Anonymous Marlowe

A week ago I attended the annual MLA conference in Seattle, where I gave a paper called "Anonymous Marlowe," which gave me a chance to not only de-face the famous portrait of Marlowe below, but to argue (kind of) that Marlowe did not write everyone's favorite Renaissance lyric, "The Passionate Shepherd to his Love." Because this was the first time in a while that I've given a truly provisional, in-progress, and perhaps speculative paper at a conference, and because I found the Q&A and post-panel feedback so helpful and illuminating -- not to mention the fact that I'd like to participate, if only meagerly, in opening up a big conference like the MLA to a wider audience (search for the hashtag #mla12 or simply read this) -- I'm posting some of what I said here, along with some of the images I used in what otherwise would have been an ephemeral PowerPoint show. Enjoy, and let me know what you think.

I was on a remarkably coherent (and, at least for me, entertaining) panel called "Booking Marlowe" -- check out that link not only for the panel abstracts, but, as an added bonus, a picture of myself looking terribly bemused about something or other). The panel was sponsored by the academic organization with by far the best web address in academia, the Marlowe Society of America ( -- and, quite unsurprisingly, focused on a book-historical approach to Marlowe and Marlowe studies, an area which, quite surprisingly, has remained somewhat under the radar, even with the decades of attention given to his apparently more respectable contemporaries Shakespeare and Jonson. That's perhaps too large of a topic to tackle here -- although it does have much to do with how we (as scholars, readers, enthusiasts, etc) have been content to characterize Marlowe over the years.

caveat lector I: I've excised the first of the two examples I discussed, on the surreptitious and (somewhat) anonymous publication of Marlowe's translation of Ovid's Amores, for two reasons: 1) everyone found my second example much more interesting, and 2) if you want to know how the early modern book trade intersected with and actively produced the Ovidian milieu of the 1590s, you should just read my essay here -- yes, it's about Shakespeare, but much of it pertains to Marlowe, as well.

caveat lector II: Because this was/is a conference paper, I will refer to things which I do not give a proper citation for -- no, I am not making any of this up, but if you want to know where I've found something, or you have any other questions along these lines, let me know, either in the comments, via twitter, or email.

caveat lector III: This is, with the exception of the excision, how I delivered the paper -- I have not incorporated the excellent suggestions and questions I received last week, which generally fell into two broad (but not all-inclusive) areas: the author-less-ness (or authority-less-ness) of the circulation of poetic extracts; and the popularity (in all the shades of meaning of that term) of songs, ballads, and other orally circulated texts.

So, without (any more) further ado, "Anonymous Marlowe":

Attribution is the essential act that defines authorship, marking the transition from anonymity to public recognition. Reputations and careers are built through the addition of a name to a nameless work or artifact. This is especially crucial for Marlowe--or, rather, the Marlowe that has been constructed over the centuries, who exists more as a collection of myths than as an historical figure. The famous portrait [above] that I've de-faced here is one example among many--it suits the image we have of an attractively rebellious figure, even though it very likely isn't the historical Marlowe at all.

There is a well-established critical tradition of trying to find Marlowe where he is not, especially among his contemporaries and immediate successors. Marlowe was killed in a quarrel over "le recknynge," and in the third act of Shakespeare's As You Like It, Touchstone says "it strikes a man more dead then a great reckoning in a little roome."

As You Like It, First Folio (1623)
[This allusion was first identified in the 1920s, not long after the legal document with the reference to "le recknynge" was first discovered.] This is not a convincing allusion, for a plethora of reasons, and some editors have even suggested that the phrase is, well, altogether more redolent of something else: in 1743 Hanmer changed the line to "a greak reeking in a little room." [click here to see Hanmer's version]. This earned him the wrath of some subsequent editors, including Warburton, who called this "amending with a vengeance". However, the recent Arden3 editor does find a constellation of allusions to Sir John Harington and his works, famous for their privy puns, in this passage.

Marlowe can be found in As You Like It, just not here. Rosalind gently parodies the story of Hero and Leander:

And elsewhere, Shakespeare inserts a line from Marlowe's popular poem Hero and Leander, seemingly attributing it to a "dead shepherd":

As You Like It, First Folio (1623)
Hero and Leander (1598)
Again, though, the "dead shepherd" was not specifically identified as Marlowe, and, starting with the Second Folio in 1632, "dead" was changed to "deed," presumably (as it was printed in the eighteenth century) an abbreviation for "indeed":

These relatively minor examples show how individual instances of textual instability affect, and even undo, our perception of Marlowe, and of his relationships to and influence on his contemporaries. They also show the precarious nature of the stories we tell about Marlowe's life and works. For Marlowe, the death of the author was a prerequisite for the creation of an authorial oeuvre. Because his works were published -- and attributed -- posthumously, Marlowe is an ideal test case for measuring the impact of other agencies in the construction of an authorial persona.

