Did Christopher Marlowe write Richard III?

Laurence Olivier as Richard III

Did Christopher Marlowe actually create one of Shakespeare’s most famous characters?

The Tragedy of Richard III is one of Shakespeare’s earliest dramas and one of his most popular. Its complex and malevolent eponymous role is coveted by all dramatic actors and has been played by many of the greats from Laurence Olivier to Anthony Sher, Al Pacino, Kenneth Branagh, Kevin Spacey, Ralph Fiennes and Ian McKellen.

It is also Shakespeare’s most influential play in that it has single-handedly shaped the prevalent view of Richard III as the most evil king in English history. So pervasive is this fictional depiction, that Richard III is the only English king to have his own society dedicated to redeeming his reputation.

However, while Richard III is usually staged as a stand-alone play, it is actually the final instalment of a tetralogy which includes the three parts of Henry VI. In a radical move, the editors of the latest Oxford University Press edition of the Henry VI plays have finally conceded what has been argued by several scholars for a century: that the plays were co-authored by Christopher Marlowe. In fact, it has been argued that Marlowe was their principal author.

OUP has not gone as far as naming Marlowe as a co-author of Richard III, but since the play is an intrinsic component of the Henry VI tetralogy, would it not seem logical that Marlowe played a part in its composition as well? Indeed, I would argue that Christopher Marlowe is in fact the principal author of Richard III.

The Henry VI/Richard III tetralogy was written early in Shakespeare’s career and is usually dated between 1590 and 1592. The current consensus is that the plays were conceived as a tetralogy and written in chronological order. Three of the four parts first appeared in separate quarto editions between 1594 and 1597. They were not all published together until the publication of Shakespeare’s First Folio in 1623.

The tetralogy covers the period between the death of Henry V in 1422 and the accession of Henry VII in 1485. It tells of the reign of Henry VI during which the English face disunity on the home front and a revitalised French army under the leadership of Joan of Arc as they attempt to retain their French possessions; the War of the Roses in which the house of York challenges the reigning House of Lancaster for the throne of England; the defeat of the House of Lancaster; the downfall of the House of York; and the triumph of the House of Tudor.

The plays follow the fortunes of several major characters — Lord Talbot, who leads the English forces in France; his King, Henry VI, who ascends to the throne as an infant and grows up into an inadequate king; his Queen, Margaret of Anjou, who must fight to retain her husband’s throne for her son’s sake; Richard Plantagenet Duke of York who believes he has a better claim to the throne than Henry; York’s closest ally, the Earl of Warwick, who eventually betrays him; York’s three sons: Edward who succeeds in becoming king after his father’s death, George, whose loyalties are constantly changing, and Richard who will stop at nothing to succeed his brother; and Henry Tudor Earl of Richmond who will eventually triumph as Henry VII.

The primary sources for the tetralogy are Edward Hall’s The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York, which has the greatest influence on the plays’ overall theme of divine retribution on Henry Bolingbroke’s descendants for his usurpation of the throne, and Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland. The characterisation of Richard III owes much to Thomas More’s History of King Richard III albeit, probably indirectly through Hall.

Another influence on Richard’s characterisation might be the philosopher Francis Bacon. In his essay On Deformity he writes ‘Deformed persons are commonly even with nature, for as nature hath done ill by them, so do they by nature’ and in On Ambition he says that if the ambitious are stopped they become ‘malign and venomous.’

The tetralogy manages to make a cogent drama out of a complex series of events and scores of inter-related protagonists. While it follows in the broad the actual history of the period it covers, strict historical accuracy is often subsumed for the sake of dramatic impact or topicality. On other occasions the historical inaccuracies and inconsistencies suggest that more than one author was involved and that some scenes and characters were added after the initial composition of the plays in order to tie them all together.

In order to answer the question of who wrote Richard III, we must, therefore, take the Henry VI tetralogy as a whole and consider the following questions. Were the plays written in chronological order? Were they conceived as a tetralogy? Were they printed in the First Folio in their original form, or did they undergo revisions over time? And finally, to what extent was Christopher Marlowe involved in their composition?

Publication and Performance History

The first clue as to whether or not the plays were conceived as a tetralogy comes from the plays’ publication history. As noted earlier, the plays were not published together until the First Folio in 1623, while only three parts had previously appeared in quarto and under different titles.

