The Writings of Gwynneth Bowen 13

Shakespeare and His Contemporaries
Copyright 1962 by Gwynneth Bowen
First published in Shakespearean Authorship Review (English), Spring 1962.

THOSE responsible for the Annual publication, Shakespeare Survey, announce in advance a theme for special consideration in each number. “Shakespeare and His Contemporaries” was the theme chosen for Vol. 14 (1961), and three of the articles are of special interest to us. Marco Mincoff writes on “Shakespeare and Lyly”. I. A. Shapiro on “Shakespeare and Mundy” and Nicholas Brooke on. “Marlowe as Provocative Agent in Shakespeare’s Early Plays”. The three articles, taken together, have a bearing on the identity of “Shakespeare” which was certainly not intended by the writers


“Shakespeare’s debt to Lyly has never been denied,” writes Dr. Mincoff, “and it might well seem that any attempt to resurvey the subject could be no more than the gleaning of an already well-harvested field. Yet in fact much more than the gleaning of a few stray ears of corn has been left for those who would apply themselves to the task of making a fresh study of the relationship between these two authors”. Perhaps he wrote more wisely than he knew.

He goes on to say that if the Lylian type of comedy should bear the name of any one man, “it might rather have been that of Edwards [Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal from 1561 to 1566], who had given an excellent example of the type nearly twenty years before Lyly”. And yet—”there is something like definite hostility towards Lyly in (Shakespeare’s) choice of models for his two earliest comedies, The Taming of the Shrew and The Comedy of Errors“. But in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare “submitted to the inevitable and turned at last to Lyly—and with a will”. In Two Gentlemen of Verona, apparently, he tried, not very successfully to throw Lyly off again, unless it is the earlier play and represents a half-hearted approach, but in Midsummer Night’s Dream, he returned and made further concessions. In his later comedies—the Lylian strains die gradually away”, and, finally, “when forced to abandon the Lylian view” (presumably because it was really too old-fashioned) “he abandoned comedy”.

When we remember that Lyly started writing plays in the early 1580s, and stopped about 1590, when Shakespeare is supposed to have started, it is hard to say which is the stranger—Shakespeare’s early resistance to Lyly, or his subsequent inability to throw him off. The combination of the two is incredible.


In recent years a minor revolution has taken place regarding the life and work of Anthony Mundy—a minor revolution certainly, even as revolutions go in the literary world, but one which threatens to have far-reaching effects on the dating of the Shakespeare plays, and ultimately on the problem of Shakespearean authorship, though for the orthodox scholars, it is at present just a question of priorities. In the words of Dr. Shapiro:

“‘Until very recently Mundy was thought to have been some dozen years older than Shakespeare, but to have started writing for the theatre only after Shakespeare’s rise to eminence. Consequently, when Mundy’s plays present incidents or characters resembling any in plays by Greene or Marlowe or Shakespeare, it has usually been taken for granted that Mundy must be the imitator, not the originator. We now know for certain that Mundy was only three and a half when Shakespeare was born and [which is more to the point] that he was acting in public before he was sixteen (that is, by 1576). Moreover, he was writing for the theatre at least as early as 1584, and writing with a skill and maturity that explains why Francis Meres later singled him out as ‘our best plotter’ “.

So Shakespeare, it seems, has lost an imitator and acquired a new model. It used to be thought that Mundy’s manuscript play, John a Kent and John a Cumber, was dated 1596, but the figure 6 turned out to be a naught! John a Kent has some close parallels with Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Dr. Shapiro comments:

“In the past, when John a Kent was dated 1595 or 1596, these resemblances could be held to prove that Mundy was imitating Shakespeare. Now, unless scholars are willing to date A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1589 or earlier, we must suppose that it was Shakespeare who was here the imitator“. (Italics mine.)

Obviously, for Dr. Shapiro, the alternative is an impossible condition, so we must add Mundy’s influence to Lyly’s in Midsummer Night’s Dream. But John a Kent also contains “familiar references” to Hotspur and Owen Glendower which (in Dr. Shapiro’s opinion) point to the existence by 1590 of a play on the reign of Henry IV—in addition to Famous Victories of Henry V, which includes some events of the previous reign—but, of course, it could not have been Shakespeare’s!