Here I want to consider the advantages of subtracting Marlowe's name, rather than adding it, by briefly focusing on two of his poetic works: his translation of Ovid's Amores, and "The Passionate Shepherd to his Love." I want to argue for the crucial importance of looking at these poems as they first appeared -- without Marlowe's name -- in order to recover their multiple material forms and meanings. The volume in which the Amores appeared was targeted by name by the Bishops' Ban in 1599, and so the critical concern with the work has been either with that act of censorship (frequently characterized as a function of Marlowe's scandalous reputation), or on its uncertain position in his career trajectory. Looking beyond Marlowe allows for a more comprehensive account of the work's place in the marketplace of print, and in the Ovidian milieu of the 1590s. "The Passionate Shepherd" has usually been considered within the confines of the literary canon, as a poem by Marlowe that inspired a poetic response from Sir Walter Ralegh. I want to suggest that Marlowe cannot be considered the author of the poem (at least not in the way we now conceive of his role as the author). It was one of the most perennially popular lyrics of the English Renaissance, and it circulated (unattributed) in a wide variety of forms. Taking the material forms of the poem seriously requires an acknowledgment that the poem did not require an author. Reading the poem only as Marlowe's limits our understanding of its place in other economies beyond that of literary authorship.

[cut to "Passionate Shepherd"]

...Moving on to another Ovidian volume of sorts, here is The Passionate Pilgrime, a volume of love poetry attributed to Shakespeare, published in 1599. [I've previously blogged about PP here.] We now know that only five of the poems are "properly" Shakespearean (two sonnets, and three sonnets/songs from Loves Labors Lost). Among the interlopers is the first printed version of "The Passionate Shepherd," printed as one poem with the first stanza from what we now call the response poem:

Shakespeare would also insert a (purposefully garbled) version of the poem, as a song, into The Merry Wives of Windsor (first published in 1602). Why, then, is this poem not part of the Shakespeare canon? The answer derives from a printed miscellany of English verse published in 1600, Englands Helicon, in which several of the "Shakespeare" poems appear in a different guise.

One of the songs from Loves Labors Lost which appeared in The Passionate Pilgrime

The opening from Englands Helicon, attributing "The Passionate Shepherd" to "Chr. Marlow."
The verso, attributing the response poem only to "Ignoto."
Englands Helicon provides the only printed attribution of the poem to Marlowe for nearly half a century. That is, the poem's attribution to Marlowe rests, almost entirely, on this single attribution. [ed.: I'm not going into this any further here, since it almost encroaches on the work of a friend and colleague, Andras Kisery -- but suffice it to say, the publisher of this miscellany was the place to go for Marlowe's poetry circa 1600, so the publisher would 1) have been the one in a position to know if Marlowe wrote it, but 2) the most invested in propagating the Marlowe brand].

In Izaak Walton's Compleat Angler (1653), the poem is printed as a milk-maid's song: "that smooth Song, which was made by Kit Marlow, now at least some fifty yeares ago." The response poem was "made by Sir Walter Raleigh in his yonger days." This is the first printed attribution of the poem to Ralegh, and so should be considered even more suspect than the attribution to Marlowe (which Walton here presumably took directly from Englands Helicon).

Walton characterizes the two songs as "old fashioned Poetry," a phrase that was used to describe the poem a number of times almost immediately after its first appearance in print, early in the seventeenth century. Here is one example, from Nicholas Breton (in 1606):

Breton's character here says "doe you take me for a woman, that you come vpon mee with a ballad, of Come liue with me and be my Loue?" [ed.: note the manicule (!) in the EEBO image here -- apparently an early reader recognized the line, or at least found it interesting!] These are only two of the innumerable allusions to or variations on the poem in the seventeenth century, and they both characterize it not as a literary (let alone authored) poem, but as a part of an oral tradition, as a song or a ballad. And it was a ballad, or, rather, a number of ballads, for variations on it existed as either the text or tune in a number of musical settings and broadside ballads [many more of which are, presumably, not extant, due to the ephemerality of these works].

If we must consider "The Passionate Shepherd" as Marlowe's, then, we should consider it as his version of a traditional and well-known cultural artifact -- one that would circulate in an extraordinary number of versions after him (and, perhaps, before him?), versions which do not proclaim any affinity to Marlowe.

"The Passionate Shepherd" and the "Ralegh" response also circulated widely in manuscript, where we are even further removed from any attribution to Marlowe. [Numerous manuscript versions exist which are either unattributed, or, in some cases bizarrely, attributed to other, seemingly implausible authors]. The very existence of so many conflicting printed and manuscript versions of the poem argues forcefully against any conception of individuated authorship. It is an ideal case study in the ways that the materiality of early-modernity cannot be corralled by the theoretical preoccupations of modernity. And the ideal case study for the modern (editorial) failure to recognize this is Fredson Bowers's edition of Marlowe: undeterred by the veritable mess of 4-, 6-, and 7-stanza versions of the poem, Bowers nevertheless attempted -- in an act of heroic futility -- to trace the evolution of the poem. He collated 11 versions, finally deciding to print both a 4- and a 6-stanza version.

[The key quote from Bowers that shows his frustration with ever finding out exactly what Marlowe wrote -- a poetic object that, as I've argued here, either doesn't exist, or is simply the wrong way to tackle the question -- is this: "Difficult and problematic as is the question of the original form and stanzaic growth of the poem, it pales in comparison with the problem of recovering with any precision the exact form of the Marlowe text from the incomplete and imperfect evidence available."]

If Marlowe the author was made by the posthumous publication of his works, he was subsequently unmade as readers appropriated (and failed to attribute) his works in the years that followed. To alter the motto that accompanies that faceless painting above [QVOD ME NVTRIT ME DESTRVIT] we might say that what nourishes also destroys an authorial persona. Attending to, and actively reclaiming, an anonymous Marlowe may distance us from the "face that launched the Marlowe industry" (as that painting has been called) but it does focus our attention on the acts of attribution that serve as the enabling condition for that industry -- that is, on the transformations of a passionate (or, in deed, a dead) shepherd.