Review of Donna Murphy's

The Marlowe-Shakespeare Continuum


After North Korea declared a “state of war” against South Korea in March of 2013, I received an email from Donna Murphy saying she wanted to send me the working manuscript of The Marlowe- Shakespeare Continuum for safekeeping, along with all her other works in progress. If anything happened to her, I was to forward the unfinished manuscript of this book to Cambridge Scholars Publishing. Thankfully, she completed this book, and is no longer in Seoul, South Korea where she was a diplomat at the U.S. Embassy Seoul along with her husband Tom, who was serving as an advisor to the U.S. Ambassador in South Korea. Now she and Tom are back home in Northern Virginia, where she is writing another book about Christopher Marlowe. Literary detective that she is, Donna has authored two books and numerous articles around the authorship of anonymous works written during the English Renaissance. Her articles have been published at the Oxford University Press journal Notes & Queries, The Marlowe Society Research Journal, and the internet blog The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection. In 2010 she was a co-winner of the Hoffman Prize for her essay "Christopher Marlowe and the Authorship of Early English Anonymous Plays". This essay was the seed that grew The Marlowe-Shakespeare Continuum. I’ve placed the list of her previous work below this review.



Donna Murphy’s The Marlowe Shakespeare Continuum is based on the premise Christopher Marlowe did not die at Deptford in 1593, but continued evolving his dramatic abilities under the pen name William Shakespeare instead. Tracing Marlowe’s continued development along the line of a Marlowe-Shakespeare continuum, Murphy provides us with a multitude of linguistic, biographical and logic-based evidence for Marlowe having written some of the Elizabethan anonymous plays, including the early history plays that many modern-day scholars ascribe to Shakespeare. She also shows us the voice of Thomas Nashe behind various clowns and commoners in Marlowe’s accepted works, and several of the anonymous and Shakespeare plays she believes the two co-authored. This is a new concept, which she supports using the collection of Nasheian language and thought similarities she has discovered along the Marlowe-Shakespeare continuum.

While earlier scholars have traced Marlowe’s hand in some of these anonymous history plays through parallels, repetitions, and variations upon lines, they did not have technology to aid them.  Murphy has a wonderful new tool at her disposal, the searchable Early English Books Online-Text Creation Partnership (EEBO) database. With the help of EEBO, comprised of 32,863 full texts of works written from 1472 to 1700 she concentrates her efforts on instances where linguistic repetition existed and was quite uncommon.

Murphy’s textual analysis uses the techniques of Matches/Near Matches, Rare Scattered Word Clusters, Image Clusters, Strong Parallels, biographical connections, repeated unconscious word associations, and logic to advance the theory Marlowe authored or co-authored Caesar’s RevengeThe Taming of a ShrewThe Contention Betwixt the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster and its revision Henry VI Part 2, The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York and its revision Henry VI Part 3, The Reign of King Edward the Third, Titus Andronicus, Thomas of Woodstock, Romeo and Juliet, and Henry IV Part 1.

There is a great deal of textual scholarship by Edmund Malone, C.F. Tucker Brooke, Allison Gaw, J.M. Robertson, John Bakeless, A.D. Wraight and others purporting Marlowe had a strong hand in Edward the Third, The Contention, The True Tragedy, and the later King Henry VI trilogy, but Murphy’s theory that Nashe’s is sometimes the comedic voice of the lower-class characters in Marlowe’s plays is certainly a new idea. She provides numerous examples of Nasheian lines in the voices of Doctor Faustus’ lower-class characters Robin and Rafe, The Jew Of Malta’s Pilia-Borza and Ithamore, The Taming Of A Shrew’s lower-class Sly, Sander, and the Boy, and the low-life characters Jack Cade and his band of rebels in Henry VI Part 2.

These plays share many uncommon word juxtapositions that Nashe used in his own works, including the double-barreled adjective “Burly-bone”, which occurred in three of his works“Burly-bone”appears in what Murphy considers a Nasheian portion of Henry VI Part 2 (and also its early version, The Contention)It is an example of what she calls a “Match”, a word, phrase, or juxtaposition that occurs in an author’s known work and a work of questionable authorship, and no more than once elsewhere within a forty-year time period. For example: 


From Henry VI, Part 2 (also in The Contention):

Cade (to his sword): Steel, if thou turn the edge or cut not out the burly-boned clown in chines of beefe. (IV.ix.56-7)


Murphy says:  “Burly-bone*” was a favorite expression for Nashe, occurring in his Almond for a Parrot, Pierce Penniless, and The Unfortunate Traveler. It is also a rare one, appearing only once elsewhere in all of EEBO, a poem by John Taylor, pr. 1617. 


