It’s time for Shakespeare to be joined by other literary greats onscreen

The tragedy of an ambitious, ingenious scientist who sells his soul to the devil in order to gain supernatural powers. A war epic following the rise and rise of a fierce leader who conquered much of central and western Asia in the 14th century. A romance between a Trojan hero and a Carthaginian queen, culminating in his betrayal and her suicide. The story of how thousands of people were massacred for their religious beliefs, and the amnesty granted to the murderers.

Tell me that these don’t sound like good films. Even if only one of them appeals to you, I have good news: the scripts have already been written, they’re really just waiting to be picked up by producers. The writer? His name’s Christopher Marlowe, and he died over 400 years ago, so he probably won’t require any payment.

For anyone unfamiliar with Marlowe, he was one of the greatest playwrights of Elizabethan England (Rupert Everett played him in Shakespeare in Love). The mystery surrounding his life rivals that of the Great Bard himself, and whilst his best plays may not reach the heights of Macbeth and Twelfth Night, they’re certainly more enjoyable than a large number of lesser-performed Shakespearean works. There are only seven plays known to have been written by Marlowe; had he lived beyond the age of 29 (Shakespeare died when he was 52), there may have been many more.

Shakespeare has technically written more films than anyone else: IMDB currently credits him as a writer on just under 800 films and TV plays, whilst Marlowe is attributed to a mere 10, most of them adaptations of Doctor Faustus. As most English and Drama students who have read them will tell you, other contemporaries of Shakespeare like Jonson and Webster have written plays equally worth seeing, but have seldom been used for the screen.

I’d encourage anyone to go and see Hamlet on stage before watching it in any other format (though if they enjoyed it, I’d probably insist that they watch the Branagh and Olivier films of it too). But whilst any audience of a film based on a play should never forget where it’s come from, seeing Shakespeare in the cinema can provide a fascinating alternative to the theatre. Pointless as it is to predict whether Shakespeare and Marlowe would have been screenwriters if they were alive now, it is important to remember that these dramatists probably began writing plays for money as well as for any love they had for the stage.

Studies of their works have shown that no play of the era has a definitive version, allowing for a multitude of interpretations. Consequently, directors ranging from Orson Welles to Baz Luhrmann have made movie audiences think about Shakespeare in new ways; only Derek Jarman’s Edward II can be said to have done the same thing for Marlowe. It’s time Shakespeare’s contemporaries were given bigger budgets, and Marlowe would be an ideal starting point. The many offstage battles in Tamburlaine are dying to be shot, and the hellish spirits of Faustus are begging to be animated.

One comment

  1. Not just a Marlowe work, but a film about Marlowe.

    (he’s certainly a fascinating figure: playwright & spy)

    Please visit http://www.marlowe-shakespeare.blogspot.com

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