Four hundred years ago this month, the twenty-five-year-old Sir Edward Dering bought two copies of the First Folio of thirty-six plays by William Shakespeare. The price was £2 for the pair, not cheap but not especially expensive for a noted book and manuscript collector. And Dering was quite a collector. At one time he owned the oldest extant English roll of arms, a thirteenth-century vellum scroll displaying the coats of arms of 324 knights who owed service to the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. Dering presumably pinched the roll when he was serving as Lieutenant of Dover Castle from 1629 to 1635. He used the roll to improve his pedigree, erasing the arms of one Nicholas de Crioll (Warden, 1263) and replacing them with those of a fictitious ancestor of his own. He also owned an original 1215 Magna Carta that eventually made its way to the British Library via that most famous of all English manuscript collectors, Robert Cotton. It is one of only four copies remaining today.
An amateur dramatist, Dering is the first known person to have put on a private household production of a Shakespeare play: an abridged version of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, which had first been published in 1599-1600. Dering’s hand-written abridgement dates to 1623, the same year he bought his First Folios. It seems that the theatre was, along with collecting, one of Dering’s passions. Dering’s surviving account book notes no fewer than twenty trips to the London theatres in the short period between May 1623 and November 1624, and while in town he purchased some 240 individual playbooks, most of them in batches of a dozen or more. These would have been used for read-throughs at country parties at Surrenden House, his estate in Kent.
On December 5, 1623, Dering saw a play, bought two playbooks, dropped off a volume at the binders, and visited the Barbican bookshop of Isaac Jaggard at the sign of the Half-Eagle and Key, where he bought an unspecified collection of Ben Jonson’s plays and the aforementioned “2 volumes of J Shakespear’s playes”—the “J” apparently being a slip of the hand, prompted perhaps by his recording of the Jonson purchase immediately underneath. These two volumes were the first two First Folios ever bought, so far as our records reveal. And they were bought hot off the presses: the Bodleian didn’t get its copy until January. Of Dering’s two First Folios, one remained in the family library until its liquidation by his nineteenth-century descendants. The other is believed by many to have landed at the University of Padua.
Ah, fair Padua, nursery of arts! One of the most ancient settlements in Italy, Padua lies approximately twenty-five miles inland from Venice, which conquered the city in 1405. Padua was (and is) a university town; just as the university at Cambridge had been founded by exiles from Oxford, the university at Padua was formed in 1222 by scholars fleeing Bologna. A community of exiles, the University of Padua took as its motto Universa Universis Patavina Libertas, which is conventionally translated into English as “Paduan Freedom is Universal for Everyone”. Padua was the first university in the Western world to establish a chair in Greek, and its ties to England were particularly strong. The last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, Reginald Pole, studied at Padua, and there was an “English nation” in the university’s student body from the fourteenth century through to the eighteenth.
Did Dering actually send his superfluous First Folio to Padua, perhaps to a member of the English nation there? No one knows. Accession notes on the document indicate that it was in the library’s possession in the mid-seventeenth century, but the title page (and with it the original accession stamp) has been lost. It is possible, and it seems probable, that the Folio made its way to Italy soon after it was printed. Notes on the pages and cuts made to some of the plays indicate that the Folio was used to put on productions, but most of these were likely staged by Italian students over the years the Folio sat in the library, since the patterns of wear make clear that the Italian plays were read often, while the English plays were hardly touched. The Scottish Play, however, is the most heavily annotated play in the volume; someone, at some point, almost certainly used the Folio to stage Macbeth.
A romantic might imagine that Dering had forwarded this particular First Folio to a fellow Man of Kent, an exile who may have lived a secret life in Padua, far from his native green and pleasant land. A romantic with a flair for conspiracy theory might imagine that this exile was one Christopher Marlowe, poet and playwright, born in Canterbury in 1564. Marlowe cut a dashing literary figure as a Cambridge wit turned sixteenth-century agent in Her Majesty’s Secret Service, a sort of Lord Byron and Ian Fleming rolled into one, with a bit of Oscar Wilde thrown in for good measure. Choose any metaphor you like; Marlowe certainly burned his candle at both ends. With several plays running simultaneously in the London theatres and a warrant out for his arrest on charges of heresy and treason, Marlowe was reportedly killed in a bar brawl in Deptford on May 30, 1593.
