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Bard poised between Marlowe and Spencer

Christopher Marlowe was the victim of Shakespeare's challenge to the literary pre-eminence of Edmund Spencer as a dramatist in terms of his rivals. The Bard was forced to think quickly and at times badly and with intent. It all happened because he was poised between Marlowe and Spencer. Equally and significantly were the wars of the theatres at the time. As dramatists wrote for companies, Shakespeare's plays were rivalled by Ben Jonson.


It would have stunned Shakespeare to see a
black Romeo.

While Shakespeare's humour dominated some comedies, the Jonson plays were read as an array of satire and dysfuctional characters. Both had an equal balance in comedies during their time as read by readers and witnessed by theatre goers.

But with time, may be two centuries later, Shakespeare wipe off all Jonson plays from the face of the earth.

No doubt he was much more live to the literature of his time, this grammar school boy who had not attended a proper school or seen the inside portals of seats of learning like his colleagues who found it difficult to accept that he was not only a playwright but also a poet.

When young, he was keen to prove that he was the pre-eminent poet of his generation and in a legitimate challenge to established names.

Given the task to prove, he took on Spencer who was universally acknowledged as the best Elizabethan poet.

Complex

But Shakespeare had a complex in the face of Spencer being much less colourful than him. But his exciting contemporaries such as Marlowe, Sydney, Raleigh, Jonson and Nash were seen differently because of their university education.

With the publication of The Shepheardes Calander, Spencer established himself and enhanced his reputation in 1579 based on a vivid experimental work in which a group of literary shepherds appear in 12 poems, one for each month. It was a remarkable and unusual bit of work so original in its authenticity where the shepherds discuss the affairs of the heart, religious problems and and issues on how to write good songs and poetry.

Spencer had opened great opportunities from which to reveal his multiple talents. He combined a dazzling array of styles and forms evolving the best of French, Latin and English traditions. He did not hesitate to experiment with printing techniques. By these unique applications, Spencer produced a Calendar in an edition of humanist works of a classical poet.

In this process, Shepherds Calendar represented a hopeless situation for Rosalind (from Romeo and Juliet) by the use of this name for a woman who does not actually take the stage which indicates that Shakespeare took his cue from Spencer. He was greatly influenced by Spencer's poems as did other Elizabethan writers.

Speculation

Shakespeare used the name Rosalind for his principal female character in As You Like It giving rise to speculation that he adapted this name from Thomas Lodge's prose in a romance he wrote for the stage in 1590 but there was no proof what so ever.

But Lodge had been a pupil at the Merchant Taylor's School with Spencer which would have led to the elder poet's work when writing Rosalind.

Was Shakespeare serious on this mix-up?


Anya Linden as Rosalind in the 1958 production of
Romeo and Juliet

However, what looks like a reaction to Spencer's poem occurs in Romeo and Juliet, where Rosalind was Romeo's first love. At the beginning Romeo is seen praising the beauty of an unknown woman who later turns out to be Rosalind. Once Romeo has seen Juliet, he forgets her but remain a trace as supplanted love but disappears.

The exchange of words between the Friar and Romeo brings back to the audience that the forgotten Rosalind no longer futures in Romeo's life. When Friar Laurence asks Romeo ‘Was thou with Rosalind?’

Romeo replies ‘I have forgotten the name and that name is woe’

The Friar expresses surprise ‘What a change is here. Is Rosalind thou claims that thou didst love so dear, so soon forgotten.’

Romeo claims that he has now forgotten Rosalind but her name is repeated six times in 38 lines. He is trying to forget her but the audience as well as the reader is forced to remember her.

In the ballet of Romeo and Juliet, Rosalind dances into the hearts of the audiences before she fades away at the entrance of Juliet who is her cousin by right.

Attention

Rosalind who is never there takes a long time to disappear and the amount of stage time spent in discussion over a woman in her position is, unusual and directs our attention to Shakespeare who obviously would have been inspired with Spencer's work and had him supplanted just the way Spencer transformed the scope and significance of love. Shakespeare revealed that he could do better than Spencer by transforming English poetry in his plays.

Another glowing example is when the Bard puts words in the mouth of Benvolio whether he was laughing at his speech and his friend denies it. But Shakespeare had given his main character a series of ridiculous lines which are replaced later by more inspired and daring descriptions of love. In representing Rosalind the Bard was showing that whatever Spencer had done, he could do just the same as well, if not better. But Spencer is still giving Shakespeare a run with more books written on Spencer's poetry as well as an edited version of his Shepherds Calendar.

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