There was no quarto edition of Henry VI, Part 1. The earliest edition of Henry VI, Part 2 appeared as The First Part of the Contention betwixt the two famous houses of York and Lancaster which was published in quarto after being entered in the Stationers’ Register in 1594. Henry VI, Part 3 was published as The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York in octavo in 1595. A quarto dated 1619 called The Whole Contention between the Two Famous Houses of Lancaster and Yorke contains both Parts Two and Three. The first known quarto of Richard III appeared in 1597.

The quarto title of Part Two, The First Part of the Contention… implies that one or more parts were to follow, and that there were no other parts before it at the time it was published. Despite the fact that he dies in the first act, the quarto of Part Three is named for Richard Duke of York, the central character in The First Part…. Later both plays were published in one volume called The Whole Contention…. This suggests that Parts Two and Three were originally conceived as a two-part play called The True Tragedy of Richard, Duke of York, subtitled The Contention betwixt the two famous houses of York and Lancaster.

The quarto of The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York is endorsed as acted by Lord Pembroke’s Men, but while The First Part of the Contention betwixt the two famous houses of York and Lancaster has no such endorsement, given the above, we can safely assume both were performed by Lord Pembroke’s Men. The quarto of Richard III is endorsed as being played by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, to whom William Shakespeare belonged and which was likely the successor to the then defunct Lord Pembroke’s Men.

While there is no quarto version of Part One, the First Folio version does betray signs of revision, duplications, inconsistencies and interpolations which suggest that it was printed from a much-amended play book. On a scene-by-scene basis, the quartos of Parts Two and Three and Richard III largely follow the First Folio versions. However, they are much shorter, giving the clear impression that the quarto versions were expanded and revised, in fact more than once, to create the final First Folio versions. This would suggest that the First Folio versions of the plays were not the original versions and that all of them underwent some revision after their initial composition.

External Notices

The first mention of the tetralogy is a listing in Henslowe’s Diary of a play called ‘harey the vj’ played for the first time that season by Lord Strange’s Men on March 3, 1592. It was endorsed ‘ne’ (new) and performed fourteen times during that season. However, there is no indication in Henslowe’s Diary that it is part of a trilogy and no mention of Richard III.

Later that year, Thomas Nashe, in his pamphlet Pierce Pennilesse, published in August 1592, writes a defence of the history play and mentions ‘brave Talbot’ who after ‘lying two hundred years in his tomb… should triumph again on the stage’ bringing ‘tears [to the eyes] of ten thousand spectators at least’. This passage supports the theory that, despite some doubts, ‘harey the vj’ is indeed Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 1.

Another reference to the tetralogy is by Robert Greene, in his last pamphlet, A Groatsworth of Wit, written just before his death on September 3, 1592. Writing ‘Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde’, Greene parodies one of the Duke of York’s lines in his final scene in Henry VI, Part 3, when he describes Margaret of Anjou as a ‘tiger’s heart wrapt in a woman’s hide!’ (See The Upstart Crow in Borrowed Feathers) This suggests that Parts Two and Three had been written and staged and found enough renown to be recognised in parody by this date, only six months after the premier of Part One.

Textual evidence

A reading of Henry VI, Parts Two and Three supports the impression gained from the earlier quartos that the two are closely linked. Part Three is dependent for its meaning on Part Two. This can be seen from the first scene of Part Three which follows on immediately from the last scene of Part Two. However, Part Two is not dependent on Part One for its meaning. There is no reference in Part Two to Talbot or Joan of Arc, the main characters in Part One. Any backstory we need from Part One is covered in Part Two, while certain references to Part One in Part Two were not in the quarto, implying they were added during a later revision.

Furthermore, Part One seems to have two endings. The following lines from Act V, Scene 4, would indicate that this was the original ending:

Hang up your ensigns, let your drums be still,
For here we entertain a solemn peace.
(lines 174–175)

The scene that follows these lines, in which the Earl of Suffolk persuades Henry VI to marry Margaret of Anjou, thus breaking an earlier betrothal, seems tacked onto the end. It relates back to an earlier scene in which Suffolk meets and falls in love with a young Margaret and which relates to nothing that comes before or immediately after it. As for Suffolk, he has been seen only briefly earlier in Part One, in the Rose Garden scene, in which the antagonists pick white and red roses to identify their two houses. Most critics agree that the scene was written much later by a more mature Shakespeare, and could have been a revision of an earlier version in which Suffolk was not present. As Margaret of Anjou and her relationship with Suffolk are central to Parts Two and Three, it seems evident that these scenes were added to Part One to tie it to Parts Two and Three.

