It was the very nature of the Renaissance writers to use as their subjects base a story or myth that had already been told. Renaissance means ‘re-birth’ and their idea of creativity did not include originality, to show their skill was to take a plot that had already been told either by history, a predecessor or their contemporaries and to rework it and in doing so surpass it. “The object of history for many Renaissance writers was to learn the mistakes of the past in order to avoid them in the future. ” (Smith, viii).
Our modern idea, received from the Romantics, of having to have originality to be able to create a best-seller was not what the Renaissance was about at all, in fact it was the opposite. The Renaissance period was about reliving what their ancestors had already achieved and being able to learn from their mistakes and advances. To be accused of having massive debt to a writer was neither uncommon nor frowned upon, and so to say Shakespeare’s Richard II is indebted to Marlowe’s Edward II is no slander on Shakespeare, it would only be slander if it was said that Shakespeare used an immaculate play and destroyed it in trying to rework it.
However, the circumstances that are unusual in this case is that is often claimed that these two playwrights are in fact the same person. There have been many essays on the subject and to concentrate on this essay without taking these accounts into consideration would be unjust, as it may have been a case of the same playwright producing a separate play with his previous work shining through.
The two playwrights were of almost identical age but Marlowe started writing early and “we know of course that Marlowe allegedly died just weeks before Shakespeare’s name first appeared in print. ” (Baker). The main reason I highlight this theory is because much of Shakespeare’s work seems to be a progression from where Marlowe left off, when comparing their work it seems Marlowe’s work matures into that of Shakespeare’s. This may well be because Shakespeare is indebted to Marlowe, but a separate reason for this may be because he was in fact the same man.
If this theory were the case then the assessment of Shakespeare’s debt to Marlowe in Richard II would be futile because he would owe everything he knew to the man, for the simple reason that they were the same person. There is no suggestion that these two men did not exist as separate people, but it is thought that Marlowe faked his death and used Shakespeare’s name as his pseudonym in order to continue to write plays. Even if these theories are not true, the way in which the two men’s plays have been compared in order to try and prove it is most certainly relevant.
When looking at their plays the reader can see how Marlowe’s work seems to progress into Shakespeare’s: “In a purely literary sense Marlowe’s canon matures easily and naturally into Shakespeare’s. His Aenaeus and Dido develops seamlessly into Romeo and Juliet, Edward II merges into Richard II, while the Jew of Malta transforms organically into more mature The Merchant of Venice. ” (Baker). Baker goes on in his list of parallels not only with plays but also with their settings and trends, it seems in one way or another the two men, or names, have very close links.
It is true to say that the plot and structure of the two plays are very similar, both playwrights have chosen a part of English history; both playwrights have chosen a story with a king as their central character; both kings find themselves without a throne by the end of the play, in fact they are both dead by the end of the play, and to push the ties between the plots a step further, both were murdered. The periods in which the two chosen kings ruled were very close as well; only one king and fifty years separated the death of Edward II and the beginning of Richard II’s reign.
So far though there is nothing particularly unusual about these links, it could easily be put down to coincidence. In fact, Shakespeare wrote eight plays that were concerned with previous kings of England, so to say that he owed so much to Marlowe for this particular one on these grounds is ridiculous. It may even be said that to try and compare the plot of two plays that are based on historical fact is a waste of time, because any links between the plays would merely be coincidental links between the happenings of the time.
This, however, is not so true because as well as borrowing plots and myths in order to create their copied masterpiece, the Renaissance authors also saw it fit to adapt the facts in order to suit their story! Shakespeare would do this to most of his histories, adapt the facts to suit his play and to comment on the political happenings of his time; in the case of Richard II, however, this is not so: “This play is closer to history as Shakespeare knew it than most of his other plays about English history. ” (Wells, 14).
There are, however, significant links between the plot and structure of the two plays that are perhaps beyond coincidence. Both plays are structured in a very similar way, and when talking of structure we cannot take too much notice of the plays separation of acts and scenes because at the time of writing neither playwright would have used these techniques to structure their play. Despite the fact that both plays are divided into five acts the structure that we are provided with in the plays is false and would have been added after their deaths.
However, from this we do get the impression of synchronisation between the plays structures, if we ignore the acts completely and look at the events within the plays we can see that they are split into four very similar stages. We begin both plays with the two original monarchs in power, and this is the first of the four stages; the intended king on the throne, but we know that this is not to last. The second stage for both plays is that of the kings power being undermined, their fall from the throne.
It could be argued that in Edward II this fall starts straight away, in act one scene one, where we first see the nobles’ dislike of Gaveston. However, it is not so obvious at that point that the nobles are going to have to plot behind the king’s back in order to get what they think is best, and as in most plays, as soon as one plot is made then more are to follow, securing the king’s fate. Edward II’s fall begins at the end of act one scene two where Isabella says to Mortimer Junior “Farewell, sweet Mortimer; and for my sake, / Forbear to levy arms against the king” (I.ii. 81-2), and in his reply Mortimer gives us an insight into the king’s future by saying: “Ay, if words will serve; if not, I must. ” (1. ii. 83).
We can see from this that Mortimer is fully prepared to do what it takes in order to do what he regards as the right thing for the sake of the country, and it is from this point that Edward’s downfall begins to take shape. Richard II has a very similar change, although the first stage is a little longer.
Richard’s downfall begins in act two scene one where, after Gaunt’s death, he determines to seize his estate and travel to his campaign in Ireland despite threats that Henry is about to invade England. Richard does this despite a very clear warning from York of the troubles ahead if he carries out his plan: “You pluck a thousand dangers on your head, / You lose a thousand well-disposi?? d hearts,” (II. i. 205-6). This again is a clear warning of what is to come if Richard does continue with his motives, and when warnings such as these are made so obvious in a play the reader can take them as less of a warning and more of a prophecy.