From Nashe’s Pierce Penniless:

The Danes: who stand so much vpon their vnwildy burliboand souldiery, that they account of no man that hath not a battle axe at his girdle…cheekes that sag like a womans d[u]gs ouer his chin-bone, his apparel is so puft vp with bladders of Taffetie, and his back like biefe stuft with Parsly (C1v) 

Chines of beefe (D2v)


From Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveler:

Are huge burlybond butchers like Aiax, good for nothing but to strike right downe blowes on a wedge with a cleaning béetle (C1v)


From Nashe’s Almond for a Parrot:

Yet these are nothing in comparison of his auncient burlibond adiunctes, that so pester his former edition with their vnweldie phrase (B3r)


Murphy says: In both Henry VI Part 2 and Nashe’s Pierce Penniless, burly-boned is associated with beef, chins, and weapons, while in Unfortunate, the association is with a butcher, the warrior Ajax, and striking a blow with a cleaning beetle. This appears to indicate the same quirky thought patterns.


Murphy argues we can not only find a writer through unconscious word associations, we can also find a writer by what he has gotten wrong in his work and repeated wrongly in another work. We have two other pieces by Nashe that discuss Jack Cade. Murphy gives us an excerpt from Nashe’s letter to William Cotton: “Sir, this tedious dead vacation is to me as unfortunate as a term at Hertford or St. Alban’s to poor country clients, or Jack Cade’s rebellion to the lawyers, wherein they hanged up the Lord Chief Justice." Murphy says:

J. D. Wilson noted that in his letter to Cotton, Nashe confused the 1450 Jack Cade rebellion with the 1580 Jack Straw uprising. It was during the Jack Straw rebellion that peasants attacked lawyers and beheaded (not hanged) the Lord Chief Justice. Wilson added that strict adherence to sources was not Nashe’s strong suit. He then remarked that 2H6 made the same mistake in confusing the two rebellions, and that Nashe’s history error cannot have been caused by viewing the play, since it does not discuss the Lord Chief Justice’s murder. 


Marlowe and Nashe attended Cambridge University at the same time, and Murphy proposes the Marlowe/Nashe partnership possibly began as early as c. 1587 with a no-longer-extant contribution to the Tamburlaine plays, and continued with, among others, Doctor FaustusThe Jew of Malta, The Taming of a ShrewThe Contention (it is unclear if Nashe was involved in rewriting it as Henry VI Part 2), Henry VI Part 1, Thomas of Woodstock, Romeo and Juliet, and Part 1 of Henry IV. 


The Jew of Malta:  

Within forty foot of the gallows, conning his neck-verse, I take it, looking of a friar’s execution whom I saluted with an old hempen proverb, ‘Hodie tibi, cras mihi’, and so I left him to the mercy of the hangman (IV.ii.16-20)


Doctor Faustus

It were not for you to come within forty foot of the place of execution, although I do not doubt to see you both hanged the next sessions (Sc. ii.24-6)


Thomas of Woodstock 

It shall be henceforth counted high treason for any fellow with a grey beard to come within forty foot of the court gates (II.ii.175-5)


Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveler

It shall be flat treason for any of this fore-mentioned catalogue of the point trussers, to once name him within fortie foote of an ale-house (A4r)


Nashe’s Strange News:  

Come not in his way, stand fortie foote from the execution place of his furie (D4v)


Nashe’s Have at You to Saffron-Walden

forbid…to amend it, or come within fortie foote of it (F4r)

Rope-maker, or come within fortie foot of it (I3r) 


Murphy writes at length about the anonymous play Edward III, which various scholars now consider to be part of Shakespeare’s canon (see Marlowe's Authorship of Edward the Third). She weaves the biographical connections between Edward the Third and Marlowe’s life. Marlowe had a self-stated relationship with both Strange and Northumberland. It is noteworthy, then, that Lord Derby and Lord Percy turn up as characters in Edward III. Both are mentioned in Edward III’s source, Froissart’s Chronicles, but Percy fought against the Scottish rather than the French, as in the play, and Derby was in France, but not at the battle of Crécy. The playwright positioned them ahistorically in order to include them in the drama.

Murphy says: 

Since Marlowe had written a play about King Edward II, in which he brought on-stage his son, called Edward III in the final scenes, it is logical that he would then turn his attention to Edward III. It also makes sense that he would have included Edward III’s son, the Black Prince, as a major character in Edward III. The impressive, brass-effigy-topped tomb of the Black Prince rests in Canterbury Cathedral, and Marlowe had ample opportunity to view it, in addition to the tomb of Odet de Coligny, brother of Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, a character in The Massacre At Paris, and also the tomb of King Henry IV.