Another clue is a curious exchange towards the end of Part One which has baffled critics. Despite the fact that Beaufort has been called Cardinal all through the play, the Earl of Exeter is surprised to see that he has been made Cardinal and we hear Beaufort arranging to pay the pope for his red cap. This scene is completely out of place, but might have been in an earlier version of the opening of Part Two.

There are also several historical inaccuracies which seem to have been included for the sole purpose of tying the tetralogy together. While historically the Duke of York’s younger sons, Richard and George were only children during the period covered in Parts Two and Three, and had been sent to Flanders for their protection, both are shown as grown men taking part in the action. In an obvious foreshadowing of Richard III, young Richard is depicted fighting ferociously, giving his father Machiavellian advice and revealing to the audience his bitterness and ambition.

In Richard III, Margaret of Anjou is depicted as still living in the English court, even though, historically, she was sent back to France early in the reign of Edward IV and died there before Richard became king. While she is shown haunting the royal family like some kind of Greek fury, in reality she plays no part in the plot, suggesting her character could have been added later.

External factors

There are no previous examples of tetralogies in Elizabethan theatre. Critics have surmised that some of the revenge tragedies may originally have been two-part plays and sequels and prequels are known, but there is no known case of a pre-conceived tetralogy. The Elizabethan theatre was a commercial venture. It would have been a waste of time and energy to invest in a tetralogy without at least testing the waters.

Even if a company did conceive of a series of four plays, they would only commission and pay for one at a time and only commission another if the previous one was successful. In such a case they would surely start with the play that was most likely to succeed. With its compelling central character and unified subject, the story of Richard III is an ideal subject for a play. Richard III is by far the strongest play in the tetralogy and the most likely to be popular — after all it is still popular to this day — and so a good choice for a starting point.

Apart from the commercial risks, writing history plays was a dangerous pursuit in the political sphere. If a company was to embark on a series of history plays it is unlikely that they would start with the story of Henry VI, a king who was usurped and whose weakness caused a civil war in which the current monarch’s party was defeated. Of all the plays in the series Richard III was, politically, the safest place to start. The story not only shows Queen Elizabeth’s own grandfather in a good light, it justifies his ascension to the throne and thus supports the Queen’s authority.

Furthermore, there were precedents. Two previous plays on the subject are recorded: a Latin play called Richardus Tertius, written in 1579 by a Master of Caius College, Cambridge, not published in its time but widely circulated, and the Queen’s Men’s play The True Tragedy of Richard III.

In order to determine the order of composition, we need to take the following factors into account:

Publication and Performance historyParts Two and Three were conceived as a single, two-part play and performed by Lord Pembroke’s Men. However, ‘harey the vj’, which has been recognised as Henry VI, Part 1, was played by Lord Strange’s Men. It would be unlikely that three plays conceived as part of a tetralogy would belong to two different companies. While the earliest known quarto of Richard III was published later than Parts Two and Three, it is endorsed as played by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the successor to Lord Pembroke’s Men, allowing that it could have started with Pembroke’s Men. And finally, the series’ history of piecemeal publication would also indicate that the plays were not conceived as a tetralogy.

External notices — Greene’s parody of a line of Part Three only six months after the first performance of Part One, would indicate that Parts Two and Three were well-known by that time so likely already in performance before Part One.

Textual evidence — Richard appears as an adult in Parts Two and Three, despite his actually being a child at the time. This was most likely in order to develop his character in anticipation of Richard III. This would suggest that those two plays were written after Richard III was written, or at least planned. As Parts Two and Three must have been originally conceived as a single play and as the adult Richard is an integral character, he could not have been added later. In contrast, scenes featuring Margaret of Anjou, the character that ties the whole tetralogy together, could have been added to Part One and Richard III in later revisions.

External factors — of all the plays, the safest place to start, both commercially and politically, would be with Richard III.

