[At long last, a new early modern post. The essay below will appear in a volume on Marlowe in Context, edited by Emily C. Bartels and Emma Smith, and forthcoming from Cambridge University Press later this year — for full citations, see the print version.]

What exactly was Christopher Marlowe’s ‘moment’? Was it the late 1580s, when both parts of Tamburlaine were first staged? Was it 1590, the year the publication of those plays ushered drama originally written for the professional theatre into the world of literature? Was it the following years, up to his death in 1593, when most of his dramatic works were performed in front of capacity crowds at London’s theatres, even as their author continued to live a life of notoriety? Or was Marlowe’s moment a posthumous event, with the influence of his plays growing well into the 1590s and beyond, bolstered, in the realm of literature, by the publication of Hero and Leander in 1598?

There is a dominant version of literary and theatre history that would suggest all of the above are true: Marlowe burst onto the theatrical scene with Tamburlaine, a play that almost single-handedly revolutionized English dramatic literature; the same play then ushered in the phenomenon of drama as a marketable print commodity; and Marlowe’s works remained commercially successful enough to form the core of one of early modern England’s leading acting companies, the Lord Admiral’s Men, for decades. However, this account, as influential as it has been, has little evidence on its side and in some of its particulars contradicts what little concrete information we have about the Elizabethan theatre.

Marlowe’s Influence

How revolutionary was Tamburlaine? According to the conventional narrative, very. Even the most nuanced theatre-historical analyses cling to the idea that the play kicked off a ‘cultural contest’ between old and new in which Marlowe eventually ‘prevailed’. However, we now remain aware of only side of this ‘conflict’, since almost all drama written for adult professional actors before Tamburlaine is lost. As Lukas Erne notes, ‘what “the popular theatre of the day” was like when Marlowe arrived in London is something we know next to nothing about’. If Marlowe was a revolutionary, then, it is unclear what exactly he was rebelling against. That the two parts of Tamburlaine, first performed by the Lord Admiral’s Men in 1587 or 1588, were a great success is beyond question; but given our near-total ignorance about the theatrical and dramatic contexts of his works, how can we claim that Marlowe’s success was the result of his radical difference?

Even if Tamburlaine really broke with tradition as spectacularly as literary historians assert, however, was the play actually as influential as the conventional narrative suggests? It is true that the early 1590s saw a small flourishing of plays about conqueror figures – Robert Greene’s Alphonsus, King of Aragon; Selimus (possibly also by Greene); George Peele’s The Battle of Alcazar; and a few others. It is certainly possible that those works responded to or imitated Tamburlaine. Some of them, critics have argued, explicitly allude to Marlowe’s text, at times almost recycling his images and ideas. But these plays make up a very small fraction of the theatrical repertory of the 1590s.

Revealingly, the acting company about which we have the most detailed information from the early 1590s, Lord Strange’s Men, show no sign of having succumbed to the Tamburlaine fever. Among the 27 plays we know they performed between February 1592 and February 1593 – the period when all their shows at the Rose Theatre were recorded in Philip Henslowe’s business diary – only two or three seem to fit the mould: a two-part ‘Tamer Cham’ play and a play about ‘Mully Mollocco’ (which some scholars interpret as Henslowe’s title for The Battle of Alcazar). Other offerings range from romances and biblical moralities to English chronicle history plays, but also include two of Marlowe’s own works: The Jew of Malta and The Massacre at Paris. What the Strange’s Men’s records suggest (to the extent that we can make sense of them at all, given that only nine or ten of the texts survive) is that Marlovian drama happily coexisted with works that sound to us like more old-fashioned fare – that companies who staged his plays did not instantly transform their entire repertories to fit what may have been a new paradigm, but instead learned to orchestrate and cycle through an increasingly wide range of dramatic styles and modes.