The problem of imitation looms large in authorship studies. How do we know if it is the author, or another writer imitating his style? This is a bigger problem when searching for Marlowe’s hand than for other Elizabethan writers because he was imitated more than most of them. This is why Murphy spends a great deal of time delving into language similarities that reveal subconscious repeated patterns and parallels. For example, she starts by noting that “never broken” is a quite uncommon adjective. In Tamburlaine Part 2, it is a jade or horse that is never broken, while in Edward the Third it is a name, but the word is juxtaposed with “stable,” employed elsewhere as the location where horses sleep in 2 Tamburlaine.


Marlowe’s Tamburlaine Part 2:


Harnessed like my horses

And in a stable lie upon the planks…

Unruly never broken jades 

(III.i.104, 107 and IV.v.46)


Edward the Third:


Overridden jades

horse laid down to die…

He hath my never broken name to show

Character’d with this princely hand of mine,

And rather let me leave to be a prince 

Than break the stable verdict of a prince

                (III.iii.162, IV.v.46, 75-8)


These are just a few of the fascinating interconnections Murphy weaves between Marlowe and the author of Edward the Third, the extant version of which she believes he wrote in c. 1590-1, then revised at a later date, at some point prior to its registration in 1595.

If Marlowe was the man behind a Shakespeare pseudonym and the author of Edward the Third, Murphy’s book shows us the way his subconscious dealt with his material through time along a Marlowe-Shakespeare continuum. Take the idea of death. Of the three excerpts below, Murphy says, “The Edward the Third excerpt speaks of death as a journey, and includes the word ‘return.’ The lines from Marlowe’s Edward the Second and Shakespeare’s Hamlet speak of the dying person as a traveler going to discover countries or to an undiscovered country, and Hamlet also includes the word ‘return’ ”:


In Marlowe’s accepted play Edward the Second when Edward III orders Mortimer be hung and quartered, Mortimer speaks of death: 


Weep not for Mortimer,

That scorns the world, and as a traveler

Goes to discover countries yet unknown.

       (Sc. xxvi.64-6)


In Edward the Third when French troops have surrounded the Black Prince’s army and are poised to kill him, the servant of the king of France has been ordered by his king to give the English prince a prayer book. The prince speaks of death:


And arm thy soul for her long journey towards.

Thus have I done his bidding, and return.



In Shakespeare’s Hamlet the prince speaks of death:


The undiscovered country from whose bourn

No traveller returns



The idea of a Marlowe Shakespeare continuum is built not only upon linguistic studies, but a tearing down of ideas that don’t hold true about Marlowe’s writing style and his own character. One of the traditional myths concerning his style is that he was all bombast and rant, therefore he could not have been Shakespeare. This idea is founded upon Marlowe’s early, two-part play, Tamburlaine, written when he was about 23 years old. We find little bombast and rant in Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, The Jew of Malta, Edward the Second, and The Massacre At Paris. Should we accept Marlowe's authorship, in whole or part, of the history plays Edward The Third, The Contention, The True Tragedy, and the King Henry VI trilogy, we see him headed in the direction of the later Shakespeare works.

In his Rival Playwrights: Marlowe, Jonson and Shakespeare, James Shapiro concludes “Shakespeare seems to be very much aware of what Marlowe is up to and chooses to plot a parallel course, virtually stalking his rival.” But the relationship between Shakespeare and Marlowe goes beyond mere imitation, as we see from other work that supports Murphy’s findings.

In his essay “Literary Similarities Between Shakespeare and Marlowe” Alex Jack says, “Many characters in the Marlowe Shakespeare continuum are cut from the same dramatic cloth along the full length of the continuum: Edward II matures into Richard IIThe Massacre at Paris evolves into Measure for MeasureThe Jew of Malta metamorphoses into The Merchant of Venice, and Dr. Faustus becomes Prospero in The Tempest.” He adds that both the Marlowe and Shakespeare plays and poems share a common vocabulary: fondness for the pyrrhic foot, diction, and other literary elements.

