The God-Haunted Atheist and the Posh Boy: Christopher Marlowe in Will and Upstart Crow
Journal of Marlowe Studies
33 This "tragic" version of Christopher Marlowe, which emphasizes his transgression of the orthodox boundaries of religion and sexuality in his own ill-fated life, is a cultural commodity with a proven track record. Yet the "comic" version of Marlowe, the man who squanders his gifts on vain pursuits, and thereby aligns with the Faustus of the middle of the play, has not, until recently, made a significant appearance in cultural or academic circles. However, during the mid-2010s, there appeared
... 0s, there appeared a pair of television shows featuring William Shakespeare in the title role, with Christopher Marlowe as a central supporting figure: Craig Pearce's TNT drama Will (Season 1, 2017) and Ben Elton's BBC comedy Upstart Crow (Seasons 1-3, 2016-2018). 5 Pearce's depiction of Marlowe as a brilliant but tortured, blaspheming homosexual corresponds very closely with what Erne calls the "mythographic image" of the playwright cultivated by Marlowe scholars and biographers. Throughout the only year of the series, Pearce's Marlowe struggles with the composition of Doctor Faustus, a play whose tragic hero re-enacts the spiritual journey of his own creator. By contrast, Elton's comic portrayal of Marlowe as a charming but unambitious "posh boy" who did not even write the plays attributed to him turns the stereotypical image of the playwright upside down. Elton's Marlowe is no atheist, but a conventional Protestant who serves as a spy for the English crown, not out of religious commitment, but for the chance to secure money and meet girls. In fact, although Upstart Crow flirts with the notion that Marlowe was bisexual, we frequently observe him attempting to seduce women, never men. The plays that bear his name have no connection at all to his real life because they were actually penned by Shakespeare before he became famous. Both Pearce and Elton rely upon the same documentary evidence upon which scholars and biographers have built the myth of the tragic Christopher Marlowe, but while Pearce portrays Marlowe according to this legendary image, Elton assumes his audience's knowledge of the myth, which he then overturns for comic effect. Neither Pearce nor Elton attempts to depict Marlowe as a playwright who could have written Doctor Faustus alone in its entirety, but they also decline to challenge the notion of single authorship by introducing a comic collaborator. Pearce's representation of authorship in Will follows the general conventions of the literary biopic, in which there is a mutually constitutive relationship between the author's life and works. As Paul J. C. M. Franssen observes, "When little is known about an author's life, 5 TNT cancelled Will after only one season. As of this writing, the BBC has not yet announced whether there will be a Season 4 of Upstart Crow.