Movies: Why Shakespeare and not Marlowe?

Shakespeare certainly has been the hot scriptwriter these last few years with many credits to his name and some of them doing very well indeed.

And that gets me thinking…why don’t I see any of Marlowe’s work being made into movies? Sure, the public at large won’t be as familiar with his stuff but if Wilde’s ‘An Ideal Husband’ can make it through then why not Marlowe’s ‘Faustus’ or some such?

It’s a conundrum to me.

What’s done well by Shakespeare? Shakespeare in Love doesn’t count.

Well, there’s Branaugh’s Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing, which I thought were pretty good. Some people seem to like Romeo + Juliet, but I haven’t seen it. And there was Titus and Prospero’s Books a while back. Not to mention two or three different versions of Hamlet.

The problem isn’t why no Marlowe movies recently – it’s why so few public performances or movies of most Shakespeare contemporarties (or almost so) ever. It’s not just Marlowe – what about Ben Jonson? Or Beaumont and Fletcher? Seen any movies about The Alchemist or Tamerlane?

For some reason Shakespeare got a lot of adulation back in the 17th and 18th centuries that carried over to today (George Bernard Shaw called it “Bardolatry”, and it clearly pissed him off. He even wrote a Punch-and-Judy-esque puppet show “Shaw vs. Shav.”, in which the puppet representing Shaw himself gets to beat the stuffing out of old Bill.) I’ve read precious few of the works I note above, and I thinmk I’ve only seen one of their plays on stage.

If you want to see more Marlowe plays or movies, write your local theaterr company, or campaign for it with the film companies. Just figure out a way to convince them that they can make money off a movie with people speaking 16th century English. But nothing’s impossible, especially in a world in which they actually made a movie starring Shatner in which everyone spoke Esperanto.

Well… it’s possible for a big-name (or reasonably big-name) actor like Branaugh to pitch a Shakespeare movie to the Hollywood moguls and get them interested. They’ve probably heard of Shakespeare, and you can see MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM from a few years ago: “It’s got naked people running through the woods having fantasies!” Or HENRY V: “It’s got lots of murders and blood, and the bad guy is big-shot politico!”

However, how do you sell Marlowe or rare Ben Jonson? The Hollywood big-wigs have never heard of them. “Oh, it’s this great literary genuis from 500 years ago” just ain’t the way to attract the money.

I think it’s a case of “why have a burger when you can have a steak.” That is, Shakespeare learned a lot from Marlowe especially, and his early stuff owes a ton to him. Only in time, he came to do it better, which probably makes Marlowe seem redundant.

Shakespeare has become a big part of pop culture, and the other guys haven’t, so maybe there’s a little less of the stuffiness that turns people off

:confused: Weren’t they the same person? Or were they both Francis Bacon? Kevin Bacon? Maybe they both just liked bacon sandwiches. Damn now I’m confused.


No, you’ve got it wrong – Roger Bacon, Francis Bacon, and Kevin Bacon were all the same person. Back in Shakespeare’s day they played “Six Degrees of Roger Bacon”

Rare indeed: these days it’s practically impossible to find Jonson’s stuff even in bookstores – at least, the big bookstores – although Marlowe’s works are reasonably available. I know of a couple of film versions of Marlowe plays – there’s an old production of Doctor Faustus starring Richard Burton, and about 15 years ago Derek Jarman did a really weird film version of Edward II. I know of no film versions of Jonson’s plays, except for a few adaptations of Volpone that don’t use the original text anyway.

To be fair, I think Jonson’s plays would be really hard to film well – in general, Jonson is a lot of work, though very much worth the effort (I wrote a Master’s thesis on Jonson, after all ;)).

