Shakespeare's Contemporaries: Marlowe, Jonson and Kyd

William Shakespeare was of such importance to literary history, he often eclipses the other writers of his time!

Here we look at three of Shakespeare’s contemporaries and explore their influence on the Bard's own writing.

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Christopher Marlowe
Christopher Marlowe. Public Domain

Christopher Marlowe was born in 1564. His father was a renound shoemaker and his mother was the daughter of a clergyman. He went to school in Canterbury and then went on to study at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge but he was nearly asked to leave for his frequent absenteeism.

He was apparently spending his time in Rheims with Catholics who were plotting against Queen Elizabeth’s rule as a Protestant. He later became a secret agent for the government.

He was very flamboyant in the way that he dressed. He was associated with the Admiral’s Company and famously wrote, Doctor Faustus (1588-9), The Jew of Malta (c.1590) and Edward II (c.1593).

Marlowe and Shakespeare were born in the same year but as Shakespeare was forced to leave school at the age of fourteen, Marlowe had an advantage in the business over him with a University education.

In 1593, Marlowe wrote about what he considered to be inconsistencies in the bible. This was seen as an act of heresy. This is why Thomas Kyd was arrested and tortured into giving evidence against him. However, before the case could be brought to court Marlowe was found murdered in a lodging house in Deptford.

It is believed that he was meeting with Government Agents but they were paid assassins. The murdered was kept quiet and the killer was pardoned.

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Benjamin Jonson (1572-1637)

Benjamin Jonson by Abraham van Blyenberch
Benjamin Jonson. Public Domain

Ben Jonson was born in 1572 a month after his father who was a Clergyman died. His mother, in dire straits, married a bricklayer.

Despite his difficult background, Jonson attended Westminster School and studied the Classics. He then took on his step father’s trade as a bricklayer. He later served as a Soldier in the Low Countries. He then joined a company of strolling actors in England.

His play, Everyman and his Humour was performed by Shakespeare’s company The Lord Chamberlain’s Men in 1598. Shakespeare and Jonson were close and Shakespeare was Godfather to Jonson’s son.

Jonson was renound for his temper and was arrested in 1598 for killing a fellow actor Gabriel Spencer in a duel. He was branded on his thumb for his misdemeanour. He was arrested again in 1604 for co-writing a play Eastwood Ho! which poked fun at James I and the Scots.

However, by 1616 he was back in favour and wrote plays for the King and received a pension.

By 1625, Charles I came to the throne and Jonson was out of favour again. Jonson died in 1637 of a stroke.

He is best known for his plays, Every Man in His Humour, Eastwood Ho!, The Alchemist and Bartholomew Fair.

Jonson wrote a preface to Shakespeare’s first folio of plays published in 1623. This is quoted often.

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Thomas Kyd was born in London in 1558. Not a lot is known of his early life except that he attended the Merchant Taylor’s School.

His Play The Spanish Tragedy written in 1589 was incredibly popular and set the standard for revenge plays. It was performed throughout the Elizabethan era.

Theatre Manager Philip Henslow recorded 29 performances of the play between 1592-1597. The number of reprints of the play demonstrate that it was more popular than any of Shakespeare’s plays at the time.

Ben Jonson was commissioned to update the play in 1601.

Kyd shared a room with another of Shakespeare’s contemporaries Christopher Marlowe and in 1593 he was arrested and tortured; as a result, he gave evidence against his friend. He was released after Marlowe was murdered but died in poverty having never regained his popularity.

Other Contemporaries

Other contemporaries of Shakespeare in include Thomas Dekker (c.1572-1632) and John Webster (1580-1638) who wrote The Duchess of Malfi (written before 1614) which is considered to be one of the finest Jacobean tragedies.