Christopher Marlowe

                    Died in 1593, aged 29

I count religion but a foolish toy
And hold there is no sin but ignorance.

So speaks Machiavel, Prologue to The Jew of Malta, and if Machiavel’s scandalous words speak the mind of the author himself, so speaks Christopher Marlowe as a rebel against all that his society held sacred. Almost 400 years later James Dean created a modern cultural icon synonymous with his first great movie role; the “rebel without a cause.” The archetype was molded by Christopher Marlowe.

At the time Marlowe died so violently and so mysteriously in 1593, he was both revered and reviled.  He was revered by some as a great dramatic innovator, the creator of such colorful protagonists as Tamburlaine the Great, Barabas the Jew of Malta, Edward II, and, most famously, Doctor Faustus. He was probably the first playwright of genius since the Golden Age of Attic Drama almost 2,000 years earlier, and he set the stage for the later-blooming but even greater genius of Shakespeare, who was his junior by a mere two months. But Marlowe was also reviled as an outspoken blasphemer; a scourge on religion and social order, as exemplified in his four great ‘heroic’ creations, each one of whom, in his own highly particular manner, launched a scandalous assault on the moral, political, and religious standards of the time. Whether or not the sum total of these assaults constitutes a coherent philosophy expressing the mind of Christopher Marlowe remains a mystery, because at the height of his success, Marlowe died, as he had lived, an enigmatic genius still in the act of creating himself and defining his cause.

His lack of any worthy cause was central to a vicious attack against him by a fellow playwright and former friend called Robert Greene. In the last years of his life Greene became deeply religious, turned away from the comic frolics that had been his forte, and wrote serious polemics renouncing his own sinful past and urging others so tainted to repent. He singled out Marlowe’s as a soul in particular need of salvation; the soul that had “dared God out of heaven with that Atheist Tamburlan.” Writing on his deathbed in 1592, Greene went so far as to say that one of three especially dangerous dramatists had committed the ultimate blasphemy in declaring “There is no God!” Shakespeare was one of the three, but there is no doubt that the “one” targeted as the arch blasphemer was Marlowe. Shortly after Greene died, his publisher actually apologized for the attack Greene had made on Shakespeare, but stressed his total indifference to any resentment felt by Marlowe. Like Greene, the publisher was convinced that Marlowe’s unrepentant soul would soon be punished according to his deserts.

At this time, the winter of 1592/93, a horrible plague was raging in London, a fitting time for many to be thinking of their salvation. No such thoughts, it would seem, plagued Christopher Marlowe. By royal order the theatres were closed to prevent the spread of the plague, so Marlowe left London for Kent and the luxurious sanctuary of his wealthy patron and friend Thomas Walsingham. In this serene setting, Marlowe’s thoughts were on love. It was during this period, away from the hurly burly of London’s theatrical life, that Marlowe wrote his great narrative poem Hero and Leander, inspired by the ancient Greek story of two star-crossed lovers compelled to meet in secret. Leander’s passion for his beloved is such that, in order to achieve their nightly tryst within the walls of Hero’s own fortress, he swims across the Hellespont and back. Lord Byron was so taken by the story and by Marlowe’s exquisite rendering that, at the age of twenty-one, he too swam across the Hellespont, but only once. Marlowe never married and there’s nothing to suggest the existence of a “Hero,” who might have been the love of his life. But in this lengthy poem, he does make a clear personal statement about the nature of romantic love,

        It lies not in our power to love or hate,
        For will in us is over-ruled by fate.
        The reason no man knows; let it suffice,
        What we behold is censured by our eyes.
        Where both deliberate, the love is slight.
        Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?

Marlowe, then, believed in the power of the senses over that of cold, calculating reason, which is consistent with the image he created of a man who said exactly what he felt and did not concern himself too much with the consequences of his words and actions. But shortly after completing Hero and Leander, his peaceful stay with Thomas Walsingham was rudely interrupted by a visit from armed guards who took him back to London for questioning by Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Council. Serious matters that demanded a poet being summoned by England’s most powerful men! Marlowe’s thoughts would now certainly have turned towards consequences, in particular the question of his survival, if not necessarily of his salvation. And with good reason, for within a week of his interrogation by the Privy Council, the prophecy of Robert Greene and others appeared to have been fulfilled, when it was announced that England’s most brilliant poet and playwright was dead.