What makes Strange’s Men a particularly pertinent case study is the fact that they may well have been the first company to think of London as their permanent home. As Sally-Beth MacLean has argued, unlike other troupes, they avoided touring between 1589 and 1592, possibly performing at the Rose for all those years. A more typical company of actors would have travelled around Britain for most of the year. Such a company would not have been likely to feel the need to respond quickly to revolutionary new plays – partly because their audiences were diverse enough that there would have been little incentive to invest in radically new material, and partly because their absence from London and its professional writers kept those troupes out of the loop to some extent. It is therefore unclear why the Queen’s Men, say, or Leicester’s Men – to name just two of the many groups performing throughout Britain in those years – should have cared, or even known, that the Admiral’s Men’s Tamburlaine was stunning audiences elsewhere in the country. Strange’s Men, on the other hand, with their settled London existence, would presumably have felt the impact of a new voice or a new style of drama much more acutely – to them, a competitor in or around the City (perhaps at one of the Shoreditch playhouses, the Theatre or the Curtain) would have posed a challenge, while a prominent travelling company such as the Queen’s Men could easily have ignored a competitor passing through a town months before they performed there. Consequently, the relative absence of a clear Marlovian influence on the Strange’s Men’s repertory is especially telling: if the Marlowe ‘revolution’ did not utterly change their practices, why would it have had much of an impact on other troupes?

This is a point worth dwelling on. The conventional narrative conceives of acting troupes as participants in a cultural market, and of Marlowe as near-unmatchable competition in that market, pitting him (and the Admiral’s Men) against everybody else, forces of the new against defenders of the old. But such a binary model necessarily misrepresents the nature of the theatrical marketplace, in London as well as in the country at large. Consider this anonymous letter, written to Sir Francis Walsingham in January 1587:

For every day in the week the players’ bills are set up in sundry places of the City, some in the name of her Majesty’s Men, some the Earl of Leicester’s, some the Earl of Oxford’s, the Lord Admiral’s, and divers others; so that when the bells toll to the lecturer, the trumpets sound to the stages, whereat the wicked faction of Rome laugheth for joy, while the godly weep for sorrow. … It is a woeful sight to see two hundred proud players jet in their silks, where five hundred poor people starve in the streets.

The figure of 200 actors strutting around in their fine costumes is likely inflated, and the picture of a City bustling with acting companies probably only represents what things were like in the winter, when troupes tended to avoid touring. But even if few, or no, groups of actors had made London their permanent home yet, it is undeniable that there were a large number of performance spaces in and around the City – spaces that needed to be filled somehow. By 1587, four large outdoor playhouses had opened their doors: the Theatre and the Curtain north of the City, the Rose south of the Thames, and the theatre in Newington Butts, a mile south of the City. And beyond these purpose-built houses, four inns served as theatres at least until the mid-1590s: the Bel Savage, the Bull, the Cross Keys, and the Bell. While none of these spaces may have been associated with particular acting companies, some of them at least had already developed a reputation for specific styles of performance or a distinctive type of drama by the early 1590s; the Bull, for instance, had become recognizable as a place where ‘actors speak fustian’, staging plays with titles like ‘a fig for a Spaniard’, and full of ‘invent[ed] words running on the letter to content over curious fancies.’

We thus know that London had eight professional performance venues, all of which were used for theatrical productions throughout the year. And despite a presumed high turnover of occupants, some of those venues managed to develop well-defined house-styles. Walsingham’s anonymous correspondent names four acting companies, and we can probably add at least another two or three that occasionally took up residence in one of the London theatres. This great diversity, however, poses a major challenge to the conviction that Marlowe’s arrival on the scene in 1587 had a singular and revolutionary impact. Even if we grant that Tamburlaine was universally acknowledged as unlike anything anyone had ever seen before, and even if we were to imagine it as performed by the Admiral’s Men during a long, uninterrupted stint in London, it would still have been only one theatrical event among many; even if it sold out every time, attracting spectators in unprecedented numbers, the playhouse where it was staged still only held a few thousand people – in an entertainment marketplace that could accommodate well over 10,000 spectators every day. There is thus no reason to assume that all the other companies would have felt compelled to offer similar plays, or that they would have anticipated that the theatre-goers who were crowded out of performances of Marlowe’s work would not go elsewhere for their daily entertainment. There was simply too much theatre on offer, in London and throughout the kingdom, for one playwright’s or one company’s innovative work to have the immediate transformative influence the conventional narrative of literary history implies.

