Marlowe and Shakespeare: Compare and Contrast

William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe were contemporaries and possibly friends. This piece compares what little we know of them as people and writers.

William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe were contemporaries, both writers for the Elizabethan stage. Both wrote Acclaimed tragedies, Comedies and poetry. They were both respected among their peers. This is where the similarities end. While Both Shakespeare and Marlowe were great writers. Though Marlowe died early in his career he may have been remembered as well as Shakespeare but for different reasons.

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Shakespeare started out as the son of a glove maker in Stratford-upon-Avon. He most likely attended the local grammar school where he learned Latin language and literature (Wells 77). While Marlowe also had humble beginnings He soon rose above them by receiving a scholarship to Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, a scholarship usually reserved for those preparing for the priesthood (Wells 78). In college is where we see the first signs of the man that Christopher Marlowe would become.

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Marlowe began writing before Shakespeare. He most likely translated Ovid while in school in the 1580’s (Wells 78). During this time we have very little knowledge of what William Shakespeare was doing. We do know that Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway in 1582 and had a daughter in 1583 (“Timeline Summary”). we have no knowledge that Shakespeare was writing or even interested in writing at this time.

After earning his Bachelor’s degree, Marlowe began to pursue a Masters in art. Here he is absent frequently from the school and it is suspected that he is going to France to study Catholicism in order become a priest and convert protestant English. The school refuses to grant a degree until Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Council intervenes and writes a letter to Cambridge on behalf of Christopher Marlowe asserting that he was doing services to the Queen and had earned his degree (wells 79).

Though little more is known than the existence of this letter it has been surmised that Marlowe was working for Sir Francis Walsingham and his newly created spy agency. Whether this is true or not we can tell much about Marlowe’s character from his college life. First, he was always interested in literature and thought of himself as a writer. As well as translating Ovid he also most likely wrote “Dido, Queen of Carthage” during this time. Second, even if he was not a spy, he had very little regard for the established rules of Cambridge, which stated that he should not have received a degree due to his not being at the school(). We can also tell by the intervention of the Privy Council that while absent from school Marlowe was associating with very important people. This is an indicator of the kind of lifestyle exhibit by later anecdotes from Marlowe’s life about his fast living. It is not at all difficult to believe that Marlowe would attract the attention of everyone around him or approach those he sought to benefit from with no hesitation or fear.

This is also evidenced in his work. If we compare Marlowe’s Jew of Malta with Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice we see a clear distinction in style. Merchant of Venice is a more sensible work. It portrays both the harshness of the Christians towards others and the humanity of the Jewish main character while still predominantly expressing the rightness of the Christian faith over Judaism and that everything can be solved with a marriage. If there is intended social criticism, it is easily digested in a form that appeased the theatre goers of the day.

The Jew of Malta  is a no holds barred assault on Judaism, Christianity, religion, and government to name a few. No one is spared and no punches are pulled. The play starts by establishing that the Jew, Barabas, is an adherent of the teachings of Machiavelli (or at least the understanding of his teachings prevalent in Elizabethan England) and so the audience already expects him to be a villain . He does little to change this perception of himself. Barabas’s daughter also follows her father by joining a convent just to find the wealth that had been hidden there. The priests at the convent are frequently referred to as sleeping with he nuns. The moor, Ithamore also seems to have no redeeming social values and delights in the ways he has tortured Christians. The Governor of Malta, Ferenze, and Selim Calymath, the representative of the Turks seem to have no real care for honor or justice and are just looking for ways to keep themselves in power.

The play also makes frequent allusions to Marlowe’s view of religion which seem to support the theories that Marlowe was an atheist. It starts in the prologue with Machiavel saying “I count religion but a childish toy(Prolougue 14).”  Later Barabas also comments that “religion/ hides many mischiefs from suspicion(I.2.282-283).” Specific religions are also treated as little more than the butts of jokes. Never are the deeper philosophies of the Jewish or Christian faith mentioned as Shakespeare praises Christian mercy in Merchant of Venice.

The Jew of Malta is also a rather innovative, mature work. Shakespeare would not delve into this kind of blurring of tragedy and comedy until much later in his career. Even in works such as Titus Andronicus which are overwrought with violence and mayhem, Shakespeare never seems to delight in it the way Marlowe does. Marlowe is almost like Barabas, orchestrating the violent action of his play with a wave of his hands and then laughing Merrily at the consequences(). One cannot help but wonder if he delighted in the real life violence in which he partook as much as the fictitious acts of his plays.

Marlowe frequently participated in fights and was jailed on several occasions for fighting and for possible atheism. It is hard to say whether this was detrimental to his reputation as a writer or if it brought people in to see his works after hearing of his escapades in the streets. It does show again that he had very little fear personally or professionally.

Shakespeare started his career slowly with fairly easy, though well written, plays such as The Comedy of Errors (Timeline Summary).  Marlowe blazed out of the gate with epics. His play Tamburlaine marks the beginning of a new era of Elizabethan Theatre and was so popular Marlowe quickly penned a sequel. It is obvious that Marlowe influenced others playwrights of the day, including Shakespeare. Due to their common themes it is not far fetched to think that Merchant of Venice is a type of response to The Jew of Malta. Also in The Jew of Malta are several lines that are reminiscent of lines found in later Shakespearean works. In Act  II Barabas asks “what star shines yonder in the east II.1.41?” in reference to his daughter, Abigail. This is similar to the famous “What light through yonder window breaks?/ It is the east and Juliet is the sun(II.2.847-848).” later in Act II of The Jew of Malta Barabas comments that he will “…shew myself to have more serpent/ than the dove (II.3.36-37).” In Midsummer Night’s Dream Lysander says “who will not change a raven for a dove(II.2.773).” Both of these quotes have biblical allusions on their own and slightly different meanings but the phrasing is so similar that it is possible Shakespeare liked it and adapted it for his own uses.

Shakespeare and Marlowe were both great writers. Shakespeare’s emanates from his patience. I imagine him watching the world go by and slowly noting all of the things that happen so that he could mimic them in his next work (Gaiman). Marlowe was almost the opposite, clearly seeing what he wanted from both life and literature and pursuing it wholeheartedly regardless of the consequences. If Marlowe had lived he may have burned out quickly from his rapacious energy, or he may have continued to grasp at more elaborate plays and tragedies. He may have provided more inspiration for Shakespeare and Shakespeare may have inspired Marlowe to craft a different kind of work than he had before. It is impossible to say what could have happened but the works left behind by both of them beg the question.

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Works Cited

Marlowe, Christopher, David M. Bevington, and Eric Rasmussen. Doctor Faustus and Other Plays: a Text. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

Shakespeare, William, and Jonathan V. Crewe. The Narrative Poems. New York: Penguin, 1999. Print.

Shakespeare, William, and M. Lindsay. Kaplan. The Merchant of Venice. Boston: Bedford-St. Martin’s, 2002. Print.

Wells, Stanley W. Shakespeare and Co.: Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Dekker, Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton, John Fletcher, and the Other Players in His Story. New York: Vintage, 2008. Print.

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