Marlowe and Shakespeare united in Swedish opera

James Savage
James Savage - [email protected]
Marlowe and Shakespeare united in Swedish opera

They were two of the greatest playwrights ever to write in the English language. They were also both born in England in 1564, and it has been said that both men had relationships with other men. A new Swedish opera goes further, and speculates that William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe were lovers.


While a fair amount is known of Marlowe, many details of Shakespeare’s life are sketchy, particularly in the seven years between 1585 and 1592, when all trace of him seems to disappear from the historical record. For Håkan Lindquist, who has written the text to Tommy Andersson’s opera, William this has been a gift.

“It’s inspirational to have so much freedom when writing about the life of someone so well known,” he says.

The opera, written in Swedish, speculates that the men’s affair started when Shakespeare was a member of Marlowe’s theatre troupe in London.

It is a known historical fact that Marlowe was an English spy in the Dutch town of Flushing. It is not known whether he met Shakespeare in real life, but Lindquist has the young Will follow his lover over to the Netherlands, where the pair continue their relationship.

“Shakespeare goes there because he misses Marlowe,” Lindquist explains. In doing this he leaves behind his wife, Ann Hathaway, who had recently borne him the twins Judith and Hamnet.

Lindquist is a well-known novelist in Sweden. Many of his stories deal with gay themes, and his books have been translated into several languages, including English. Writing the libretto for an opera was a new departure, but when Tommy Andersson proposed an opera about Shakespeare and Marlowe’s relationship there was no question:

“I jumped at the idea,” he says.

The sexuality of Shakespeare, played by Mattias Nilsson, has been the subject of endless debate. Most of his sonnets are addressed to young men, but Lindquist admits “Shakespeare is like the Bible – you can always read into it what you want to read into it.”

As for Marlowe (Andreas Landin), “we know that he had relationships with other men.”

“He had a risk-filled life – he was also a spy, his plays dealt with risky issues and he was an atheist.”

Lindquist touches on the argument that Marlowe wrote some or all of Shakespeare’s plays.

“There are many people who think that this was the case, but the opera doesn’t take that line. Shakespeare and Marlowe do discuss collaborating, though, something that is cut short by Marlowe’s death.”

The opera borrows a little from the works of both playwrights. In Shakespeare’s case, Lindquist says he deliberately chose not to re-read the plays before putting pen to paper. Instead, he looked at the sonnets, “to get a feeling for the language.”

“People who are really familiar with Shakespeare will recognize passages from the sonnets. One scene also has the two quoting lines from Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage”.

Given the popularity of Shakespeare in Sweden, there are likely to be plenty of people in the audience who recognize the lines.

“Interest in Shakespeare the writer is huge here,” Lindquist reckons, something he thinks is due to “the way he handles big emotions.” Indeed, just two weeks after William has its premiere on 26th July in the ancient Vadstena Castle, by lake Vättern, a Swedish theatre group will be performing Hamlet in the open air outside the town’s convent. The opera’s director, Carl Kjellgren, recently directed a production of As You Like It in Uppsala.

This interest extends to Shakespeare the man – the fact that so little is known only makes him more interesting:

“It’s exciting that someone who was born neither rich nor poor can have written these plays. This could be why many people think that Marlowe wrote Shakespeare’s plays.”

William has its premiere on 26th July at Vadstena Castle, and continues until 9th August. It will also be broadcast on Swedish Radio's P2 on 29th July at 7:30pm.


Tickets for William can be bought at or by calling 077-170 70 70.

The performance can be heard on Swedish Radio P2 at 7:30pm on 29th July.

For more information, visit the Vadstena Academy's homepage.

Homepage photo: Markus Gårder


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