earth, with demons at his beck and call, before Satan decides to call in his investment and Faustus is dragged down to the fiery depths of hell. You might expect the first half of this play to be filled with enough agonised soul-searching to make Hamlet blush. After all, selling your soul to the Devil requires at least a little bit of agonising.
Doctor Faustus, however, doesn’t seem to struggle with the issue as much as you’d expect. There is a scene where an angel and a devil both try to convince him to make the ‘right’ choice. Though they don’t actually sit on Faustus’ shoulder, it almost doesn’t matter. They keep popping up throughout the play; the angel is always trying to convince Faustus it isn’t too late to repent. Sadly, the demon always ultimately gets the upper hand. Smug bastard.
In a scene that would have many lawyers ripping out their hair with frustration, Faustus signs a contract with the devil in his own blood (that part would also make several doctors shake their scalpels in disgust), and begins testing out his new powers. Over the next few years he travels widely, meets popes and emperors, and plays a good deal of dirty tricks on a great many people. Of course, this can’t last forever, and soon Faustus is forced to face his own grievous mistakes. The play ends with him being dragged to hell and presumably given the traditional tour of the facilities (“… aaand coming up on your right is our state-of-the-art pool area, complete with burning lava and all the brimstone sun loungers your heart desires. Demons are on hand to cater to your every damnation demand. Oh, and mind the geysers. They can be quite unpredictable…”).
Part of Doctor Faustus‘ appeal is that from the very beginning, the audience knows he is doomed; all they can do is sit back and watch as he gets dragged closer and closer to the pit of hell. The angel-and-demon scenes suggest that Faustus is not fated to go to hell. He has made conscious choices, on more than one occasion, and every one has led him further and further away from lightness and goodness. We all know he has a choice, but we also know which choice he is going to make, each and every time.
You can’t help but feel sorry for Faustus as he inches closer to his inevitable damnation. I can’t say that Marlowe’s play quite measured up to anything I had read of Shakespeare (including his language, characterisation, and style) but the reader does sympathise with Faustus in his plight. I don’t think I buy the ‘Marlowe is Shakespeare’ argument, but I know I’d definitely like to read more Marlowe for his own sake, and not just because he might or might not be the most famous Elizabethan playwright of all.
Rating: 4 Stars
*Special judges on So You Think You Can Write Blank Verse? this week include Ken ‘Cut-throat’ Branagh, an American academic whose name everybody keeps forgetting, and our favourite Tudor queen, Elizabeth ‘Gloriana’ the First.
Please note that So You Think You Can Write Blank Verse? screens every day at 7:30pm inside my head. I would like to stress that neither the real Ken Branagh nor the real Elizabeth I are in any way affiliated with this production.