In a study of run-on lines and feminine endings, Peter Farey found that, analyzed as a Marlowe Shakespeare continuum rather than using an overall average that doesn’t take into account the possibility Marlowe continued evolving as a writer, an evolution in style was revealed, with the frequency of feminine endings and run-on lines gradually accelerating over time. Harry Levin found that Shakespeare borrowed the broad tripartite dramatic structure of his plays, with a main plot, over plot, and subplot, from Marlowe.  Douglas Bruster (Shakespeare and the Question of Culture) found the staging and properties were similar between the two. The Jew of Malta, for example, contains an average of 11.7 props (e.g., swords, crowns, scepters, coins, etc.) per thousand lines, compared to an average of 11.5 props for the Shakespearean tragedies as a whole, while other Elizabethan works range from 4.2 to 22.

The internal evidence of Marlowe’s accepted history plays coupled with the anonymous history plays Donna Murphy and the aforementioned scholars ascribe to Marlowe, conflicts with the way Marlowe’s character has been defined by many of Marlowe’s biographers and Shakespeare scholars. Very few of them have read the books of Marlovians such as A.D. Wraight (Christopher Marlowe and Edward Alleyn and The Story That The Sonnets Tell), Alex Jack (Hamlet By Marlowe and As You Like It By Marlowe), and Darly Pinksen (Marlowe’s Ghost). Perhaps the cause of their resistance to reading these books is that Marlowe’s character has been reflected back at us through a distorted mirror of suspicious events.

Most of Marlowe’s biographers along with most orthodox Shakespeare scholars believe the Coroner’s Report on his death to be suspicious and a cover for assassination, yet the idea obtained from the report that he was a violent man remains. Each piece of reasonable evidence gathered from external documents or the texts ought to move us to reconsider the whole picture. For example, last year I was searching through the Canterbury archives to see if there were any documents related to William Corkyn, the man who sued Marlowe for assault in 1592. I discovered that not only was Corkyn himself sued for assault by Reginald Diggs six months later, but that Corkyn was in court fifteen times during the span of eight years with one indictment for assault, the Plaintiff in nine cases, the Defendant in five.

If we become convinced Marlowe wrote some or all the plays Murphy examines in this book, we have the links for his development into Shakespeare. Given that Marlowe likely served the State, the possibility widens that it was not assassination but its trade-off, exile, which might explain why the Coroner’s Report on Marlowe’s death is so suspicious. After all, Burghley appears to have gotten him off the hook twice earlier because of his work for the State: The first time when rumors at Cambridge told of Marlowe going over to the Catholic side, and the second time when Richard Baines accused him of coining in Flushing. 

Assumptions become a part of history when they are not questioned. Scholars of every new generation are raised upon the foundations set by previous scholars. It is certainly easiest to accept the same viewpoint as one’s predecessors. Most people do, after all, wish to be part of the club rather than ostracized and excluded from it. Murphy performs a valuable service by providing a sound, linguistic basis upon which to question the assumption that William Shakspere from Stratford wrote the works of Shakespeare, an assumption which has long been, on the basis of Shakspere’s known biography, wholly illogical.



Donna Murphy’s Works


Donna Murphy's website:


From Notes & Queries (Oxford University Press)


“The Life and Death of Jack Straw and George Peele," Notes & Queries 59 (2012): 513-18.

Available online here and here

“George a Greene and Robert Greene," Notes & Queries 59 (2012): 53-8. 

“Look Up and See Wonders and Thomas Dekker," Notes & Queries 59 (2012): 101-4.  

“Two Dangerous Comets and Thomas Nashe," Notes & Queries 58 (2011): 219-23. 

"The Repentance of Robert Greene, Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, and Robert Greene," Notes & Queries 58 (2011): 223-230. 

“The Cobbler of Canterbury and Robert Greene,” Notes & Queries 57 (2010): 349-52. 

“Locrine, Selimus, Robert Greene and Thomas Lodge," Notes & Queries 56 (2009): 559-64.  

"Did Gabriel Harvey Write Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit?" Notes & Queries 52 (2007): 249-53.


 Other Journals


"The Date and Co-Authorship of Doctor Faustus," Cahiers Élisabéthains 75 (2009): 43-4. 

"The Curioius Connection Between Nashe, Dekker and Freemasonry," The Marlowe Society Research Journal 6 (2009): 1-24.




"The Marlowe-Shakespeare Continuum" Nov. 1, 2013

“The Mysterious Connection Between Thomas Nashe, Thomas Dekker and T. M. An English Renaissance Deception?" Nov. 27, 2012

“Did Marlowe Die in Padua in 1627? The Watterson-Zeigler Correspondence" April 1, 2012 

“Christopher Marlowe, the Dating Game, and Sir Walter Ralegh" Sept. 1, 2011

“Donna Murphy Wins Hoffman Prize" Dec. 8, 2010 

“Could the Earl of Oxford Have Written the Works of Shakespeare?" Nov. 10, 2009