Measuring any kind of influence is of course an inherently problematic undertaking. In Marlowe’s case, we simply know too little of the other dramatic works produced in the 1580s to say with certainty whether his plays were in fact more transformative than other, lost ones; and although we have a somewhat larger number of plays from the following decade, we still cannot clearly demonstrate exactly how widespread the influence of Marlowe’s works was – we would need a better sense of how representative the surviving sample of texts is. However, one might argue that it is less important to know that a given text or author influenced a specific number of others than to assess the quality of influence a particular author had on others. Marlowe’s works evidently affected the way some of his contemporaries wrote plays: at least a number of authors whose texts reached print attempted to mimic or counter some of his writerly habits and attitudes. But such a perspective necessarily privileges the minority of plays that have survived to this day, implicitly suggesting that those works are representative of larger trends in the development of early modern theatre, and tacitly equating the markets for playbooks and that for live performances. Worse, in Marlowe’s case, scholars have almost inevitably, if understandably, focussed on Shakespeare’s response.

But that strategy comes with its own disadvantages: we do not know, after all, how similar Shakespeare’s plays were to the bulk of drama written and performed in the 1590s and early 1600s. What is clear is that literary history has long traced the development of Elizabethan drama from humble beginnings to unparalleled artistic excellence through Marlowe to Shakespeare – a narrative that necessarily, and troublingly, ignores the hundreds of lost and dozens of surviving plays that fail to support a vision of ever greater aesthetic accomplishment, and instead speak to the continued popularity and importance of old models, with their seemingly crusty poetics and hackneyed plotlines.

One striking instance of this persistent presence of a kind of drama literary history wants to relegate to the dark pre-Marlovian past is the anonymous Clyomon and Clamydes. This romance, first printed in 1599, and performed by the Queen’s Men – the leading acting company in England throughout Marlowe’s career – could not be less like Tamburlaine. In place of Marlowe’s over-reaching characters fuelled by awe-inspiring ambition, we get silly tales of knights in not especially shining armour, and damsels in highly contrived distress; instead of mighty blank-verse lines, we get rhymed hexameters and heptameters. And yet, this apparently anachronistic play, sometimes dated to the 1570s precisely because it seems so out of step with the Marlovian paradigm, was not only staged by a successful, if deliberately conservative, company, but was considered a worthwhile investment for a publisher at the end of the sixteenth century – competing not just with Marlowe’s playbooks, but also Shakespeare’s.

Clyomon and Clamydes thus offers one important corrective to the conventional narratives of theatre and literary history. It shows that plays of dubious poetic merit continued to appeal to audiences in the 1580s and 1590s. And perhaps even more importantly, it shows that such plays may have found a readership as well, although it is true that Clyomon was never reprinted and therefore probably sold poorly (but the same is true of Marlowe’s Massacre at Paris – and of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, which saw its only single-volume edition the year after Clyomon and Clamydes was published). Stationers frequently invested in plays now considered inferior: in 1599 alone, they published Greene’s Alphonsus; the anonymous A Warning for Fair Women (another ‘old fashioned’ play, featuring a number of allegorical dumb shows); and the anonymous George a Green, the Pinner of Wakefield, yet another play that shows no trace of Marlowe’s or Shakespeare’s influence, and thus feels ‘old’ – although it may in fact testify to the continued theatrical and literary currency of other dramatic models. Such seemingly outdated material was not simply considered marketable by stationers, but also outsold many playbooks of a more ‘post-revolutionary’ bent. We may never know what contemporary readers saw in Mucedorus (the best-selling play of the age) or A Looking Glass for London and England, but the fact that these works and others like them continued to be read suggests that the market for printed plays at least partly reflected the heterogeneity of the theatrical world.

