A very affectionate look at the Upstart Crow episodes by @ChasquiPenguin.
Each episode has a theme, usually revolving around one of Will’s plays, and in this series of articles our aim is to give a little more background to those and the Upstart Crow storyline surrounding it, together with the facts, deliberate anachronisms, and the characters involved.
Episode 2 – The Play’s the Thing
- The title of this episode is from Hamlet and the words are spoken by Hamlet himself in Act 2, Scene 2: ‘The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king’.
- The opening scene is set in the Shakespeare family’s Stratford home, with Will speaking lines from his new play – lines written by Ben Elton, not Shakespeare! It transpires that though his father can read, neither his mother nor wife are able to. This is likely to be accurate as few girls received an education in Tudor times and this would only have been from a private tutor, though many boys did attend the free schools which taught basic literary skills at least. However, there is uncertainty as to whether John Shakespeare was literate as he used the symbol of his trade, a pair of glover’s compasses, as his signature.
- In this episode we first hear of Mistress Clucky, the family’s hen whose feathers provide Will with his quills. Whether the Shakespeares owned a hen is not known, let alone her name(!), but if so it is likely that when he was back in Stratford Will would have fashioned his quills from her tail feathers.
- The cool, confident Kit Marlowe makes his first appearance in this episode, arriving in Will’s London room, and starts as he means to go on! It soon becomes evident that the Upstart Crow character is popular in London social circles, a “posh boy” who is somewhat selfish, lazy and a fraud – Will has written all his plays, while Kit takes credit for them! – but, at the same time, is working as a government spy. However, the truth is a rather different, though by no means as amusing, as the following points highlight, Ben having again changed history slightly for excellent comedic effect.
- In reality, Christopher Marlowe was not from a wealthy background. The son of a Canterbury shoemaker, he gained school and university scholarships through his own academic merit, graduating from Corpus Christi College (then known as St Bene’t’s, abbreviation of St Benedict’s) with a BA in 1584, gaining his MA in 1587. He must have been very hardworking as aside from his high academic achievements, he translated Ovid’s Amores from Latin into English, while still a student. This was published in three volumes under the title Ovid’s Elegies. The first publication date is not known though in 1599 Archbishop John Whitgift ordered the burning of these books due to their racy content. However, later publications are available today.
- Christopher Marlowe was also a prolific poet and playwright and is believed to have written both Tamburlaine Part 1 and Dido while at Cambridge, going on to write five other plays: Tamburlaine Part 2, Dr Faustus, The Jew of Malta, Edward II and Massacre at Paris by the age of 29. Some academics believe he wrote more, but with many plays of that era remaining anonymous, the authorship debate continues. Kit’s original style and skilful playwriting was not only extremely popular with audiences in the late Elizabethan era but also influenced and paved the way for Shakespeare and other writers. With their controversial issues, written in iambic pentameter, Marlowe’s plays began to change the London stage in the late 1580s.
- Although Upstart Kit is dismissive of Will’s various proposed play titles, when he hears of The Tragical History of Mary, Queen of Scots, (dubbed by Will The Frog-Jock Queen) he takes an interest. In actuality, Shakespeare never wrote a play with this title nor theme – or if he did, perhaps he did eat it!!
- The Marlovian Theory puts forward the idea that Kit faked his own death on 30th May 1593. The second part of this Theory contends that Marlowe wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays. Upstart Crow turns this around, making Will the author of all Kit’s plays! In this episode Will mentions giving Kit his Tamburlaine and Dr Faustus but, wanting to take the credit for his own work, refuses to hand over The Frog-Jock Queen to him as well!
- The reference to Kit working as a secret agent is thought to be true. While there is no actual proof of this, a letter sent to Marlowe’s Cambridge college lecturers, and signed by members of the Privy Council, urged them not to withhold his MA. With his long absences from college, Christopher was threatened with not being allowed to receive his MA, despite finishing all the work required, and to a high standard. The following extract explains Marlowe’s absences from college: ‘that in all his accions he had behaved him selfe orderlie and discreetlie wherebie he had done her Majestie good service’.
- Assuming this episode is set in 1592, as Episode 1, then Kit’s mention of Walsingham is an anachronism as Sir Francis Walsingham, head of Queen Elizabeth Spy Ring, died in 1590.