The new date for John a Kent can hardly fail to affect, on palaeographical as well as literary grounds, the dating of another manuscript play, Sir Thomas More, the first draft of which is in Mundy’s autograph, though it has been revised and contains additions by other hands—notably the famous Three Pages believed by some to have been written by Shakespeare, in both senses of both words. Dr. Shapiro believes that Mundy was the original author and not merely the scribe who copied the play, but he does not accept as proven the identification of the handwriting in the three pages as that of the six signatures of Shakespeare (Shaksper, Shakspe, etc.) which are the only extant specimens of the autograph of the Stratford player. Neither does he commit himself, here, to any definite theory about the date of the play, or the revision. “But,” he says, “it is important to note that Mundy’s achievement in Sir Thomas More necessitated some at least of the kind of insight and the same skill in handling source-material as we admire in Shakespeare. Moreover, if 1593 is near the correct date for More, Mundy can hardly have learnt any of this from Shakespeare, though the latter may have found useful lessons in method in Mundy’s More“.


Kit Marlowe and Will Shakespeare (or Shaksper, as it is more convenient to call him when we mean the Player) were born in the same year, 1564, but Marlowe died twenty-three years before Shaksper—assuming that he did die, by violence and rather mysteriously at a tavern in Deptford in 1593. He is, moreover, generally supposed to have begun his career as a dramatist some three or four years earlier, though recently there has been a tendency, even in orthodox circles, to push the Shakespeare plays further back, with the result that some allowance is now made for reciprocal borrowing. Dr. Nicholas Brooke goes so far as to “assume general acceptance of A. P. Rossiter’s judgement that Marlowe learnt from Henry VI, and Shakespeare reclaimed the debt in RichardII“. On the other hand, “it is universally acknowledged that the effect of Marlowe’s verse is pervasive in Shakespeare’s early works”, but, as Dr. Brooke points out, Shakespeare seems to reserve the Marlovian style for Marlovian characters. Yet, in 2 Henry VI, “though it may well be true that the verse is affected by Shakespeare’s awareness of Marlowe, it is almost curious that it is not more so. (Italics mine.) Suffolk, Margaret and York all have Machiavel tendencies; they might all with perfect propriety talk like the Guise. But though from time to time they approach hyperboles of power, the Marlovian rhythm never fully takes charge … And this kind of influence and avoidance remains the general fact in 3 Henry VI and in Richard III“. This is strangely reminiscent of what Dr. Mincoff had to say about Shakespeare’s belated submission to the influence of Lyly, and both critics express surprise.

Aaron in Titus Andronicus, however, “not only borrows Marlowe’s utterance, he expresses through it a summary of the distinctive attitude which gave that utterance its greatness in Tamburlaine and Dr. Faustus” and—”if it is acknowledged that elsewhere the verse of Titus rarely if ever suggests Marlowe in any significant way, then it seems to follow that the Marlovian utterance is here introduced as explicitly identified with the Marlovian ethos”. Other characters singled out as typically Marlovian are: the Princes of Morocco and Arragon, as well as Shylock, in Merchant of Venice; Richard of Gloucester in both 3 Henry VI and Richard III, though “Shakespeare has developed for Richard his own distinctive utterance, which is never precisely Marlovian”; and the quarreling nobles, Bolingbroke and Mowbray, rather than the King in Richard II. Richard himself does, however, echo a single play of Marlowe’s Faustus, three times in twenty-five lines, including his question, gazing at his own reflection in the glass

“Was this the face
That every day under his household roof
Did keep ten thousand men?”

