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SOME THOUGHTS ON CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE
We don’t really know much about Christopher Marlowe, except what we can imagine from appreciating his literary style. Here I look at some theories advanced by scholars, and add my own opinions on some matters.
“Mad, bad and dangerous to know”. That was said of Lord Byron, by Lady Caroline Lamb, in her personal journal entry for 1812. Lady Lamb was talking of glamour, of fatal attraction, of the state of being drawn to someone who can do us harm, even while wielding an attraction over us we cannot resist. While it sums up perfectly the horrified attraction his contemporaries felt for Byron, I think it just as perfectly sums up the attitude some of his contemporaries felt for Christopher Marlowe.
1. The Birth of ‘Shakespeare’
For me Marlowe is the greatest might-have-been in English literary history. He is still estimated as the second greatest English dramatic poet, after William Shakespeare. Between the ages of 24 and 29 Marlowe became the most popular English dramatist of his day, forever changed English, and world, dramatic art, earned the esteem and influenced the work of virtually all his contemporary writers, made blank verse the dominant verse form for drama of his era and almost eclipsed the poetic achievement of peers such as his earlier contemporaries Edmund Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney.
A then insignificant would-be writer called William Shakespeare, who knew and quoted by heart Marlowe’s lines (as many did), was lured by Marlowe’s example to try his own hand at poetry. But for Marlowe, I think Shakespeare is likely to have spent his life in carrying out civic duties at Stratford like his father John had. We can guess how shocked Shakespeare must have been when in 1593 Marlowe was murdered at the age of 29, just as he was beginning to write poetic drama of unparalleled splendour. Shakespeare’s play As You Like It was written 1597, and seems full of outrage at an act even more of an outrage than the murder of John Lennon in 1980.
In that play the character Touchstone says: “When a man’s verses cannot be understood, nor a man’s good wit seconded with a forward child understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room”.
Marlowe is supposed to have died in a tavern brawl over who should pay the bill, or reckoning, a dagger thrust through his eye into his brain, suggesting someone felt very strongly about how much he should pay. As strongly as Mark Chapman felt when he pumped four rifle shells into John Lennon. I can pick up Shakespeare’s outrage in these lines. That Marlowe could not be appreciated by the fools who had him killed, what a waste, worse even than the sordid death in a tavern room. What good the life lived without wit, without understanding, the waste of the life of one who possessed these qualities in abundance, the desert for those left in such a diminished world. By 1597 Shakespeare had the artistic ability to make these observations an intrinsic part of the dramatic action of his play, and a realisation of Touchstone’s character. But I am still aware of Shakespeare’s anger at Marlowe’s death in the words. Marlowe was Shakespeare’s hero, his idol, and his death hurt him to the quick.
Other lines in the same play have the same resonance, such as, “Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love”. Or “Dead shepherd, now I find thy saw of might: ‘Who ever lov’d, that lov’d not at first sight?”, a quote from Marlowe’s Hero and Leander published that same year of 1598. Or the famous “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players…”, or even the song “Blow, blow thou winter wind”, with the lines “Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly…Thy sting is not so sharp as friend remember’d not”.
What would have happened had Marlowe lived, and continued to work as poet and dramatist? In 1593 I think he was a better poet and dramatist than Shakespeare, and may have gone on to express more profound thought or created more memorable characters than Shakespeare had. We’ll never know the answer, and it’s our loss.
2. It is expedient one man die
I think of Marlowe as a victim of the Cold War raging in the reign of Elizabeth I between England and Spain. Not “communism” versus “democracy”, as the Cold War we knew was explained (I think those terms were misleading and a product of propaganda). But nationalism, “Church of England”, versus “Catholicism” (representing a pan European or Common Market tradition) and it’s champion the expanding European and New World power of Spain. Just as the Cold War of the 50s gave power and influence to the CIA, so the Cold War of the 1580s gave power to Elizabeth’s secret service, and mere poets were caught in the net and ‘eliminated’ for reasons nobody was ever sure of, just as surely as civil rights activists were in the 60s.