- In Upstart Crow Kit is always well-dressed and is usually wearing an ornate and expensive velvet doublet. This reflects the portrait, believed to be of Christopher Marlowe, which was found, in much need of renovation, at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge in 1952. Neither the sitter nor artist is named but the inscriptions in Latin on the painting describe the subject as a young man, aged 21 in 1585 and includes his motto in Latin, which translates as ‘That which feeds me, destroys me’. Though there is no certainty, it is generally assumed that there is a strong possibility that this depicts Christopher Marlowe who was, by all accounts, an outstanding student and perhaps his academic achievements were marked by his college commissioning this portrait. However, it is unlikely Kit could have afforded to buy the luxurious doublet worn for the painting so perhaps it was on loan to him.
- In many episodes of Upstart Crow Robert Greene holds a variety of high government positions and in The Play’s the Thing it is Master of Revels. In actual fact, Robert Greene held none of these, and between 1579 and 1610 Edmund Tilney was the Master of Revels. Part of his job was to provide censorship; therefore he could deny a play’s performance by refusing to issue a licence, even report its content, but he also protected the work of playwrights and other artists and organised the entertainments for Queen Elizabeth and King James I. He is believed to have licensed 30 of Shakespeare’s plays but under the censorship banner did insist on changes being made to some of these.
- Although Robert Greene criticises Will’s educational background, naming as “Cambridge men” the playwrights Marlowe, Kyd, Nashe, Beaumont and himself, this is not strictly accurate. Although the Cambridge-educated playwrights of the day were known as “The University Wits”, Thomas Kyd, though considered among them, did not attend university, and Francis Beaumont was unknown then as he would have been about 8 years old, but later graduated from Oxford University. As a footnote, although the real Robert Greene did seem to look down upon Shakespeare, and even his fellow university graduates, he was not a posh boy either. It is thought his father was either a shoemaker or an innkeeper and as Robert did not gain a scholarship to Cambridge, earned his keep while there by working as a sizar – a servant to both the wealthy and scholarship students.
- With Anne summoned from Stratford to find the missing play, she quickly concludes that it has been stolen by Kate for Kit to present as his own. Will decides on a plan to get the play back by writing a play (The Lamentable Tragedy of The False Maid and the Stolen Muse) and the words he uses before he starts writing it, ‘The play’s the crucial factor, to catch the conscience of our girlie actor’ are a parody of Hamlet’s (please see first fact above). Like the stolen play, this one doesn’t exist either!
- The episode ends with Will and Anne having a late-night chat in their parlour. As ever, Anne shows her perception by suggesting to Will that he should write a play within a play but he doesn’t think this will work! However, the real Shakespeare did write a few plays within plays, among them Hamlet, A Midsummer’s Night Dream and The Taming of the Shrew. This practice had existed for centuries, with the Ancient Egyptians being among the first to devise this, and it continues to this day.
In Episode 3 there is further insight into the personalities of Kit and Robert Greene with the nice Will Shakespeare taken in!
2 thoughts on “Upstart Crow Fact Check – The Play’s the Thing”
Great early look at our favourite bad boys here! Marlowe and Greene are bad in different ways from each other but it looks like their backgrounds weren’t so different. I like the way they based Kit’s look on the portrait.
I wonder why Ben chose to make Walsingham the spymaster even though he had died by the time Crow is set. He must have his reasons, maybe just a better-known name.
Love the mention of Mistress Clucky! The Biro of Elizabethan times!
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Many thanks for the positive thoughts – I suppose Mistress Clucky was an early biro (or keyboard!). While I am sure Ben knows that Walsingham died in 1590, agree that Kit made reference to him as he was the best known of the Queen’s Spymasters, having worked for her since her ascension to the throne. With Lord Burleigh (William Cecil), he was her most senior adviser. After Walsingham’s death Lord Burleigh continued to serve Her Majesty till his death in 1598, when his son Robert stepped into his father’s shoes. However, among others still involved in the espionage ring was Thomas Walsingham (cousin of Sir Francis) whom Kit knew well, though I doubt he is referring to Thomas when he mentions Walsingham in Upstart Crow.