Marlowe’s Success

Much of my argument so far has been concerned with what we do not know – the wealth of theatrical activities and writing now lost to us, but of crucial importance as context for Marlowe’s drama. Let me now turn to something we do know: just how well plays such as Tamburlaine, The Jew of Malta, and Doctor Faustus did on stage. Henslowe’s diary is a unique source of information in this regard, at least for the years it covers in sufficient detail: 1592-1597.

Any analysis of the daily takings Henslowe lists for Strange’s Men must conclude that The Jew of Malta, for instance, was a true blockbuster. It was staged 13 times and averaged just over 45 shillings a performance. Only two plays earned Henslowe more from 1592-93: The Spanish Tragedy and a play about Henry VI that may or may not have been one of Shakespeare’s. And The Jew of Malta remained a relatively steady money-maker for other companies at his Rose theatre (the play probably belonged to Henslowe). It was staged 10 times by the Admiral’s Men in 1594, and revived by them for another 8 shows in 1596. After that, Marlowe’s play seems to have been retired along with Edward Alleyn, the actor long associated with the star parts of Barabas and Tamburlaine, but it returned to the Admiral’s Men’s repertory in 1601, when Alleyn rejoined them for a while after they had moved to a new theatre, the Fortune. The play made its next recorded appearance in the 1630s, when Queen Henrietta’s Men staged it at court and at the Cockpit theatre, complete with a prologue by Thomas Heywood apologizing for the old-fashioned material. The Jew of Malta thus looks like a work of enduring popularity – one of the plays built to last through the decades leading up to closure of theatres in 1642. Similar accounts can be constructed for Doctor Faustus and, with less confidence, for Tamburlaine.

However, what is less clear is just how exceptional Marlowe’s plays were in either their immediate success or their longevity. The most remarkable thing about The Jew of Malta is not that it was an unparalleled success (other plays were more profitable), but that we know so much about its commercial fortunes. As a consequence, we are liable to overestimate just how unusual those fortunes were, simply because we have so little data for comparison. The surviving records in fact suggest that many similar success stories lie just beyond our archival reach. Take another profitable Strange’s Men play, ‘Titus and Vespasian’. This anonymous, and lost, work more or less matched The Jew of Malta in receipts, running for 10 shows with average takings of just under 45 shillings. However, unlike Marlowe’s play, it did not make it into the Admiral’s Men’s repertory – most likely because it went with the rest of Strange’s Men to either the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (Shakespeare’s company) or elsewhere, and thus drops out of recorded theatre history. ‘Titus and Vespasian’ thus looks insignificant: a flash in the pan, it only lasted on stage for a year and then vanished from sight, wasn’t interesting enough to merit print publication, and didn’t leave a record attesting to lasting theatrical popularity. This impression, however, is almost entirely an effect of the fragmentary evidence we rely on in constructing the history of early modern drama. ‘Titus and Vespasian’ may well have gone on to be the Chamberlain’s Men’s most enduringly popular play – but without any records about the company’s commercial fortunes, we have no way of knowing.

In other words, just as what we do not know about Marlowe has distorted our conventional accounts of his influence, what we think we know about his plays’ exceptional commercial success has distorted our understanding of their relative popularity. Worse, the traditional narrative tends to ignore what data we do have in its desire to sustain claims for Marlowe’s unparalleled and perennial appeal. Contrary to what some theatre historians have asserted, none of his plays is in fact among the most profitable Admiral’s Men productions recorded in Henslowe’s diary; in each of the years for which we have records (1594-1597), Marlowe’s works brought in fewer spectators than the average play; and by the troupe’s third season at the Rose, none of his works played a significant role in their repertory anymore – only Doctor Faustus was still being staged in the 1596-97 season, but just four times compared to 187 performances of other plays, earning Henslowe a total of 58 shillings, or just over 14 shillings per show. Marlowe’s five plays (the two parts of Tamburlaine, The Jew of Malta, Doctor Faustus, and The Massacre at Paris) make up only 7 per cent of the works staged in those three years, and just over 2 per cent of the more than 230 plays known to have been performed by the Admiral’s Men in total. However one crunches those figures, the popular claim that the Marlovian oeuvre was ‘the beating heart of the company’s repertory’ is impossible to sustain.

