Christopher Marlowe and the Mythology of Shakespeare

Gary Taylor, lead general editor of The New Oxford Shakespeare, departs from the usual collections of Shakespeare’s plays. For the first time, the three Henry VI plays add the name of Elizabethan tragedian and “bad boy of the English Renaissance,” Christopher Marlowe, as co-author alongside the Bard. But that’s not all–fourteen other plays from the 37-work canon feature other co-authors, including but not limited to Thomas Nashe, George Peele, John Fletcher, and several others.

Wild child. A 21-year-old Christopher Marlowe (allegedly) by an anonymous artist, 1585.

Wild child. A 21-year-old Christopher Marlowe (allegedly) by an anonymous artist, 1585.

Do additional authors make Shakespeare’s plays any less, well, Shakespeare? For many years now, various theories have cropped up regarding the playwright, including the Victorian era conspiracy that Shakespeare was more or less the pseudonym or public persona for an aristocrat, as New Yorker writer Daniel Pollack-Pelzner points out. Nowadays it is understood that a final screenplay, even from the sixteenth century, is the work of “many hands”–indeed, “individual hands” that the New Oxford Shakespeare has been able to identify. Another theory claims that Shakespeare’s authority in Western literature stems from the mythology of the playwright rather than his skill, and that plenty of Renaissance writers existed who were just as good, if not better. But these aren’t new ideas, Pollack-Pelzner tells us. Instead, the most interesting point that the New Oxford Shakespeare brings to the table is that:

[T]he canonization of Shakespeare has made his way of telling stories–especially his monarch-centered view of history–seem like the norm to us, when there are other ways of telling stories, and other ways of staging history, that other playwrights did better. If Shakespeare worshipers have told one story in order to discredit his contemporary rivals, the New Oxford is telling a story that aims to give the credit back.

The New Oxford Shakespeare hopes to challenge the assertion that Shakespeare is a flawless playwright. This belief is the same that prevents many of us from accepting that there may have been others at work alongside the Bard as he penned works that would be studied and performed for generations to come.

Read more about Marlowe as co-author of Henry VI and the mythology of Shakespeare in The New Yorker.

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