The secret service of Marlowe’s day was headed by Sir Francis Walsingham, a fervent Protestant, who expanded and personally financed Elizabethan intelligence activities. Walsingham played a key part in the conviction and execution of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots for treason, betrayed by one of Walsingham’s agents posing as a conspirator against Elizabeth; supported the colonisation of Catholic Ireland and dispossession of land and exile of Irish nobles; sent Sir Francis Drake on his circumnavigation around the world with instructions to spy out vulnerable points in the Catholic Spanish empire in the New World; and was regularly posted as to the preparations for the invasion of the Great Armada of 1588. Walsingham was the equivalent of Secretary of State, but was also the ‘M’ of his day, commanding a host of agents and double agents.
Pope Pius V had encouraged English Catholics to rebel against and dethrone Elizabeth I in 1570, and Walsingham placed a strict watch on English ports for Catholic proselytisers, who were regarded as fomenting rebellion, and executed as traitors. Catholic colleges in nearby France attended by English Catholics were infiltrated, and one of these spies is thought to have been Christopher Marlowe.
Of course tracking a spy is not often possible, a good spy at least. The evidence for Marlowe’s employment by Walsingham’s service is ferreted out by scholars from traces of long leaves of absence from his studies at Cambridge, and the Buttery books, which lists his expenditure on foods when he was in attendance at College. His tastes were quite luxurious; Marlowe spent much more money than he earned, and could have been supplementing his scholarship on his leaves of absence, which were against University regulations. Marlowe’s masters degree was withheld on the grounds he may have been a Catholic, but granted finally after Court intervention. Somebody was assuring the University authorities it was all right. As a spy, or double agent, Marlowe risked being mistaken by the civil authorities for a member of the subversive group he was trying to infiltrate for the intelligence service: a confusion that might have led to his death.
Marlow would have been a teenager of about 17 or 18 when he first attended Cambridge University, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in 1584 and a Masters in 1587, aged 23. He was a scholarship student, and his father, a shoemaker, must have been of moderate means. A son with a Master of Arts from Cambridge must have been an enormous step up the ladder for the Marlowes of Canterbury. Both Marlowe and Ben Jonson, a bricklayer, were of lower social standing than Shakespeare, and seem to me a bit militant about their learning and erudition.
His age must be taken into account when considering Marlow’s career. He was of an age, like his contemporary Shakespeare, of absorbing ideas and cultural influences like a sponge. His plays are full of references to history, religion, books, songs, other writers and contemporary events, as are Shakespeare’s. There is the exuberance of his verse, exhibiting the exhilaration of one who has freshly discovered new universes and is a little drunk with the learning and ideas he flaunted.
It is likely he needed money, for clothes, food and drink, books, wine, travel, and that he hadn’t enough for his needs. So when he was asked, discretely, to provide some information on Catholic activities in France, I think he probably jumped at the chance of making a little money. He had to travel overseas, pretend to be a Catholic himself, gain the confidence of fellow expatriates, and inform the government intelligence service of any developments. He was in his early twenties, and must have been attracted by the adventure of it all.
We are sadly misled about spies. They trade in information, and are gradually being replaced by hackers and manipulators of computer data. They were, basically, informers. Some, like James Bond, were hired killers. Bond apparently began as a concept similar to the spies of Len Deighton or John Le Carré, a bleak product of the dismal Cold War period. But Fleming was not good enough a writer to portray this world consistently, and fell back on Nick Carter conventions such as the evil villain who tries to conquer the world and is foiled by the glamorous hero who always wins in the end. That was OK. The last thing intelligence services want is an accurate portrait of their activities. Spy stories, if they make it into print, must be misleading. Even those writers with intelligence service experience, such as Fleming himself, or Somerset Maugham, needed to romanticise their stories. The Ashenden stories are literature, the Fleming ones are pulp fiction. To be otherwise would be a breach of security.
So to say that Marlowe was a spy is to say little more than that he engaged in activities no more adventurous than that of the neighbour who telephones the police about suspicious behaviour in the house next door. He was asked to do his civic duty, and paid handsomely for it.