These clues would suggest that the order of composition is:

  1. Richard III
  2. The True Tragedy of Richard, Duke of York: The Contention betwixt the two famous houses of York and Lancaster. (Henry VI, Parts 2 & 3)
  3. King Henry VI (Henry VI, Part 1)

Having come this far we now have to confront the authorship question. In their latest edition of the plays, Oxford University Press have concluded that the Henry VI trilogy was co-authored by William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. The question is, did Marlowe write Richard III?

OUP came to their conclusion with the aid of modern technology which was able to examine the text in detail using an algorithm which could distinguish which author wrote which lines. However, their work was only building on the work of earlier scholars who attempted the same analysis without the aid of computers.

In 1921, Dr C.F. Tucker Brooke published the results of a detailed textual analysis of the two parts of The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York and his conclusion was that the plays were written by Marlowe. As well as seeing definite linguistic and technical parallels with Marlowe’s other works he also saw his hand in the plays’ ‘brilliant synthesis of plot and emotion’ and in ‘the whole tangled story… resolutely pitched in a single key’. William Shakespeare, he concluded, made later additions and amendments. Brooke’s thesis was supported by Marlowe’s biographer, John Bakeless, in his 1942 biography. In 1926, Dr Allison Gaw published a philological analysis, of Henry VI, Part 1, which uncovered a fascinating drama surrounding its writing.

Gaw concluded that the play was written by four authors, namely Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, George Peele and a fourth author, C, whom he could not identify. His thesis was that Marlowe was commissioned to write the play, but as haste was required Robert Greene was brought in to assist him. Marlowe wrote the plot and took on all the scenes concerning the rivalry between members of the court, allocating the scenes concerning the French wars to Robert Greene who was assisted by author C. Part way through the project, George Peele was brought in to complete the play and wrote most of the last two acts. Shakespeare later revised and added several lines to a number of scenes, especially Peele’s.

Marlovian scholar, A.D. Wraight, has developed this analysis further, identifying C as the actor and sometime playwright, Edward Alleyn, (See Edward Alleyn and Philip Henslowe) who worked with Greene on writing the battle scenes, with a particular interest in using the new turret added to the stage of The Rose during recent renovations. However, she believes Alleyn crossed the line by interfering in or changing Greene’s work, causing him to leave the project so that Peele had then to be called in to help complete it. These may have been the events which culminated in Greene’s pamphlet, A Groatsworth of Wit.

However, these devout Marlovians have not been bold enough to attribute the pinnacle of the tetralogy, Richard III, to Christopher Marlowe as well. Yet, even Shakespearean scholars cannot ignore Marlowe’s influence on it. Antony Hammond, the editor of the 1981 Arden edition of the play, admits that ‘apart from some influence of Kyd, there is very little in the extant drama of the time apart from Marlowe which stimulated Shakespeare in Richard III’ and finds there ‘poetry beyond Kyd’s range and akin to Marlowe’s’. He calls Richard ‘the most Marlovian of Shakespeare’s heroes’, seeing in him strong resemblances to Marlowe’s characteristic megalomaniacs such as Barabas from The Rich Jew of Malta and Tamburlaine. (See The Plays of Christopher Marlowe)

Moreover, Hammond calls Richard III, ‘a great advance on the Henry VI trilogy’ and sees ‘no sign of immaturity in the language’. Given that he argues that all four plays were written ‘in a single creative phase’ in 1590–1591, how would he explain this great leap forward and sudden maturity? Could it be that Richard III was written not by an emerging playwright still feeling his way, but one at the height of his powers?

With other scholars, Hammond also sees strong linguistic and content parallels between Marlowe’s Edward II and Richard III as well as Henry VI. But while, with other Shakespearean scholars, Hammond attributes these parallels to Marlowe’s borrowing from Richard III and Henry VI, Marlovians see these parallels not as borrowings, but as further examples of Marlowe’s frequent habit of repeating himself in his plays.

In order to maintain that Shakespeare wrote Richard III on his own, we are therefore expected to believe that he was so strongly influenced by Marlowe that he created a character that could only have been created by Marlowe. Yet at the same time, we are also expected to believe that Marlowe, that great innovator, was so imitative of Shakespeare that he lifted whole lines, characters and situations from him in writing his own Edward II.