Dr. Brooke accepts this as an echo of Marlowe’s mighty line:

“‘Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?” but notes that Peter Ure, editor of the New Arden Richard II, is sceptical, because “the ten thousand men derive from Holinshed”. It does not apparently occur to either that there might have been borrowing the other way round—that is, Shakespeare borrowing from Holinshed (in the right context) and Marlowe borrowing from Shakespeare; yet this is precisely the kind of evidence which is used to establish the date of a play—within the bounds of (orthodox) possibility. For Marlowe to borrow from Richard II is considered impossible, because Richard II could not have been written before 1593, and for no other reason.

The last play dealt with in this article is Julius Caesar, which is usually dated about 1600, and of course it is in the character of Caesar himself that “Marlovian rhetoric plays a significant part”. Dr. Brooke cites several passages, but not the words: “Yet Caesar shall go forth” (II.ii.29), which Marlowe gives just as they stand—Caesar’s name and all—to the Duke of Guise in Massacre at Paris. Where did Marlowe find them?—they are not in Plutarch! Of course, he was quite capable of making them up, but in that case, they would have been pointless. The Guise is evidently quoting someone—could it have been Shakespeare? Once again, we are confronted with the “impossible condition” for, if so, Julius Caesar, too, must have been written before 1593. But let us suppose that Marlowe’s Guise had anticipated Shakespeare’s Caesar. Could Shakespeare, then, have put the very same words into Caesar’s own mouth? Of course not! To make Caesar quote the Guise impersonating Caesar would only have raised a laugh in the wrong place.

Dr. Brooke ends an interesting and provocative article with the words:

“Marlowe seems to have been for Shakespeare not only a great poet, as his tributes imply, but the inescapable imaginative creator of something initially alien which he could only assimilate with difficulty, through a process of imaginative re-creation merging into critical parody. By Julius Caesar that element is at a minimum, and thereafter the process of assimilation is complete; reference to order is never again a matter of simple confidence, never asserted without a great reckoning with a complex of disturbing recognitions. But, however much they may owe indirectly to Marlowe, Shakespeare’s later plays never (so far as I know) show any direct dependence. The provocative agent had taken his seat in the Establishment”.

He had, of course, taken his seat in Elysium or joined Faustus in Hell while Shakespeare (according to the orthodox) was still at the outset of his career.


Now, the behaviour of Shakespeare/Shaksper, in relation to his contemporaries, as set forth in these three articles by three independent critics, is distinctly and confessedly odd, but in all three cases, it is odd in the same way. The “Soul of the age, The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage”—is always behind the times! The three articles, in fact, point inexorably and despite the professed views of the writers to the existence of a “Shakespeare” before Shaksper, who was imitated from time to time by lesser men, each in accordance with his lights and temperament. Shakespeare seems to resist the influence, first of Lyly and then of Marlowe, only because at the time the plays in question were written, Lyly and Marlowe, respectively, were still to come, and Shakespeare had not yet reached the stage in his own development which they were later to imitate. In this way, the “curve” of Shakespeare’s development is integrated with that of Elizabethan drama in general and he is to be found where we should expect to find him in the vanguard, not as a persistent imitator of the fashion before the last. This is not to say that “Shakespeare” had no dramatic models. Long before Lyly, there was Edwards, whose sole surviving play, Damon and Pythias, was performed at Court, in 1566; the underplot of Taming of the Shrew is taken from Gascoigne’s Supposes, performed at Grays Inn in the same year; and Comedy of Errors is based on the Manaecmi of Plautus, whose plays had been performed at Court in Latin from the time of Henry VIII. For blank verse tragedy, there was of course Gorboduc, performed at Court in 1562 and printed (piratically) in 1565, and again in 1570. It is a far cry from Gorboduc to Shakespeare, but then, it is also a far cry from Gorboduc to Marlowe. Did Shakespeare need Marlowe more than Marlowe needed him?

If “Shakespeare” was the player from Stratford, the answer must be yes: but not if he was, for instance, Edward de Vere 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604) who, incidentally numbered among his “servants” both Lyly and Mundy, and who may have been the unnamed Lord for whose players Kyd and Marlowe were writing “in one chamber” in 1591—with unhappy consequences for both.

The Writings of Gwynneth Bowen 14