But intelligence activities involve national security. For me, this is the frightening aspect of such activities. National security, for some, is above the law. Above religion. Above personal morality. It is a final value. In the final analysis there is little to distinguish the enforcer of national security from the fanatic. It is a job where analysis, even thought, cannot be tolerated. This is where the concept of assassination comes in. Security forces believe, like Caiaphus in John’s gospel, that it is expedient that one man die for the good of the people. It’s a belief that negates Christianity, all other religions, civil law and civilisation itself, but in every country of the world it is held by people with absolute power to enforce such a belief.
National security involves cleaning up. It means never having to say you’re sorry. After persons unknown arranged for President John Kennedy to be murdered in 1963, meant as a lesson to all the communist influenced dissenters of the 60s (though I think he may have been also foolhardy enough to try and curtail the power of his security forces), over 100 people met violent ends, murdered, suicides or “accidents”. Investigators could find only one common link between all these people: they all knew something about Kennedy’s murder. The persons unknown were cleaning up.
I think this is probably how Marlowe met his death as well. A look at his plays and poems shows a man as subversive as Sophokles, but with a tendency to think for himself, and to criticise, with a cynical and dismissive attitude to power politics. A lot of people were listening to what he had to say by 1593. He had become a security risk. First he was isolated, following the same strategy as Hitler followed with the Jews: isolate, demoralise, ‘eliminate’.
One possibility is that Marlowe’s involvement with spies and spy masters could have meant he was murdered to keep him quiet. Just as possible is that he had offended an aristocrat. Had he slighted a member of the aristocracy with his progressive opinions some would not hesitate to teach him a lesson, as the Earl of Rochester did John Dryden 80 years later. Marlowe may have been a member of Sir Walter Raleigh’s circle, and involved in that courtier’s rivalry with other favourites of Elizabeth.
3. School of Night
Renaissance England had a third tradition. Traditional Catholicism, nationalist Protestantism: and the dawning of the British Age of Reason. A chief proponent of this later school of thought was Sir Walter Raleigh, one of the most gifted men in the historical record. Such men as Raleigh were emulated by other nobles, such as Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, patron both of Shakespeare and of John Florio, translator of Montaigne. They earned the suspicion of country squires for welcoming foreign ways and influences. Raleigh had a career as courtier, politician, explorer and soldier, but was also an accomplished poet, wrote a history of the world, and encouraged the work of Thomas Harriot, a mathematician and astronomer who anticipated some of the discoveries of Galileo. There are indications that Raleigh exchanged verses with Marlowe, and from this some think Marlowe may have been part of his circle. Allegations of atheism (and of tobacco smoking, a dangerous foreign vice) were periodically levelled at these groups, both Catholics and Protestants seeing science as a form of atheism. Atheism, in turn, was a form of treason, as membership of the Church of England was simultaneously an act of faith and an act of fealty. Raleigh’s circle acquired the ominous reputation of a ‘school of night’, suggesting they might be up to all kinds of unsavoury activities, at least in the minds of the more conservative.
A word needs to be said about polemical abuse. In controversies of the period, from the time of Erasmus and Luther down to the establishment of the House of Stuart on the British throne, disputants frequently stooped to personal abuse. Allegations of atheism, blasphemy, homosexuality, bestiality, theft, betrayal and anything at all discreditable that came to the polemicist’s mind were put down, the reasoning being that anything that discredited the person maligned also discredited their argument. So allegations of the late 80s about Marlowe, that he smoked tobacco, was an atheist, or a homosexual, were standard ways of discrediting an enemy, not necessarily scandalous disclosures of his personal life. Next century many hundreds of poor women were accused of having had sex with the devil, and burned at the stake during the witchcraft trials. We normally don’t believe these charges. Why should we believe that Leonardo da Vinci, or Marlowe, were homosexual, just because someone wanted to malign them? We have no evidence either way. It was the expressed disquiet of conservative people disturbed by changing ideas who voiced these charges, and no evidence was needed.
