There is a (new) ten-episode series, called Will, depicting the "lost years" of Shakespeare and taking many liberties. Most of the adult characters are real: Robert Southwell , Francis Walsingham, Richard Topcliffe. Evidently it is possible to watch the episodes online.

There is one I have not been able to identify, an older man whom Marlowe regards with considerable affection, played by Julian Sands, and named Barrett Emerson; if real, his name, to history, might be Lord Something; he seemed wealthy, but quite ill. I have requested some books on Marlowe's friends (Christopher Marlowe: poet & spy and Christopher Marlowe and Richard Baines: journeys through the Elizabethan underground).

Added: Marlowe always says "My King" in speaking to this man, rather than using the name. In turn, Emerson always calls Marlowe "Wasp," rather than the "Kit" we would have expected. I don't know of anything about Marlowe that calls "wasp" to mind.

The question is, does anyone know who Barrett Emerson might have been, or know for sure that he is fictional?

  • I've gone through the books. There does not seem to be room for such a real person in Marlowe's life. As far as the TV series, the name Barrett Emerson is not spoken aloud until the tenth episode. Put it together, it would seem they wanted a fictional character to illuminate one aspect of Marlowe's personality.
    – Will Jagy
    Commented Aug 5, 2017 at 1:21
  • The website IMDB has caught up; in this episode they call the Sands character Marlowe's Lover imdb.com/title/tt6038944/?ref_=nm_flmg_act_4 while the page for Julian Sands ( see year 2017) also calls the character Barrett Emerson imdb.com/name/nm0001696
    – Will Jagy
    Commented Aug 13, 2017 at 22:08

2 Answers 2


A 2020 research paper published in the Journal of Marlowe Studies claims that Barrett Emerson is purely fictional, with some justifications of why such a character might be invented for the TV show and how he would fit in with the characterisation of Marlowe therein.

In this paper, Emerson is first mentioned as an "invented character", with parallels drawn between Marlowe's life with him and the story of Doctor Faustus:

At the very end of Episode 5, he enters the bedchamber of a fine house and lies down alongside an older man who is dying of a consumptive disease. This figure, we find out at the end of the season, is an invented character named Barrett Emerson, who was once Marlowe’s lover. [...]

Emerson believes that, like Faustus, he has sold his soul, but instead of 24 years of perfect knowledge, he receives in exchange Marlowe’s love. After Emerson dies in the next episode, Marlowe toasts his corpse with an admission that he has made a similar trade:“If your love cost me my soul, then here’s to damnation, darling. I shall see thee in hell.” Emerson’s warning, “Repent yet, and God may pity thee,” anticipates an admonition that Faustus will receive from the Good Angel—“Faustus, repent yet, God will pity thee” (2.3.12)—but Marlowe, like Faustus, refuses to repent and beg God’s forgiveness.

The contribution of Emerson to the play Doctor Faustus actually diverges from what real-life experts believe another writer may have contributed to this play, which is further evidence for Emerson being a "purely fictional" character invented to support the conception of Marlowe built up in this TV show:

Emerson has served Marlowe as a type of muse, collaborating with him on the composition of his most recent play. Modern scholars generally accept that Marlowe worked with some other playwright on Doctor Faustus, but according to editors David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen, “Marlowe wrote the serious and tragic portions” of the drama while “a collaborator took responsibility for the comic horseplay.” Consistent with Pearce’s conception of authorship as a reflection of biography, the play produced by his fictional Marlowe concerns only the “serious and tragic” story of a man who sells his soul to the devil and is damned for it, not the “comic horseplay” of the promising scholar who wastes his considerable abilities. Pearce endeavours to align his portrayal of Marlowe with the mythographic image of the tragic playwright, which requires him to ignore the play’s middle scenes and replace the anonymous comic collaborator with a purely fictional muse, Barrett Emerson, who provides Marlowe with material only for the tragic sections of the play.

It is also suggested in the TV show that Emerson painted a portrait of Marlowe as a young man, but again this diverges from the likely reality, since although the portrait does exist, and has been identified with Marlowe in "the public consciousness", there is evidence that it's unlikely to actually have been Marlowe:

The painting in Emerson’s room is recognizable as a representation of the portrait found in 1953 during construction on the Master’s lodge at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where Marlowe was once a student (see Figure 3). Dated 1585, the portrait identifies its subject as being twenty-one years old, and Marlowe was that age in that year. Of course, there would have been many twenty-one-year-olds at Corpus Christi at that time, and nothing in the portrait indicates that the young man was a student in the college. Moreover, J. A. Downie points out that the appearance of the sitter does not match the known facts of Marlowe’s circumstances in 1585: “As the lavishness of the costume attests, the portrait is evidently of a wealthy young man. Marlowe was a cobbler’s son, at Corpus Christi as a Parker scholar; he is therefore highly unlikely to be the subject of the controversial portrait.” Despite this contrary evidence and the lack of any positive support, “the identification of the figure in the portrait with Marlowe was simply too tempting to resist,” and this likeness has entered the public consciousness as a representation of the playwright’s dashing countenance.

So it seems that Barrett Emerson didn't actually exist, nor is he based on any real character (one can't count the other contributor to Doctor Faustus, since that real person's contribution was evidently quite different from what the fictional Emerson contributed). But Emerson's role in the TV show ties in to the way Marlowe's character is portrayed and built up there, so it makes sense that such a character would be invented.


  • Thank you! (I just noticed this today)
    – Will Jagy
    Commented May 16, 2022 at 17:34

I thought he was vaguely patterned on Lord Strange, who was a mentor and ran the company which first produced Marlowe's work (and Henry VIs). Lord Strange was also in royal lineage via more distant relative, and was a slight threat to Elizabeth, ergo "my king". Strange was also poisoned, but died year after Marlowe, but I wonder if this was the basis for the fictional character of Anderson.

  • Thank you. I had not thought of anything sensible for the "my king." I did think that the character ought to be patterned on someone older than Marlowe by a decade or two. Strange is mentioned, at greater length, in the third book I borrowed, Shakespeare, by the same historian Michael Wood who gives brief talks in the first episode intro.
    – Will Jagy
    Commented Aug 8, 2017 at 23:59
  • manchester.ac.uk/discover/news/… The university gives no email address for him, and he seems to still live in London.
    – Will Jagy
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 0:08
  • 1
    Could you explain why you suspect this character is patterned after Strange?
    – user111
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 8:39

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