Personally, though, I’d just be happy to see some of the slightly lesser known Shakespeare plays get their moment on film – there are a lot of Shakespeare movies but they tend to be the same plays (we recently had three Hamlets in ten years). I mean, I realize that this is for the same reason that Shakespeare’s contemporaries get no cinematic love, but it’s still rather a pity…

Well, there is Derek Jarman’s Edward II (which I happen to love, although it is a very freehand adaptation and already feels a bit dated). Edward II is by far the most “contemporary-feeling” of Marlowe’s plays, with loads of homoerotic subtext and – perhaps more importantly – more than one compelling character.

As for Marlowe’s other stuff – hmmm. I’m not sure The Jew of Malta would go over well in today’s social climate, although Tamburlane might make an interesting Hollywood epic, and Dr. Faustus certainly has potential. The trouble with all of them, though – besides the difficulty of marketing a movie based on a play that most people have never read – is that Marlowe tends to build his plays around the Single Larger-than-Life Character, which means they lack the dramatic tension and divided audience sympathies that make Shakespeare so fascinating.

I can think of several plays by Shakespeare’s other contemporaries that might translate well to contemporary film, especially Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, with its wickedly clever villains and proto-feminist heroine, and Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle, which is still hilarious on stage. But, as others have already pointed out, Shakespeare’s familiarity is a huge selling point.

I think it’s more that people know Shakespeare, even if it’s just glancingly his name means “Great english plays” or “Crap english teachers” to people whereas Marlowe doesn’t have such a wide coverage, those who know plays know Marlowe and those who are well read do but your average Tom, Dick or Harry knows Shakespeare over Marlowe so films of his plays are more likely to be watched, in the opinion of producers at least.

Duchess of Malfi would make a spectacular film! I could totally see that (maybe with Cate Blanchett as the Duchess…) I’m not sure about Knight of the Burning Pestle though – it’s a wonderful play, but it’d be hard to get right on film because a lot of its effect depends on its being live theater, or at least I imagine that would be the case, not having had the opportunity to see it performed. Maybe if you had an imaginative director…

With Dr. Faustus, you actually have a separate but rather weird problem: the story has been adapted so many times that everybody already knows it. A mainstream audience would probably think ‘Why see that when I can see a more accessible version of the same story, like Damn Yankees?’ With all the adapting and updating that’s done to Shakespeare these days, sometimes I’m amazed people still do straight-up productions and movies of his plays rather than clever adaptations, most of which aren’t that clever.

…Says the man who dreams of doing Othello set in the 1950s Chicago blues scene. :wink:

Yeah, I suppose you’re right – I thought of it because it is so enjoyable on stage, and it’s got that very modern-feeling metatheatrical edge, but the more I think about it, a film just wouldn’t be the same.

A film noir version of The Revenger’s Tragedy, though – now that might be fun!

Ok I understand that part but what does Philip Marlow have to do with anything? Is Don Johnson playing him in a new movie?

Another issue (albeit not as big of one) is the fact that there are 38 plays (and a few parts of another) commonly attributed to Shakespeare, but only seven (Tamburlaine parts one and two, Dr. Faustus, The Jew of Malta, Massacre of Paris, Edward II, and Dido) similarly sttributed to Marlowe.

According to , there have been only nine film/TV adaptations of Ben Jonson’s work (and only one of them, 1967’s “The Honey Pot”, based on “Volpone”, is in English).

Christopher Marlowe has only had seven adaptations.

The only Beaumont and Fletcher credit is for a 1938 TV adaptation of “Knight of the Burning Pestle”.

No one wants to see a stick shoved up someone’s ass.

Marley, that sounds awesome.

Says the girl who will one day make Space MacBeth a reality.

Doctor Faustus 1967 directed by Richard Burton & Neville Coghill

I loved it when I was a kid. Later on I could see the flaws but still a worthy attempt- Andreas Teuber’s Mephistopheles is fantastic because he’s a melancholy devil. He entices Faust to hell because “misery loves company” but at the end still finds no satisfaction in it.

I don’t think “subtext” is the appropriate word here. Perhaps “central plot device.”