He’d been released by the Privy Council as suddenly and as mysteriously as he’d been apprehended, though presumably under strict orders to remain in London pending further questioning related to charges of atheism, which was a capital offence in Protestant England, no less than in Catholic Spain. First reports gave the plague as the cause of his sudden death, though these were always highly suspect accounts concerning a man last seen in perfect health. His many detractors would certainly have seen the hand of God in striking Marlowe down with the plague, but they were happier still when this account gave way to a more graphic story, which was far more consistent with Marlowe’s known character. It was soon the official line that Marlowe had been killed in a tavern brawl, one that he had provoked. He’d been in brawls before, two of which resulted in his temporary imprisonment. One of these involved a killing, though Marlowe himself was not the killer. Now that he himself had been killed in a brawl, his enemies were free to embellish as they saw fit concerning its cause and its specifics. A certain Francis Mere wrote with absolute authority that Marlowe was stabbed “by a bawdy serving-man, a rival of his in his lewde love,” which was a reference to Marlowe’s alleged homosexuality and more specifically to his foreshadowing of Oscar Wilde’s adventures in search of rough trade. One other detractor quoted Marlowe as telling him that they “who love not tobacco and boys are fools.” It’s possible that Marlowe was homosexual, and it’s possible that Thomas Walsingham, unmarried at the time, was his lover. But there’s not a shred of evidence to prove any of it. Nor is Marlowe’s sexual preference relevant to the mystery of his life and his early death. But whether or not he was Marlowe’s lover, Thomas Walsingham is vital to any understanding of the mystery of Christopher Marlowe, for it was Walsingham who introduced the youthful playwright to the darker drama of what John Le Carré calls the “secret theatre of our society.”

Thomas Walsingham was related to Sir Francis Walsingham, who effectively created the English Secret Service and who, until his death in 1590, supervised every covert activity designed to protect the body of the Queen from her Catholic enemies. The Walsinghams also began the tradition that connects the Secret Service with Cambridge University. It was in 1581, while he was on a recruiting trip to his former university, that Thomas Walsingham first met Christopher Marlowe, then a seventeen-year old undergraduate at Corpus Christi College. Over the next six years Marlowe’s formal studies were punctuated by long absences, which were most irregular for a poor scholar, a mere shoemaker’s son from Canterbury, who clearly could not have had the financial means to be taking off willy-nilly. The university authorities were sufficiently miffed by Marlowe’s irresponsible behavior that they refused to grant him his Master’s degree, until they received a letter from the Privy Council, which assured the venerable gentlemen that young Marlowe had been worthily employed “on matters touching the benefit of his country.”

What these “matters” were is uncertain though Marlowe probably made several trips to the Continent, acting either as a seeker of truth or a conveyor of falsehood. In his final novel, A Dead Man in Deptford, Anthony Burgess gives free rein to his lively imagination by providing the Byzantine detail of Marlowe’s possible movements as a spy, doing his dirty work for Queen and country. And Burgess’ instincts as a fiction writer were probably right on the mark when he describes Kit Marlowe’s growing cynicism for the dirty work he was required to do. Burgess drives home his point by having Marlowe involved, albeit as a mere conveyor of misinformation, in the counterplot masterminded by the Walsinghams which had been designed both to unearth a plot against the Queen’s life and also to ensure that Mary Queen of Scots was incriminated in this plot, whether or not she were actually guilty of conspiracy. The result was the executions in 1586 of the so-called Babington conspirators, who included Chidiock Tichborne. Burgess indulges in the possibility that Marlowe witnessed these gruesome executions, which, by playing his small part, he had helped create. Pure fiction, of course, but credible, and consistent with the portrait of a man whose activities on behalf of a cause that was both national and religious did not instill within him a sincere commitment to any cause.

Any spy acting on behalf of his own country must at heart be a patriot. For sure, the prospects of financial reward and a love of intrigue for its own sake may add considerably to the profile of the typical spy. But without a deep-rooted love of country or creed, no spy would embrace the risks involved or take such pleasure in thwarting the designs of a perceived enemy. For Christopher Marlowe the lure of money and a love of intrigue certainly sustained his passion for the secret theatre of espionage, which provided his vast imagination with a parallel world complimentary to that equally bizarre world he was creating for London’s theatre audiences. But if he maintained any patriotic sentiment during that period when we know he was active as a spy, there is no trace of it to be found in anything he wrote. Unlike Shakespeare, he did not delve deeply into English history to explore the newly forged consciousness of his race. His one such venture is a cynical chronicle of brutality, cowardice, deception, and betrayal without a single redeeming character in the whole play. It would be too easy to accuse Marlowe of second-rate drama by his failure to provide Edward II with a worthy protagonist. If his intent were to show us that the whole panoply of royalty and nobility is sordid, spineless, and corrupt, then we would have to acknowledge that he has been successful. There is, he says, something very rotten in the state of England.