Reportedly. Like Marlowe himself, all three witnesses to Marlowe’s death were fellow agents in the pay of Sir Francis Walsingham, principal secretary and spymaster-general to Queen Elizabeth I; the coroner who certified Marlowe’s death was not the usual county coroner but the royal coroner of the Queen’s own household; Marlowe’s body was immediately laid to rest in an unmarked grave, precluding any possibility of later exhumation; Marlowe’s killer, one Ingram Frizer, was pardoned by the Queen. Whoever wanted Marlowe dead wanted him to stay dead, no questions asked.
At the time of his recorded death, Christopher Marlowe was already an accomplished author and translator of Ovid and Lucan. Marlowe’s first published work, a translation of Ovid’s Amores, appeared in 1582, just after the author’s eighteenth birthday. Marlowe’s translation of Lucan’s Pharsalia wasn’t published until 1593, but was written much earlier. Both of these may have originated as student Latin papers. Another piece of apparent juvenilia, the pastoral poem “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”, was only published in 1599. Marlowe’s more mature “Hero and Leander” was also published “posthumously”, edited and completed in 1598 by none other than George Chapman (of “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” fame).
Marlowe is best remembered, however, as a playwright. He is known to have written at least six plays: Dido, Queen of Carthage (1587), Tamburlaine (1587), Doctor Faustus (1588), Edward II (1590), The Jew of Malta (1592) and The Massacre at Paris (1593). All of these dates are iffy, with most of the plays having been performed long before they were published. With them, Marlowe’s literary career follows the pattern that we might expect of a precocious scholarship student turned Cambridge wit. He had his first hit with Dido at the age of twenty-three; it was originally performed by a troupe of child actors. That led to even greater success with Tamburlaine. Marlowe’s masterwork, Faustus, established him as a deep intellect. The three plays of Marlowe’s late twenties were more experimental, tackling controversial themes like homosexuality (Edward II), anti-Semitism (Jew of Malta), and genocide (Massacre at Paris).
There Christopher Marlowe’s literary career ends and William Shakespeare’s begins. Shakespeare (also born in 1564) wrote nothing of which any trace survives for the first twenty-nine years of his life: no juvenilia, no love poems, no little ditties for his little daughter, no translations, no petitions, no job applications, nothing. Then, following a literary career of just eighteen years, he wrote absolutely nothing of which any trace survives from his retirement at forty-seven until his death at fifty-two. In between his youthful insouciance and his middle-aged senescence he wrote 884,647 words of published verse and prose, averaging over 49,000 words a year of the most-celebrated texts in the English language. In all that time this greatest of English men of letters is never recorded to have written a letter—to anyone. We have letters (or at least records of letters) from every other major literary figure of the time. But Shakespeare left only six shaky signatures, all of them printed, and most of them incomplete.
Shakespeare didn’t write the plays (don’t be silly), though he did produce them, and thus indirectly preserve them for posterity. Even more preposterous is the idea that Shakespeare wrote the sonnets, never mind Venus and Adonis or The Rape of Lucrece. Imagine it: the twenty-nine-year-old actor William Shakespeare, with no record of ever having attended school and no attestation of any prior writing of any kind, bursts onto the literary scene with a classical poem of 1194 lines in iambic pentameter based on passages from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, then follows it up one year later with another Ovidian poem of 1855 lines based on the Fasti. Marlowe, the noted translator of Ovid whose death was recorded two weeks before Shakespeare came out with Venus, had nothing to do with it.
