Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) was an Elizabethan playwright, poet, and translator, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s at the beginning of his career. A great writer of tragedies, Marlowe can be seen as an influence on Shakespeare’s work. He died in 1593 under questionable circumstances (I say questionable as in the circumstances are still up for debate–“stabbed to death by a bawdy serving-man, a rival of his in his lewd love” or killed in a drunken brawl or in a fight over the payment of a bill), but, like a sixteenth-century Tupac, new works of his continued to be published through the time that As You Like It was first performed.

Now, while Marlowe is not mentioned by name in As You Like It, there is a Shakespearean reference to the poet (or at least his works) there.

In Act Three, Scene Five, after Rosalind, Celia, and Corin have left Phebe and Silvius, Phebe says,

Dead shepherd, now I find thy saw of might:
‘Who ever lov’d that lov’d not at first sight?’
  • III.v.81-2

According to some critics and historians, the “dead shepherd” refers to Marlowe, who had written some pastoral poetry, and who most certainly was dead at the time. One of his earlier famous works was the pastoral piece, “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”–again, the “shepherd” connection. The next portion of the line basically says, “now I understand your powerful saying” (‘saw of might’), and then she quotes a line of Marlovian poetry, ‘Who ever lov’d that lov’d not at first sight?’

That is pretty self-explanatory. Only it’s not from “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.” It’s from another of his poems, “Hero and Leander,” his retelling of the Greek myth. Marlowe was killed during its composition, George Chapman completed it, and it was published in 1598. Best estimates as to a composition date for As You Like It are late 1599/early 1600, so “Hero and Leander” might have entered the popular culture by the time this play was being performed.

While the line seems like a great statement of “love at first sight,” its full passage changes its meaning ever so slightly:

It lies not in our power to love or hate,
For will in us is overruled by fate.
When two are stripped, long ere the course begin
We wish that one should lose, the other win.
And one especially do we affect
Of two gold ingots like in each respect.
The reason no man knows; let it suffice
What we behold is censured by our eyes.
Where both deliberate, the love is slight:
Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?
  • “Hero and Leander”,
    Marlowe, Christopher.

When we think of “love at first sight,” we still think that the lovers have some choice in the matter. The full excerpt belies that. Here, all our “will…is overruled by fate.” We have no control, and when we are “both deliberate, the love is slight.” Phebe has no control over her new-found love for Ganymede, as we see later in the scene as she tries to convince herself she’s not in love with him, but finds that she does.

It’s fate. No wonder Phebe is so dogged in her pursuit of Ganymede.

Now when I started this entry, I thought it would be short, a couple of paragraphs, tops.

But the more I look at this, the deeper I dig, I’m finding more to the Marlowe angle.

Some critics have found another Marlowe reference two scenes earlier in the play. When Touchstone is flirting with Audrey, with an unseen (to them, at least) Jaques providing commentary, the clown mentions that “most capricious poet, honest Ovid” (III.iii.6). Marlowe had translated some of Ovid’s works. And while Shakespeare lifts a storyline or dozens from the Roman poet, he’s only mentioned by name twice in all of Shakespeare’s plays (here and in The Taming of the Shrew). So that’s of note. More important, however, is Toucstone’s next speech:

When a man’s verses cannot be understood, nor a man’s good wit seconded with the forward child, understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.
  • III.iii.10-13

This bolsters the idea of the Marlovian connection. There’s the use of the word “reckoning,” which not only means a resolution of almost fatal consequences, but it also meant the settlement of a bill. Remember? That played a role in one of the possible Marlowe killing scenarios. Some critics have also pointed to the use of “a little room” as a reference to a line from Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta: “Infinite riches in a little room” (Marlowe, Christopher; The Jew of Malta, I.i.37), but that may be stretching it a bit.

Or not.

What is the purpose of these Marlovian-Shakespearean “shouts-out”? A tribute to a playwright who was influential? A bit of coat-tail hopping (if the audience got the reference)? A short-cut to a deeper meaning for the Phebe line? (but that seems a little too meta for such a pastoral character… I might buy it for Rosalind, but for Phebe?)

Or is it more meaningful than that?

There are those who believe in what is called the Marlovian Theory of Authorship, which says that “a great reckoning” did not happen on that night in 1593, that Marlowe faked his death and that he was the author (or one of the authors) of Shakesepare’s work. Was Marlowe poking fun and thumbing his nose at everyone by practically shouting, “I’m NOT dead… I’m right here… Maybe you didn’t understand me before, but you love this guy’s plays… well, guess what… who’s got two thumbs, writes as the Bard of Avon, and is NOT dead? THIS GUY!”

Of course not.

But it is interesting, no?

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