Shakespeare is ubiquitous. You grew up reading his plays in grade school, watching movies based on his works, maybe even quoting him without knowing it. That’s how ingrained into the culture Shakespeare is: Phrases he coined have worked their way seamlessly into everyday language.
But what about his contemporary, Christopher Marlowe?
ETSU English professor Dr. Robert Sawyer explores the dynamic between these lauded playwrights in his new book “Shakespeare and Marlowe: The Critical Rivalry.” Published in August by Palgrave MacMillan, the book focuses not on any relationship Shakespeare and Marlowe may have had, but on 400 years of critical reception of their works.
Much of Sawyer’s academic career has focused on Shakespeare’s cultural context. His dissertation was on Shakespeare in the Victorian era, and he has published papers on Orson Wells’ “Macbeth” and Paul Robeson in Broadway’s groundbreaking 1943 production of “Othello.” He’s even studied the link between Shakespeare and country music and keeps a tiny Shakespeare bust with a cowboy hat in his office.
“Shakespeare gives you cultural capital,” Sawyer said.
He always knew, though, that he wanted to get back to Marlowe. He taught a class on Shakespeare and Marlowe several years ago; four years later, he’s produced the book. While the two were writing at the same time, there’s no evidence they ever met. Sawyer says they certainly would have been aware of each other though.
“[Marlowe] is the Kurt Cobain to Shakespeare’s Sir Paul McCartney, is what I tell my students,” Sawyer said. In other words, Shakespeare lived a long and cautious life, while Marlowe lived fast, died young and left a pretty corpse.
But there’s no conclusive evidence the two ever met. As Sawyer writes, “The real ‘rivalry,’ perhaps, comes not between the playwrights themselves, but instead between the various writers who put the ‘rivalry’ in the service of their own ends.”
The book discusses how this rivalry itself has shaped and changed since the 16th century, as well as how it’s molded popular culture.
Next on Sawyer’s agenda will be to continue his Shakespearean cross-cultural studies with another book, this time turning his eye to the 20th century. It will be called “Shakespeare Between the World Wars.”
Sawyer will give a public lecture called “Othello’s Afterlives from 1660 to 1960” taken partly from his new book at the Johnson City Public Library on Nov. 2 at 6 p.m. Attendance is free to the public. The official book launch will take place in London in mid-November.