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  • Eddie Hewitt

Marlowe and Shakespeare

Updated: Nov 12, 2020

I’ve long wondered how Marlowe compares to Shakespeare. Upstart Crow (the brilliant BBC sitcom on the life, works and friends of the Bard) give us some clues, but I jumped at the chance to see Marlowe's work on stage in the RSC production of Dido Queen of Carthage.

Christopher Marlowe, image via the Marlowe Society

Shakespeare, presented as never before, played by David Mitchell, written by Ben Elton

Shakespeare, the Upstart Crow, with Marlowe, his suave contemporary

Marlowe presents us with something that Shakespeare never did: a leading female with only her name in the title. There are some fine female protagonists in Shakespeare: Cleopatra, Juliette, even Cressida, but they all share the headline with a male partner. Here we have Dido, the leader of a powerful ancient African nation. A queen who has dismissed countless male suitors and who reigns supreme alone. This is not Dido and Aeneas, as named by Henry Purcell in the late seventeenth century. Nor Dido a character in Virgil's The Aeneid, written in the first century. This is Dido Queen of Carthage, by Christopher Marlowe (Kit to his friends), quilled in the late sixteenth century.

A rare production of a spectacular drama

There are links here, though, with a number of Shakespeare’s plays. The tragic climax of Dido Queen of Carthage is reminiscent of Romeo and Juliette, where one self-induced death is just not enough. In Antony and Cleopatra, we have another powerful African queen who loves passionately and comes to a traumatic end. Troilus and Cressida is a love story set in the time of the Trojan War. Aeneas has a role in both Shakespeare’s and Marlowe’s tales. Perhaps, more than any of these, A Midsummer Night’s Dream springs to mind, with Titania, another queen, falling in love with an ass. Only in Shakespeare’s comedy the magic wears off and everything ends happily.

Antony and Cleopatra, a cinematic version starring Geraint Wyn Davies and

Yanna McIntosh in 2014, image via

In Dido, Queen of Carthage, Marlowe gives us a classical myth, involving the direct input of the gods. Shakespeare never based his stories on Olympian intervention. In Marlowe’s play, humans are the pawns of the gods, with almost no free-will. The protagonists do not bring tragedy upon themselves, they fall into tragedy through divine intervention. Jupiter (or Jove, or Zeus to the Greeks), was a horrible god at times. Selfish, mean-spirited, petty, vindictive, and sexually hyper-active in a cruel sort of way. Almighty, too.

A very white, very old, patriarchal superpower (played by Nicholas Day

at Stratford 2017), image via RSC

Given the influence of the gods, we don’t really get to see the human lovers exploring their inner most selves. Dido pours out her heart, but she has been transformed by Cupid’s dart into a wailing, desperate woman. She is no longer the powerful founder and ruler of a magnificent Carthage, and it simply wasn’t her fault.

For me, Dido is a wonderful theatrical role, but I struggle to see her as a great role model for strong, independent women. I also sense I am wrong on this point, and I will continue to reflect.

Dido, a strong woman but sunk low by her need to confiscate the rigging from her lover's ships (played by Chipo Chung at Stratford 2017), image via RSC

As for the men, we have one decidedly weak specimen to analyse. Aeneas offers Dido his heart, half-heartedly, then takes it away again, all in response to instructions from Jupiter, relayed by Hermes and in dreams. His main contribution to the tragedy is to obey orders to go back to Italy. There is no introspection. No inner turmoil. No genuine choice. And I suspect I’m actually letting Aeneas off lightly here.

Marlowe with cross-dressing servant girl Kate, from Upstart Crow,

on a trip to Italy, image via Radio Times

In the light of the power of divine intervention, there seems to be no earthly lesson to be learnt. No moral to the story. Other than that humans can be puny and powerless where there are greater and darker forces are at work. But none of this is real. Dido Queen of Carthage is a cracking story which takes us on a disturbing emotional journey and never quite seems to make sense.

Ganymede (Andro Cowperthwaite) and Hermes (Will Bliss)

making mischief at Stratford 2017, image via RSC

Resonance for contemporary times?

The RSC website hosts a trailer showing political upheaval, including the now largely dried up Arab Spring. The programme notes include reference to Aeneas as a refugee, fleeing his homeland and landing on a distant shore in need of help, desperate to get to Europe. There is a danger of over-playing this. For me, the refugee aspect of Dido Queen of Carthage is not essentially a message for our time. The play cannot be contemporised to any great extent. The classic, mythical elements are dominant. But once again, I am happy to be challenged on this.

Refugees seeking a new life on foreign soil. Image via the programme for the RSC's production of Dido Queen of Carthage

This was my first experience of Marlowe at the theatre, and I fully intend to seek out more of his plays. If anyone comes across a production of Tamburlaine the Great do let me know. I am struck by Marlowe's firm grasp of historical, semi-fictional wonders. I am also open to exploring more deeply how his craft allows different perspectives on reality, past and present.

Christopher Marlowe, almost as good as Shakespeare, lolleth

© Eddie Hewitt 2017

Other links

Royal Shakespeare Company

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