Is it not simpler and more logical to suggest that Marlowe wrote, or at least played a major part in writing Richard III as well as The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York and Henry VI, part 1, and, as was his wont, repeated his own lines and situations when he went on to write Edward II?

Is it such a stretch, therefore, to posit that, just as with the rest of the tetralogy, the initial version of Richard III was written by Christopher Marlowe, with Shakespeare as a later reviser over many years?

The Writing Process

So, how, when and why was the Henry VI/Richard III tetralogy written? I would propose that the writing process went something like this:

Influenced by Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe is attracted to the Machiavellian character of Richard III as written by Thomas More. Not only is Richard an ideal subject for a history play, but he has already been the subject of previous plays, so a company would consider it a politically safe subject. Marlowe has seen Richardus Tertius at Cambridge and the Queen’s Men perform The True Tragedy of Richard III and while these plays may have some influence on his finished product, he writes his own version from scratch based on his own research. He then takes the play to the newly formed company, Lord Pembroke’s Men, and offers it as a perfect vehicle for their leading player, Richard Burbage. Burbage’s friend and Marlowe’s protégé, William Shakespeare, is also a member of the company.

The play is enormously successful so Burbage commissions another history play. As they cannot go forward in time and so come too close to the present, Marlowe will make use of the research he has already done to write a prequel to Richard III, The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York and asks Shakespeare to help him write it. They decide to take the story right up to the beginning of Richard III, but in doing so produce a play that is far too long, so they divide it into a two-part play.

After completing The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York they return to Richard III and make a few amendments to tie it to the prequels and complete a trilogy, such as cutting out a scene of exposition listing Richard’s previous crimes and adding Margaret of Anjou.

Marlowe immediately follows up the success of these plays with his Edward II and later writes The Rich Jew of Malta. Meanwhile, his old collaborator, Edward Alleyn, has gone into partnership with Philip Henslowe at his Southwark playhouse, The Rose, which is soon to be re-opened after renovations which have extended the stage and topped it with a new turret. Alleyn needs a number of hit plays to tempt the public to cross the river and immediately snatches up The Rich Jew of Malta.

Having seen the popularity of the Burbage’s history plays, Alleyn then commissions Marlowe to write another history play that will make use of his new turret. However, as time is short, extra hands will be needed, so he also recruits Robert Greene. Again drawing on his previous research, Marlowe devises a plot for Henry VI as a stand-alone play focussing on the wars in France, which, since the Earl of Essex was then fighting in France in support of Henry of Navarre, was a topical subject at the time. (See Who Wrote ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’?) Marlowe takes on the political scenes, for which he can draw on some of the draft scenes that were cut from the previous plays, while Greene and Alleyn work on the battle scenes.

Ever keen for scenes that will make good use of his new turret, Alleyn is constantly interfering in Greene’s work, until Greene finally loses his temper and storms out. Alleyn’s attitude also angers Marlowe who leaves the project as well. Left stranded, Alleyn calls on George Peele to finish Henry VI. Working from the notes and draft scenes left behind by Marlowe, Peele hastily puts together the last two acts.

Two years later, Henry VI is acquired by Lord Chamberlain’s Men. To tie this new play to the existing trilogy, Shakespeare adds a few new scenes, including the Margaret/Suffolk scenes. Later again when the tetralogy is revived, he makes further revisions to all four plays, expanding many scenes in The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York as well as re-writing the Rose Garden scene.

As Shakespeare has had a major hand in the final versions of all four plays, his editors feel justified in including them in the First Folio under his name.

© Pauline Montagna 2022

Read more about Shakespeare and his World

Originally published at http://www.paulinemontagna.com.au.

Hammond, Antony (edited by) Richard III, Arden Shakespeare, Methuen (1981)

Norwich, John Julius, Shakespeare’s Kings, Viking (1999)

Wraight, A.D., Christopher Marlowe and Edward Alleyn, Adam Hart (1993)

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Writer and Self-Publisher. Author of The Slave, Suburban Terrors and Not Wisely but Too Well. You’ll find my books on Smashwords and me on Facebook and Twitter.

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Pauline Montagna

Writer and Self-Publisher. Author of The Slave, Suburban Terrors and Not Wisely but Too Well. You’ll find my books on Smashwords and me on Facebook and Twitter.