Occasionally, however, the fog of our ignorance about what the English theatrical scene was really like in Marlowe’s and Shakespeare’s time lifts for a moment – and in those moments, we get glimpses of a very unfamiliar landscape. Decades ago, a puzzling list of plays was found on the back of a manuscript in the hand of Sir George Buc, Master of the Revels from 1610-22, and an antiquarian with a keen interest in the recent history of the stage. E. K. Chambers reasoned that the list must either refer to texts Buc had licensed for performance or to plays that he had considered for court entertainments. Strikingly, ‘a very unexpected entry’ refers to ‘Titus, and Vespatian’ – quite likely that old play we last encountered in Henslowe’s diary in 1593, and therefore possibly a work not just rivalling The Jew of Malta in popularity when first staged, but also matching Marlowe’s play’s longevity, considered fit for a revival at court over 25 years after its original performance. How many other examples like ‘Titus and Vespasians’ may there have been? And how could we ever know how influential, how successful, and, most distressingly, how aesthetically impressive they were?

Marlowe Out of Date

From both the perspective of influence and that of commercial success, the notion that Marlowe really had a ‘moment’ may have lost some of its lustre by now. But even if we grant that such a moment in fact existed, just how long did it last? It would be difficult to dispute the continued influence of his poetry – Hero and Leander seems to have remained a shining reference point for later poets. But in the theatre and in the realm of dramatic writing, his star may have faded rather more quickly. I would suggest that by the time Ben Jonson called Marlowe’s lines ‘mighty’ in 1623, that tag had become something of a poisoned compliment. Critics frequently accused dramatists of indulging in verbal noise and excess, and both features were increasingly associated with popular, unsophisticated plays in post-Elizabethan England. Take Edmund Gayton, admittedly writing with a lot of hindsight in the mid-17th century: ‘I have heard, that the Poets of the Fortune and the Red Bull, had always a mouth-measure for their Actors (who were terrible tear-throats) and made their lines proportionable to their compass, which were sesquipedales, a foot and a half’. Earlier sources, such as Sir Thomas Overbury’s Characters, also refer to ‘wide-mouth’d Poet[s]’ who speak ‘nothing but bladders and bombast’. And that word, bombast (i.e., stuffing), takes us back to Marlowe’s own lifetime and to Robert Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit. Greene famously accused Shakespeare of thinking he could ‘bombast out a blank verse as the best of you’ – and the same Robert Greene also attacked Marlowe for ‘filling the mouth’ of his actors with his ‘every word’ ‘like the faburden of Bo-Bell’. This sense of excessive loudness, of words that take up too much space, attaches itself to Marlowe’s plays from the beginning; fellow writers, from Greene to Joseph Hall to Ben Jonson, were particularly apt to criticize him for his lack of restraint. Their critique has to qualify in important ways our understanding of Marlowe’s revolutionary impact. When his plays were first performed, they were attacked, partly, for their excessive noise; and a generation later, that same noise already (or still) seemed uncouth to a courtly writer such as Overbury. Retrospectively, actors with over-stuffed mouths came to be associated with supposedly vulgar, overly popular, aggressively old-fashioned theatres of which the Red Bull was the archetype. So when exactly, and where, did Marlovian ‘megaphonics’ (to use Harry Berger’s phrase) become mainstream? And how long did that moment last? If within a generation the blank-verse insurgency wound up institutionalized as fustian populism at the Red Bull – the playhouse where plays no-one reads anymore go to die – Marlowe looks less like the author who ushered in a new way of writing plays, less like a perpetual influence and aesthetic reference point, and more like a writer devoured, within a few short years, by his own revolution.

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