Contemporary with Marlowe, Shakespeare also wrote about what was rotten in England, achieving success with his Henry VI trilogy and Richard III, which is probably his first true masterpiece. But in these and in his later history plays Shakespeare’s condemnation of English vices is set against an implicit assumption of what is noble. His four early histories catalogue the evils of the later Plantagenets, especially Richard III, as the background for the dawning of the Tudor dynasty, brought with redemptive power by Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather, Henry VII, who as “Richmond” in Richard III appears as the noble avenger of his country’s wrongs. Shakespeare was no slavish Tudor propagandist, and on a couple of occasions later in his career he was the target of official state censure. But his writings do suggest a supporter of the established order of monarchy, nobility, and social hierarchy, which for the previous century had been the Tudor order.

Young Christopher Marlowe mesmerized the London public with his very first play; a bold, exotic adventure that challenged prevailing ideas about hereditary monarchy and established social order. The brief Prologue to Tamburlaine the Great, Part 1, is the brash announcement of intent by a twenty-three year old newcomer,

        From jigging veins of rhyming mother-wits
        And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay
        We’ll lead you to the stately tent of War,
        Where you shall hear the Scythian Tamburlaine
        Threatening the world with high astounding terms
        And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword.

So, first of all, he says, I’m going to provide you with a higher level of art than the rubbish you’ve been accustomed to hearing, especially from comic playwrights. (Robert Greene might well have been one of the “rhyming mother-wits” Marlowe excoriates). What you’re in for with me, he continues, is serious stuff. And my first heroic subject is a man who threatens the world, just like me! The story of a simple Scythian shepherd who rose to be an emperor, mightier than the hereditary kings he scourged with his conquering sword, must have had great personal appeal to Marlowe. In one of his early speeches, Tamburlaine sets forth his credo to a Persian king he has defeated, in words to which Marlowe himself must have shouted a heart-felt “Amen!” –

        Nature, that framed us of four elements
        Warring within our breasts for regiment,
        Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds.
        Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend
        The wondrous architecture of the world
        And measure every wand’ring planet’s course,
        Still climbing after knowledge infinite
        And always moving as the restless spheres,
        Wills us to wear ourselves and never rest
        Until we reach the ripest fruit of all,
        That perfect bliss and sole felicity,
        The sweet fruition of an earthly crown.

It’s a pity that Tamburlaine isn’t better known to modern theatre audiences, even allowing for its two parts and ten acts that make it an ambitious dramatic project. But its central idea - that we can make of ourselves what we will - is very modern, and for a young playwright in 1587, it was revolutionary to the point of being subversive. It was an instant hit, so popular with audiences that it was published in 1590. By setting his play in the remote and exotic world of the Middle East, his characters all Muslim, Marlowe was able to disguise any political relevance his drama might have for England. But those who knew him best, his former associates and paymasters in the Secret Service, probably saw through the disguise. From this point on they would applaud their brilliant young protégé as he climbed the ladder of success in his chosen profession, but they would also keep a very watchful eye on him.

Marlowe quickly capitalized on the success of Tamburlaine with Doctor Faustus, which was to be and has remained his greatest hit, and we must thank the hit movie Shakespeare in Love for disseminating wider knowledge of its most famous line, “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?” If Tamburlaine was Marlowe’s study of the will to power obtained through strength, then Faustus was a parallel study of the will to power obtained through knowledge. Marlowe based his drama on the medieval German legend of a brilliant scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for limitless knowledge. On the surface, it has all the ingredients of the medieval morality play from which English theatre had recently evolved, and which, therefore, exhorts Christian piety and restraint. In a traditional interpretation, Faustus’ damnation would be judged as the inevitable and righteous consequence of his overreaching ambition and pride. But it’s most unlikely that Marlowe approached his play as a traditional Christian apologist; that would be the reverse of what he had done in Tamburlaine.  He was probably compelled to consign Faustus to his damnation, partly because this is how the existing story ends, and partly because, for all his outspoken brashness, even he knew that to create a protagonist who was able to cheat both God and the Devil would be more than his society could comprehend or accept. It would take the towering genius of Goethe in the Post-Christian Romantic world of 19th century Germany to create the definitive Faust, whose immortal soul is guided heavenward by the eternal feminine.

