Born With Teeth: When Genius Met at a Crossroads in the Lives of Shakespeare and Marlowe

Dylan Godwin and Matthew Amendt in Alley Theatre's production of Born With Teeth.
Dylan Godwin and Matthew Amendt in Alley Theatre's production of Born With Teeth. Photo by Lynn Lane

Despite being rivals, William Shakespeare and Christopher "Kit" Marlowe actually collaborated on a history playwriting cycle. That's what gave modern playwright Liz Duffy Adams the idea for Born With Teeth cast in a time when a polarized nation was filled with paranoia while governed by an aging ruler. And when it was dangerous for writers to freely express their opinions about what was going on.

Resident Company member Dylan Godwin stars in the Alley Theatre production as a young Shakespeare, an up-and-comer just starting to get recognition. Matthew Amendt plays Marlowe, the much more established playwright who's also caught up in the conspiracies and secret machinations surrounding the late Elizabethan court.

Originally the Alley workshopped the play the year before COVID started. It was going to be in the season but with all the subsequent shifting around it was delayed until now. And ironically enough, its references to "the plague" in the play became all the more understandable given what was happening to its cast and crew in the last two years, Godwin said. 

"Our playwright Liz Duffy Adams has been a huge Shakespeare fan for a long time and also a Marlowe fan," said Godwin. "Probably six or seven years ago they came out with this technology that's able to analyze Shakespeare's scripts. There's so much controversy, there are so many different schools of thought that he wrote them, someone else wrote them.

"But what we kind of know now about how they would put some of those early plays together, they would hire two playwrights. One would take scenes 1, 3, 5 and 7 or scenes that were sort of related and they would write separately and then put them together. What they've realized recently through this technology they found some kind of algorithm, to analyze the texts and they realized through word choice and syntax what playwright wrote what.

"So on these Henry VI plays — there are  three of them — they realized that Shakespeare, Marlowe and [Thomas] Nashe would collaborate ... and Marlowe and Shakespeare on the last two. So Liz kind of used that as a spring board into kind of creating this reality where they are actually writing together in the same room. Whether that happened or not we're not really sure."

When the play starts it is the first time for Shakespeare and Marlowe to work together. Although they are of the same age (both born in 1564, just two months apart), "Kit has already had a lot of success with Tamburlaine, Doctor Faustus and Shakespeare has sort of just begun his career. He's written Comedy of Errors and Titus Andronicus" but not the plays like Macbeth, Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet that he became more famous for, Godwin said.

"As the play progresses, Shakespeare begins to get his footing and Marlowe kind of goes the other direction," Godwin said. (Marlowe would go on to die at a young age during a fight said to be over a bill.) "It's an interesting meditation on how people engulf each other and devour each other and take over and it kind of shows up in their work."

In the beginning of Born With Teeth, "Shakespeare is kind of the provincial mouse coming from the Midlands, while Marlowe has been in London for a while," said Godwin. "You follow him as he becomes more world wise and savvy." The ending comes complete with a twist at the end (which Godwin would not give away). 

'One of the things we know about Marlowe is that he was very involved in the Elizabethan spy network," Godwin said. "Towards the end of Elizabeth's reign she was holding onto power any way that she could. One of the ways she did that was establishing this state apparatus, this spying ring to always keep her in power. Because it was sort of a totalitarian state. And Kit was very much involved in that. One of the things about being involved in that kind of lifestyle is that you could only keep it up for so long before it catches up with you. And that's kind of the journey he's on."

There is a lot of humor in the play complete with an assortment of Easter eggs tossed in by Adams from works by Shakespeare and Marlowe, Godwin said. At the same time, he added: "People, even if they don't know anything about Shakespeare and Marlowe can come to this play and not only enjoy it but really invest in it. Because it really is about the relationship between these two guys, these two incredible brains and the way they sort of rib each other and get at each other  and at moments kiss each other and get close to each other and at other moments push each other away and fight but within that there's so much comedy because they are such different characters.

 "There's some thing very punk about it, there's something very edgy about it," he said. "There's a real undertone of queerness in it and the relationship between the two men kind of lives in that world. That is not the major overarching theme of the play But I think it can be rare to see depictions. like that. "

The 84-minute, one-act play has three big scenes, Godwin said, and it's in the last part where present day events influenced the perceptions of all involved — and probably its audiences as well.

"In the third part of the play they’re in the plague and it was in England and so when we first workshopped it we didn't really have any idea. The plague was an idea that was sort of abstract. And then all of a sudden we went through COVID. So we started to quickly have an understanding of what it means to be separated from your work, separated from your family and separated from your family."

Asked why people should attend the play, Godwin said:

"I think it’s something we haven’t seen on the Alley stage in a really long time, the way that these two guys interact. I think it is shedding light on a subject matter that a lot of people may relegate to the boring file in their brain or the high school English files in their brain but it's not.

"It's something that feels bigger and more important than that and it's just a hell of a lot of fun. It’s this wonderful kind of little jewel that you can sit down and dive into the the world and then get out of it again."

Performances continue through June 5 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue.  For more information, call 713-220-5700 or visit $28-$57.

From June 6-19 a paid digital version filmed live at the Alley will be available. $25.
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