Murdering Marlowe Casts William Shakespeare as a Jealous, Manipulating Upstart
Photo by Christine Weems Scott McWhirter (Marlowe) tangles with conspirators played by Sam Martinez and Anthony Torres in Murdering Marlowe.
'Ods bodkins, good gentlefolk, there's an intriguing premise at work in Charles Marowitz's English Renaissance thriller, Murdering Marlowe. If you have a passing interest in Elizabethan theater and the world of Shakespeare, this will be your goblet of tea. There's much to laud.
Scribbler Marowitz has done the unthinkable and might even stand accused of heresy for what he shows upon the stage. He hath turned the immortal Bard of Avon into a green-eyed, envious young lout who plots the death of a fellow playwright, the honored Christopher Marlowe, playmaker of such popular London hits as Tamburlaine, Dr. Faustus, The Jew of Malta and Edward II.
Why the callow youth thinks this is the only method to get his work produced is not addressed. Sure, knocking off a rival may speed up one's progress, but Marlowe, no matter how feted and successful, no matter how far up success's ladder, was but one of many playwrights scrambling to earn a living in plague-ravaged London, to secure patronage, and make ends meet with endless tours of the provinces when the theaters shut down for disease. Bumping off Marlowe wouldn't necessarily lift Will any higher -- there were too many others waiting to fill the void. His work alone would have to catapult him to the heights.
Once we make the very big leap to accuse beloved Will of this heinous crime, where else does it lead? Naturally, he becomes a very bad fellow all around, especially to his love-starved older wife Anne, whom he treats with disdain and loathing.
Sweet William becomes the biggest opportunist in town, a struggling upstart who paves the way to success by hiring thugs to ice his rival and, to really gild the lily, bed Marlowe's mistress and make her his own. The basic premise is shaky and doesn't hold together, but there's so much love for the ripe language of the time that we forgive the skewed painting of Shakespeare and focus on the gilded frame which is bright and dazzling.
Former critic, founder of London's Open Space Theatre and author of numerous books on the theater (many pertaining to Shakespeare), Marowitz displays ample knowledge about the period (see end note) and cleverly incorporates some Shakespearean homage into the dialogue.
This play is a treat to listen to. We're caught in the net from the very first scene, young Shakespeare in prayer as he confesses his hatred, fear and obsession over Marlowe. He compares him to a "giant compass so wide-extended that his north cannot his south observe," whose "dark genius is to mine like a firebrand to a lighted straw" and "whose works fall lightly from his pen like shipwreck't treasure bobbing to the surface of the sea." This honey-tongued language sounds so true we smile as it hits our ears, for it contains both reverence and parody.
Once Will sets his nefarious scheme in motion, he fades into the background, and subsidiary characters rise to take his place. If he has such loathing for Kit, shouldn't they have a really juicy scene between them, something considerably more electric than the only scene they do share: a lame, fill-in-the-blanks theater history lesson at the tavern? The scene, like the rest of the play, is thrown to Marlowe, who, along with mistress Emilia, ruffian Poley and bumpkin accomplice Frizer, sadistic spy Maunder and theater impresario Henslow, makes a pretty round-robin of daily life at the time.
Marlowe is especially well limned, a mass of contradictions that make him all the more interesting and human: coarse and refined, a lover of boys and women, swearing to God he's an atheist, as he tweaks the nose of the Virgin Queen while he depends upon her largesse and protection.