Whether Faust is to be damned or not, there’s no question that Marlowe’s sympathies are with him in his quest for knowledge. A Cambridge student who had traveled to Europe as a spy, Christopher Marlowe was already a very learned man when he arrived in London at the age of twenty-three. It’s very likely that he became associated in some way with a leading group of intellectual freethinkers, whom Shakespeare dubbed “The School of Night.” This was a secret academic parlor group, which was committed to an advancement of scientific and philosophical knowledge and which observed no cultural or religious taboos on what might they might discuss. Had they been just ordinary men, mere scholars like Faust in search of greater knowledge, they probably couldn’t have survived official censure. But their leading light happened to be one of England’s wealthiest aristocrats, the Earl of Northumberland, also called the “Wizard Earl” because of his obsession with new and obscure branches of learning and his daily immersion in his vast library. Marlowe’s name has often been linked with Northumberland’s two most famous freethinking bedfellows, Sir Walter Raleigh and Thomas Harriot, arguably the single most brilliant man in Elizabethan England. Shortly before Marlowe arrived in London, Harriot had returned from what is now North Carolina, where he’d conducted extensive research among the Algonquin Indians. This was part of a project sponsored by Raleigh that, it was hoped, would lead to successful English colonization of the Americas. Some of Harriot’s findings were published in 1590 in his Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. But other thoughts, too radical for publication, would have been shared exclusively among the fraternity of the “The School of Night.” One such thought he clearly shared with Christopher Marlowe. The same detractor who referred to Marlowe’s love of “tobacco and boys,” – “tobacco” and “Walter Raleigh” are of course synonymous in English history! – this same man described for the benefit of state interrogators how Marlowe had renounced Christian teaching concerning the creation of the world, and how he’d quoted as authority his “friend Harriot.” Harriot, supposedly, had heard “from the American savages that the world was created much longer ago than we believe.” Marlowe and Harriot were disposed to believe the teachings of pagan American savages rather than those of the Christian church.

This forthright detractor was a man called Richard Baines, who was an associate of Marlowe’s during his days as a spy. They probably first met in Holland, where Baines was an operative. His extensive catalogue of graphic denunciations of Marlowe’s character and especially of his unorthodox views was part of a carefully orchestrated plan to have Marlowe snuffed out. This is why Marlowe was dragged from the peaceful sanctuary of Thomas Walsingham’s estate in mid May 1593. His former paymasters had, indeed, been keeping a careful eye on his movements and more especially an ear out for what he said. Francis Walsingham had been succeeded as spymaster general by Robert Cecil, son of Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth’s First Minister. Cecil and others in the Privy Council were troubled by the emerging prestige of a playwright who held dangerously unorthodox views, who knew too much about the machinations of secret government, whose loyalty to his nation and to the Protestant cause could not be trusted, and who could not keep his mouth shut. Therefore, it was the duty of the state to shut his mouth once and for all, but to do it as artfully as possible, in a manner that would focus all judgment on Marlowe himself. He would have to die in a brawl, which could be attributed to his foul mouth and bad temper.

The brawl took place on May 30, 1593, at a tavern in Deptford, removed by several miles from Marlowe’s accustomed Southwark watering holes, where, as Shakespeare in Love shows us, he rubbed shoulders with the likes of a struggling William Shakespeare. It was also very conveniently owned by a certain Widow Bull, who just happened to be a relative of the Cecils. Three men were hired to do the snuffing out; Ingram Frizer, who managed Thomas Walsingham’s financial affairs, which included artistic subsidies paid to Marlowe, Robert Poley, who was the chief under-cover agent in exposing the Babington Plot, and Nicholas Skeres, another government agent, reputed to be better with his hands than with his brain. Marlowe knew them all and was thus easily lured into the trap. A small side room was rented, food and ale brought in generously over a period of several hours. Then it was time to pay the bill, and Marlowe was presented with his share of the reckoning. According to Ingram Frizer, who gave testimony at the Coroner’s Report held two days later, Marlowe refused to pay, went berserk and attacked him with a knife, causing the head wound Frizer was able to show the coroner. By God’s Grace, Frizer was able to grab Marlowe, who, in the ensuing melée, drove the knife into his own eye. Marlowe was buried somewhere in Deptford the following day, Frizer spent a few weeks in custody pending official review of the Coroner’s Report, his pardon was signed by Queen Elizabeth herself, and he returned with a slight head wound to the estate of Thomas Walsingham. Case closed. The Coroner’s Report was discovered amongst old, discarded files in 1925. 

