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What to Know About Shakespeare’s Newly Credited Collaborator Christopher Marlowe

Textual analysis convinced the editors of The New Oxford Shakespeare to make Marlowe a co-author on the “Henry VI” plays, parts 1, 2 and 3

Portrait thought to be Christopher Marlowe (Wikimedia Commons)
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When the new edition of The New Oxford Shakespeare is released next month, there will be some small tweaks to spelling, updated punctuation and new critical notes. But there will be one major change as well: the volume is giving co-writing credit on the "Henry VI" plays, parts 1, 2 and 3 to fellow Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe, reports Dalya Alberge at The Guardian.

Scholars have suspected that Marlowe may have had a hand in those three histories since the 19th century, but it took the team of 23 Shakespeare experts working on the new edition to find strong evidence for the claim. Using computerized textual analysis the team was able to statistically determine which words and phrases are most often used by each poet and which they would never use. For instance, the phrase “glory droopeth​” is a combination in keeping with Marlowe, but one which Shakespeare wouldn't touch. The algorithm is so powerful, it is able to differentiate passages written solely by Shakespeare, those written only by Marlowe and passages in which the two collaborated.

“No one has had the confidence to put the name actually on the title page,” Gary Taylor, general editor of the series tells Christopher D. Shea at The New York Times. “Which is perfectly reasonable because the only reason that we can do it now is because Shakespeare has entered the world of big data.”

Taylor says when the Oxford Shakespeare first suggested in 1986 that eight of the Bard’s plays might have elements from other writers, people were incensed. Since then, however, textual analysis has shown that 17 of Shakespeare’s 44 plays are collaborative. The volume also adds a new play to the mix. Textual analysis shows that a previously anonymous play, "Arden of Faversham," is a collaboration between Shakespeare and an unknown author.

The fact that Marlowe is confirmed as a collaborator is ironic. Since 1819, a group of Shakespeare sleuths have suggested that Christopher Marlowe was in fact Shakespeare. That idea, put forth as the Marlovian Theory, survives—and thrives—to this day, even though Marlowe died in 1593 before the bulk of the Bard's work was completed.

Marlowe's legend persists because he is one of literature's more intriguing characters. Born in 1564 the son of a Canterbury shoe maker, a scholarship took Marlowe to Corpus Christi College in Cambridge. While the school attempted to withhold his degree because he missed long stretches of his second and third years, members of Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Council stepped in with an excuse: they said he was working for the crown, and it’s believed Marlowe may have been on a secret mission for the Queen in Rheim as one of the agents who infiltrated and stopped the Babington Plot, an attempt to overthrow Queen Elizabeth hatched by Jesuits and Mary Queen of Scots.

After successfully getting his master's, Marlowe moved to London and began his career as a playwright. He had a string of well received plays including "Tamburlaine the Great," "Dr. Faustus," "Edward II" and "The Jew of Malta." The plays cemented his place in literature and spawned a legion of imitators.

On May 20, 1593, however, Marlowe was arrested on charges of heresy because of rumors that he was an atheist. He was given probation and required to meet with an officer of the court daily. Then, just ten days later, Marlowe was murdered. After spending a day with Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley, known associates of Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, Marlowe was stabbed in the forehead by Frizer, supposedly after a dispute about the bill. He was 29 years old.

Not everyone believes the bar fight story. According to Stacy Conradt at Mental Floss, some historians believe Marlowe was assassinated, the hit ordered by everyone from Sir Walter Raleigh to Walsingham’s wife Audrey, who is believed to have been jealous of Marlowe. The fact that the queen pardoned Frizer four weeks later makes some people believe the act was a royal conspiracy.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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