Could Christopher Marlowe have been the true author of Shakespeare’s narrative poems?
On April 18, 1593, a narrative poem, Venus and Adonis, was entered on the Stationers’ Register in London, but without the name of its author. Its first recorded sale was on 12 June 1593. There is only one surviving copy of that first edition, but it would go through sixteen editions by 1642. The Rape of Lucrece followed in 1594 and saw eight editions in the same period.
Both narrative poems were fulsomely dedicated to the Earl of Southampton. Both were carefully edited and proofread, and published by Richard Field who also hailed from Stratford-upon-Avon. Both were attributed to William Shakespeare, and this was the first time his name was seen in print and with that spelling. (See What’s in a name?) However, in the case of Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare’s name only appears on the dedication to the Earl of Southampton which shows evidence of being added after the text was originally typeset.
The dedication calls Venus and Adonis ‘the first heir of my invention’, which has led some scholars to argue that Shakespeare arrived in London with the poem already written. An alternative reading is that Shakespeare wrote the poem just before it was published, but in calling it ‘the first’ is repudiating his earlier efforts as a playwright in the hope of finding noble patronage and a more secure income than the theatre afforded. However, ‘first’ may also mean the best or the most prestigious of the author’s writings. This may simply be a reflection of the fact that epic poetry was held in much higher esteem than plays for the commercial stage. This may also account for how carefully the poems were edited, in contrast to the rather haphazard editing usually found in Shakespeare’s plays, even in the First Folio.
When the poems were published, the London theatres had been closed since June 1592 due to social unrest followed by the plague. This would have left Shakespeare unemployed, without an income, but with the time he needed to write and/or edit the poems. However, at that time, Shakespeare was not the only talented poet and playwright with time on his hands.
Marlovians have noted with interest that William Shakespeare’s name appeared for the first time in print only a matter of days after Christopher Marlowe’s presumed death on May 30, 1593. (See A Fateful Day in Deptford) Could it be, they argue, that Christopher Marlowe had ‘died’ in Deptford, only to be ‘reborn’ as William Shakespeare? Could Marlowe have written the narrative poems as well as the plays? (See The Authorship Contenders)
As we have seen, Venus and Adonis was entered on the Stationers’ Register anonymously. When it was published about two months later it did not bear the author’s name on the title page, just the Latin motto.
Villa miretur vulgus; mihi flavus Apollo
Pocula Castalia plena ministret aqua.
These lines are quoted from Ovid’s Amores, a collection of love poems which Christopher Marlowe translated while he was at Cambridge. In his translation, the motto reads in English:
Let base conceited minds admire vile things,
Fair Phoebus lead me to the Muse’s spring.
Both Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece are drawn from classical sources. Venus and Adonis is based on Greek mythology and was most likely based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The story of the rape of Lucretia comes from Book One of Livy’s History of Rome and is also told in Book Two of Ovid’s Fasti. Both poems demonstrate a knowledge of the classics and trends in Latin and Italian Renaissance poesy that goes far beyond what could have been taught in Stratford’s one room grammar school. As Marlovians have argued, if any part of the Shakespearean canon was written by a university man, it is these poems.
My own doubts about their authorship were roused when I read that Venus and Adonis was supposedly influenced by Christopher Marlowe’s unfinished narrative poem, Hero and Leander. It seemed to me rather a long stretch to suggest that Venus and Adonis should be influenced by a poem which, according to most sources, had probably not been written, and certainly had not been finished nor published, before Venus and Adonis was put on the Stationers’ Register. How could Hero and Leander possibly have had a retrospective influence on Venus and Adonis?
It was not until I compared all three poems that I saw the profound similarity between them, enough of a similarity to make me wonder whether they might not all three have been written by the same poet. Significantly, all three poems delve into the same theme: transgressive sexual relations which end in death.
