The Marlowe Society's Romeo and Juliet at the Cambridge Arts Theatre in FebruaryPaul Ashley with permission for varsity

The Marlowe Society is one of the most prolific student drama societies, as well as one of the oldest. Its name stands out among the soup of acronyms which dominates Cambridge extracurricular life, recalling the long-dead Cantab Christopher Marlowe, whose beautiful, bloody works dominated the Elizabethan theatre scene before his death in a tavern brawl. Beyond the history evoked by its name, however, lies a similarly rich and interesting story: that of The Marlowe Society itself.

Before I start, I want to acknowledge how tenuous some of this information is. With the society’s website out of commission, and the history page which used to exist on the Cambridge record of societies having vanished off the face of the earth, I’ve had to comb random Wikipedia pages which constantly contradict each other, while attempting to cross-reference with the odd blog post, Wayback Machine glimpse, or historical research page. Overall, there is a dearth of information about society history, so take my research with a pinch of salt, and certainly don’t reference it in your diss.

“These earnest student purists set about performing Elizabethan and Jacobean works in their original, uncut form, and even followed tradition as far as having male actors play female roles”

The society was founded in 1907 by a group of students who wanted to perform lesser-known works, such as those by its namesake, who was relegated to playing second fiddle to Shakespeare despite enjoying fame during his lifetime. Supposedly they were rebelling against the contemporary theatre world which favoured spectacle over substance, frequently cutting and editing classic works for the sake of maximising the drama and minimising scandal. On their list of things to shake up, too, was the Cambridge theatre scene, which appears to have neglected Shakespeare for some time before the Marlowes arrived on the scene. These earnest student purists set about performing Elizabethan and Jacobean works in their original, uncut form, and even followed tradition as far as having male actors play female roles, with then-student Eric Maschwitz (who would go on to become a decorated broadcaster) receiving rave reviews from student critics for his performance of the lady Vittoria in the first successful modern production of Webster’s The White Devil. Many early members also extended their interest in historical theatre to performing in the Greek Play, including Rupert Brooke, with one Granta reviewer cheekily alleging that he had “made many conquests in the audience, if rumour is to be believed” (rumour probably was, in this case, to be believed, since Brooke was said to be the “handsomest man in England”).

“The Marlowe Society’s story exemplifies Cambridge’s historical journey”

Since then, the society has somewhat broadened its remit, blending from a strictly early modern company to a society which, according to its Camdram page, “is dedicated to high-quality performances of Elizabethan, verse, and non-realist plays including classics and plays rarely seen on the professional stage”. It has also adopted a focus on the writing side of things, awarding The Methuen Marlowe Other Prize for original playscripts every year and performing the winning entry, alongside running writing workshops and talks.

Throughout the years it has produced many notable alumni: the aforementioned Rupert Brooke, Ian McKellen, Trevor Nunn (who returned to direct a play for the society in 2010, leaving him with a grand total of one Camdram credit to hang up next to his CBE, Tony, and Olivier), Tom Hiddleston, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, and countless others. It continues to produce rising stars, such as Arabella Alhaddad, who was in the Marlowe society’s 2023 A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and is now working on a film of Pride and Prejudice.

“One of The Marlowe Society’s most impressive and most anticipated events of the year is the annual BME Shakespeare”

At least in my opinion, one of The Marlowe Society’s most impressive and most anticipated events of the year is the annual BME Shakespeare, which was founded by the Marlowes in 2019 and involves a Shakespeare play being put on by a top-to-bottom BME cast and crew. Having participated myself, as well as interviewing multiple actors and prod team members for a series of articles on race in Cambridge theatre, I’ve seen firsthand what an uplifting space this initiative provides for theatre practitioners of colour. The way that the society has been able to forge such a radical space in such a white scene – performing pieces so rooted in the white canon which is so often used to exclude people of colour or justify British nationalism or racism – while still remaining true to its heritage as a company that performs Elizabethan and Jacobean works is a remarkable testament to the flexibility and endurance of the society.


Mountain View

The highs and Marlowes of a Cambridge education

It’s easy to forget what a long and varied legacy we inherit as members of Cambridge societies. The Marlowe Society’s story exemplifies Cambridge’s historical journey: simultaneously respecting tradition and rebelling against it; pulling history along with it and being pulled along by history. In the last 125 years, the Marlowe Society has watched Cambridge continue on its rocky journey from ancient university to modern institution, and has done an inspiring job of not only changing with it, but also shaping it. Here’s to another 125 years of new traditions, new blood, and new Cambridge.