Even the Oxford University Press has come around to the idea that Marlowe was a “co-author” of the first three history plays: Henry IV, Parts 1, 2 and 3. The data scientists (our new gods) convinced them in 2016 that early Shakespeare overlaps undeniably with late Marlowe, and so the New Oxford Shakespeare now lists the Henrys as collabs. The three Henrys, like most of the history plays, draw heavily on Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland—as did Marlowe’s Edward II. In other words, Shakespeare picked up where Marlowe left off. That’s as far as the academic establishment will budge.
After the Henrys, Shakespeare took a dramatic turn, in more ways than one. He turned to comedy, and he turned to Italy. Specifically, he turned to … Padua. There he set The Taming of the Shrew, with its surfeit of Italic phrases, Italianate characters and Italian charm. The exotic Shrew was followed up by The Two Gentlemen of Verona, another comedy of Italian manners. Of course, the actual sequence of the plays has not been firmly established, and scholars have identified potential English-language antecedents for both of these plays. Nothing in Shakespeareana is uncontested. But it is easy to imagine an exiled Marlowe turning up in the English colony in Padua, being inspired to write a series of plays set in Italy, and keeping in touch with his London theatrical agent (one Wm. Shakespeare) via his Kentish family connections.
And then there’s the matter of Shakespeare’s “small Latine, and lesse Greeke”. Recent scholarship suggests that the later plays incorporate quite a bit of Greek learning. Whereas the earlier Titus Andronicus, Comedy of Errors and Julius Ceasar had been inspired by Latin learning, the later Troilus and Cressida, Timon of Athens, Pericles and The Winter’s Tale incorporate Greek names, Greek themes and (in the latter two cases) even Greek choruses. The scholars suggest that Shakespeare might have had access to emerging Latin translations of the Greek literary canon. That is to say, assuming that Shakespeare could read Latin, his ever-increasing intellectual repertoire could have incorporated Greek influences. A more romantic account of the increasing Greekification of the plays is that the author, resident in a major seat of Greek learning, was there exposed to the ancient Greek language, opening his mind to new literary vistas and generating a new outpouring of intellectual creativity.
Many theories have been put forward as to “who wrote Shakespeare”, with candidates going in and out of fashion over the centuries. Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, William Stanley and even the relatively obscure Henry Neville have been proposed as authors. For those who simply view Shakespeare as having been insufficiently educated to have written the poems and plays, they all fit the bill. But they all face the same psychological objection as Shakespeare himself: Why did they suddenly start writing upon Marlowe’s death, and stop writing when Shakespeare “retired”? They also face the same sociological objection: Why all the secrecy?
A surviving Marlowe fits the bill, and a Marlowe who died around 1610 accounts for the sudden end of Shakespeare’s literary career. The (widely believed to have been) gay Marlowe seems a much better fit for the homoerotic sonnets and the cross-dressing comedies than the stolidly commercial Shakespeare, and a secret agent in exile makes sense of the sonnets’ laments for the loss of “public honour and proud titles” and the multiple deceptions of the plays. A Tempest written by a dying Marlowe struggling to finish his final statement before his time runs out seems more convincing than a Tempest written by contented Shakespeare looking forward to a comfortable retirement in Stratford-on-Avon.
But if Marlowe died in 1610, to whom did Dering send that First Folio in 1623? Maybe he sent it to a young friend who happened to be studying in Padua; maybe he bought it for a traveller about to make the channel crossing; maybe the Padua Folio isn’t Dering’s at all. Or maybe, just maybe, Marlowe was survived by someone who had seen the plays sent off to England in sealed packets, with no copies retained, and all drafts committed to the flames. That secret lover may have acted all the parts, testing the greatest lines of English dialogue ever written before an imaginary audience of the mind. And he may have longed to read, once again, all those plays that he remembered so fondly from his days playing the mute muse to the world’s greatest dramatist. Having dreamt for decades of seeing one of the plays performed, he may even have staged Macbeth, casting himself in the title role. Wouldn’t you?