Hero and Leander is based on the Greek myth of the illicit love between Hero, a priestess of Venus who has vowed chastity, and the young man, Leander, who swims across the Hellespont at night to visit her. Hero breaks her vow of chastity to become Leander’s lover, and while Marlowe’s poem leaves off at that point, the myth on which it is based tells of Leander’s drowning and Hero’s suicide. Marlowe’s sources are also the classics, Ovid’s Heroides and the Greek poem by Musæus Grammaticus. (Hero and Leander was completed by George Chapman – who also translated Homer – in a very different style to Marlowe’s, and published in 1598.)
Shakespeare’s poems are both about sexual violence, albeit more psychological that physical violence, which also ends in death.
In Venus and Adonis Venus is besotted with the beautiful and chaste youth Adonis who wants nothing to do with her and would prefer to go hunting. Venus pursues him relentlessly, trying to rouse his interest by persuasion, by showing him the mating of her favourite stallion and finally by bodily throwing herself on him. Though he responds physically, Adonis quickly regrets it and tells Venus once and for all that he does not welcome her attentions and to leave him alone to go hunting. Venus is overcome with grief when he is killed in a hunting accident and decrees that all earthly love will inevitably be accompanied by pain and grief.
The Rape of Lucrece is the story of Lucrece, the chaste and beautiful wife of Collatine, cousin of Tarquin, the King of Rome. One night Collatine boasts to Sextus Tarquinius, the King’s son, that his wife is the most beautiful and virtuous of all. Young Tarquin challenges Collatine to prove his claim so Collatine takes him to his home where, even though it is midnight, Lucrece is still at work at her loom. Tarquin is immediately stricken with Lucrece and determines to possess her. A short while later he returns to Collatine’s house while he is out. Lucrece welcomes him as a guest and invites him to stay overnight. In the night Tarquin goes to Lucrece’s bedchamber and with dire threats has his way with her. After he leaves in the morning, she calls on her father and husband and, confessing what has happened, stabs herself for shame. The King’s enemies use Lucrece’s death to rouse the Romans to expel the King and his family.
The poem recounts the story as an interior monologue firstly from Tarquin’s point of view as he contemplates the morality of what he plans to do, and then from Lucrece’s point of view as she responds to the rape.
While all three poems are derived from original stories which end in death, a common theme for classical love stories, the shared theme of sexual violence in Shakespeare’s poems is not accidental. While expanding greatly on his sources, Shakespeare retains the essence of the original story of Tarquin and Lucretia. However, he made a fundamental change to the story of Venus and Adonis.
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, when Venus falls in love with the handsome young hunter, Adonis, she forsakes heaven to be his companion, roaming the woods with him until he is killed during the hunt by a wild boar despite her warnings. Although nothing is said by Ovid about how Adonis feels about Venus, he does not resist her kisses, only her warning not to go hunting. The reader has every right to assume he is her willing partner. The opposite is the case in Shakespeare’s poem. It is as though on reading Ovid’s story, the poet saw in Adonis’s silence, not acquiescence, but unavailing resistance.
This may be one point where scholars see an influence from Hero and Leander where Marlowe’s description of the relationship between Venus and Adonis is not the passionate love affair Ovid describes, but instead:
Where Venus in her naked glory strove
To please the careless and disdainful eyes
Of proud Adonis, that before her lies; (lines 12-14)
As we can see from Marlowe’s plays, (See The Plays of Christopher Marlowe) he displays in his writings a cynical and pessimistic attitude towards sex which he portrays as a controlling and destructive passion. In contrast, Shakespeare’s plays present a much more romantic view of sexual relations. It is as though on that front, while Shakespeare may have experienced unhappy relationships, he has never given up on love, while Marlowe’s sexual experiences have left him deeply damaged and more likely to read Ovid in this way.
