Of the world’s greatest dramatists only Shakespeare and Molière were primarily actors, and this is made evident in their work. Ben Jonson was an actor in early life, but Aubrey tells us — what we can well believe — that he was better at instructing than at acting. There was an essential didacticism about him, in contrast to Shakespeare’s smooth actor’s flexibility. In our time we have come to appreciate once more how effective the plays of Marlowe are, and two of them were among the greatest favourites with Elizabethans, Tamburlaine and Dr Faustus. But Marlowe was not an actor, and his plays do not have the professional facility of his rival, who was a professional player. Marlowe’s are the rugged and inspired works of a poet who was also an intellectual. Nothing flexible about him, either: he held by what he believed, or did not believe; he enforced his heterodoxy about religion, and about sex, into whatever company he came. Both he and Ben Jonson were of rather lower social status than that by which William Shakespeare set such store, and regarded himself as belonging to: they were decidedly not gentlemen.
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