At the time of Marlowe’s death he and Shakespeare had written roughly the same number of plays, but Shakespeare, who to that point had focused largely on English Histories, was neither as commercially successful nor as critically acclaimed. Had Shakespeare also died in the summer of 1593, posterity would judge Marlowe the greater playwright. Then again, the entire literary tradition of the past 400 years is inconceivable without Shakespeare’s achievements after 1593. Those achievements, nevertheless, owe much to the inspiration of Christopher Marlowe, who provided Shakespeare with models for some of his own memorable creations: Marlowe’s powerful warrior Tamburlaine, driven by his own sense of destiny, becomes Shakespeare’s Coriolanus; Marlowe’s weak-willed king, Edward II, becomes Shakespeare’s effete decadent, Richard II, though the latter is blessed with a sublime poetic gift beyond anything even Marlowe created; Marlowe’s avaricious and vengeful Barabas becomes Shakespeare’s Shylock, driven by the insults against his tribe for justice before the law; and Marlowe’s magician Faustus, in quest of supreme knowledge, becomes Shakespeare’s Prospero, a magician no longer in need of redemption, but able to provide it.

Shakespeare actually offered a direct tribute to the memory of Marlowe in his unusual comedy As You Like It. Today one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, starring in Rosalind perhaps his most complete heroine, As You Like It is a lot more complex and mysterious than might be gathered from the hey-nonny-nos of its serene pastoral setting. Written sometime before the summer of 1600, it was never to our knowledge performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and it only appeared in print with the famous First Folio of 1623. Prior to this publication the play had actually been banned by order of the Privy Council. “A book to be staid” i.e  “withdrawn,” is the relevant entry for August 14, 1600 in the Register of the Stationers’ Company, the state regulated repository for all works submitted for publication. The official objection to As You Like It probably focused on its satirical dig at what was rotten in the state of England. Marlowe might have winced at the play’s happy ending, but he would have applauded Shakespeare’s send up of the Elizabethan court. The Privy Council may well have detected the ghost of the man it had murdered, especially when Shakespeare honored that ghost with some telling lines.

Dead shepherd, now I find thy saw of might,
Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?
(Act III sc.v)

Marlowe is, of course, the ‘dead shepherd.’ The epithet refers most obviously to Marlowe’s famous pastoral poem The Passionate Shepherd to his Love, which begins “Come live with me and be my love.” But it also evokes his more heroic “shepherd,” Tamburlaine the Great, who, besides daring God out of heaven, also fell in love at first sight when he beheld the Egyptian princess Zenocrate.

As You Like It also contains a cryptic reference to Marlowe’s murder, one that may have added weight to the decision to prohibit publication of the play. By 1600 it was common street knowledge that Marlowe had been killed in a brawl, though, as the lurid commentary of Francis Mere’s shows, truth concerning the actual circumstances was hidden. Shakespeare may have stumbled upon that truth, or enough of it to create anxiety in official circles when his clown Touchstone says of an insult he has just received, “it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.” Shakespeare’s sharp-tongued wag is suggesting that there was more to the death of Christopher Marlowe than a dispute over a large bill for beer and nosh in the side room of a pub in Deptford. It was a dark mystery whose villains would not be identified for another 325 years.

The mystery shrouding the personal identity of Christopher Marlowe himself is mirrored in his portrait, which hangs in the Dining Hall of his college in Cambridge. It’s only been there since 1952, when workmen doing reconstruction at Corpus Christi stumbled upon an abandoned oil painting covered in centuries of grime. Careful restoration of the painting revealed it to be the work of an accomplished but anonymous artist and to be the study of a young man aged “21 in 1585,” an inscription placed in the top left corner. It’s fair to assume that the portrait is of a Corpus student from the period, but only members of the gentry could have paid for both the artist and for the subject’s lavish jacket. It’s unlikely, however, that a gentleman of means and property would have concealed his identity and then abandoned such a fine painting. In 1585 Christopher Marlowe was flush with new money and up to his neck in secret affairs, which might just have prompted him to play a game of secrecy concerning his own identity. On the verge of setting out for a new world to conquer in the London playhouses, with no home of his own, it makes sense that he might have left the painting at his college for safe keeping. Sadly, with Marlowe’s reputation so cruelly tarnished after his death, the venerable elders of his college consigned his portrait to the grime of centuries.

Most revealing, however, is the Latin inscription that accompanies the date of the painting and the subject’s age – “Quod Me Nutrit Me Destruit.” “ That which nourishes me also consumes me.” The sentiment would be echoed by Lord Byron 200 years later, when he says of great men “Their breath is agitation, and their life a storm whereon they ride, to sink at last.” It was the fate Marlowe assigned sympathetically to his own great men – Tamburlaine consumed by his lust for power, Barabas by his lust for wealth, and Faust by his lust for knowledge. And like James Dean, whose lust for life in the fast lane consumed itself behind the wheel of a sports car, Christopher Marlowe consumed himself by daring to go beyond the bounds of convention, and by proclaiming the only cause in which he truly believed – himself.