In his essay, On the Likelihood of Marlowe’s Authorship of Venus and Adonis, John Baker perceives that the poem is replete with references to the Kentish rather than the Warwickshire countryside, which persuades him that it was written by Marlowe rather than Shakespeare. He goes deeper, however, into a psychological analysis of the poem, and he reads there a personal story of sexual abuse of a young boy by an older woman. Based on the long digression about the rampant stallion, he identifies Venus as Mary Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke, who was known as a keen breeder of horses. Baker argues that Marlowe, while at King’s School, came to the attention of her brother Sir Philip Sidney who took him on as a page and brought him to spend a summer with the Pembrokes during which the Countess relentlessly pursued him. He contends that her pursuit was successful and that Marlowe was the father of her eldest son.
I would not go so far as to impugn the reputation of the Countess of Pembroke. After all she was only two years older than Marlowe so hardly your typical cougar. If anything resembling what Baker discerns did happen I would not see the poem as so literal a representation. I would argue that what might have occurred during that summer was that perhaps the young Countess, married to a much older man, may have been a little too flirtatious with her brother’s handsome young page, but that innocent flirtation may have reminded him too painfully of earlier, less innocent encounters. Could Marlowe have been the victim of sexual abuse as a child?
If we look more closely at both Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, we can go even deeper into the poet’s mind. In both poems we see not only through the eyes of the victim, but also, if not more so, through the eyes of the predator. In Venus and Adonis, it is Venus who speaks at great length while Adonis replies only briefly. In The Rape of Lucrece, the first half of the poem takes us right into Tarquin’s mind and his motivations, while the second half describes Lucrece’s response to the rape. This suggests to me that the poet identifies with both the victim and the predator, as though he has been in both places, if not in reality in his own mind. As a reaction to his childhood experience, did Marlowe become a predator, or, at least, come to perceive himself as one?
Such an analysis does contrast with Hero and Leander, in which the lovers are in mutual agreement and the predator is an outside force, the god Neptune who mistakes Leander for Ganymede and drags him under the sea, almost drowning him, though this could also be read as another reference to childhood sexual abuse.
Another contrast is the difference in the format of Hero and Leander and the other two poems. It is written in long uneven stanzas of rhyming pentameter couplets while Shakespeare’s poems are written in seven-line stanzas.
These points might raise doubts about attributing all three poems to the same author, but only if we make the usual assumption that Hero and Leander was written at about the same time as the other two poems and that Marlowe left it unfinished because he was writing it at Scadbury when he was summoned to London. (See A Fateful Day in Deptford)
However, in his article, Notes on Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, Douglas Bush argues that the close affinities between Hero and Leander and Marlowe’s translations of Ovid’s Amores, (and if I may add Dido, Queen of Carthage) which he undertook at Cambridge, indicate that far from being Marlowe’s last work, the poem was his first attempt at original poetry. It was the common practice at the time for young poets to launch their careers with just such a long poem. It is not too hard to imagine that the distractions of youth, or his being diverted into writing for the stage, might have caused the young Marlowe to leave the poem unfinished. One might also speculate that he began writing Hero and Leander to celebrate a youthful passion, a passion which ended badly, causing him to stop working on the poem.
Perhaps the contrasts between the poems indicate that over time, as Marlowe matured, he came to see this youthful passion, and his own role in it, very differently. Perhaps he began to see that it was not the mutual passion he had believed it to be, but his forcing his attentions on another. If, as most biographers agree, Marlowe was homosexual, could this passion have been for a young man who broke off their relationship and repudiated it, perhaps accusing Marlowe of debauching him? Such an encounter could very well have caused a total revolution in his view of himself and sexual relations altogether.
Given this analysis, one would wonder why the poems were published under the name of William Shakespeare and dedicated to the Earl of Southampton. That is a question which I might pursue in a follow-up to this article.
© Pauline Montagna 2022
Baker, John, On the Likelihood of Marlowe’s Authorship of Venus and Adonis (2001) (http://web.archive.org/web/20071102160441/http:/www2.localaccess.com/marlowe/venus.htm)
Bush, Douglas, Notes on Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, PMLA, Vol 44, No 3 (Sept 1929) pp 760-764