Marlowe was undoubtedly aware of the more advanced ideas of his time, and a subject of suspicion to his more conservative contemporaries. What seems to have happened in 1593 was that persons unknown collected such allegations about Marlowe, held him under house arrest pending a (probably spurious) investigation, and while so detained, had him murdered by a trio of thugs employed by Elizabeth’s intelligence service.
A spy should be anonymous. What had happened since taking on activities involving national security was that Marlowe had become one of the most famous men in London, known in Europe as England’s foremost dramatist. The persons unknown had only one way of seeing this. As a security risk.
4. A meteor in the starry sky
Marlowe probably wrote his first play, the classical tragedy Dido, Queen of Carthage, while he was still at university. During the same period he translated part of Lucan’s Pharsalia, about the civil war between Pompey and Julius Caesar, and Ovid’s Elegies. The brilliance of this early work is beyond compare. I don’t think there is any other Elizabethan poetry to compare it to for lyric energy. Marlowe’s Pharsalia is better than Lucan’s; his Ovid, while not a great translation, and hampered by constrictions of rhyme abandoned for the blank verse of the Lucan, is still very readable. From this university period too is the lyric “Come live with me and be my love”, and the play Tamurlane the Great. Hidden behind these later published works apparently is a great deal of reading, in Latin and Italian, of works of scholarship of that day. Somehow Marlowe fitted in his university study, and was away on long absences in Holland and France as well, perhaps on his work for the intelligence service. We can suppose if we like many more, lost, poems, long midnight discussions with his friends, lots of drinking, lots of dreams. This was a great deal of work. Perhaps much of it was unrevised, or revised later for publication. It is an enormous explosion of literary genius, a brilliant supernova of poetry. It was not to last.
Next came the six years of stardom, 1588 to 1593. A key figure in Marlowe’s success (imagine a figure like George Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein II, Andrew Lloyd Webber or Lennon and McCartney for a career of comparable impact to Marlowe’s) was an actor called Edward Alleyn. Alleyn was not only an actor, but a company manager, a theatre owner and a shrewd businessman. His contemporaries left many tributes to his incomparable stage presence. A man over six feet in height, enormous for Elizabethan times, Alleyn mounted blockbuster after blockbuster, and there is great probability he worked with Marlowe in shaping the parts he played in the plays Marlowe wrote for him.
Tamur the lame was a medieval soldier from Scythia, reputedly first a shepherd, whose armies eventually conquered Persia, Turkey, Egypt and Africa, though his empire was short lived. In Marlowe’s play Tamurlane the Great (and its sequel) he is an vaunting, boasting tyrant cruel to all, who yet falls ill and dies. I think that for contemporaries, Tamurlane would remind them of Philip II of Spain, ex King of England and Ireland, pretender to the throne of France, King of Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands, and conqueror of the New World. Philip was a Catholic and bitterly antagonistic to the Protestant Elizabeth I, and sent a great fleet to conquer and dispossess her of her kingdom in 1588, the great Armada. That fleet was repulsed, the Netherlands revolted to form the Dutch Republic, and Francis Drake sailed to the New World and pillaged the Spanish treasure fleets, while Sir Walter Raleigh attempted rival settlements in the Americas. This play would have been no mere historical exercise, but on a vital issue of the day. Everyone would have had a viewpoint on the matter, and the play discussed and quoted in every tavern in London. Marlowe’s plays were never closet histories, but comments on events of his day, as subversive as a modern topical review.
“Holla, ye pampered jades of Asia!
What, can ye draw but twenty miles a-day?”
Sneers Tamurlane to the conquered kings who pull his chariot as he rides in triumph. This might have been Elizabeth’s fate.
And yet…Tamurlane is not a mere villain. Such is Marlowe’s own vaunting ambition as a poet it spills into Tamurlane’s speech.
“Is it not passing brave to be a King,
And ride in triumph through Persepolis?”
An older generation than ours can remember the Munich Agreement. Signed by Neville Chamberlain, it represented “peace in our time”. Signed by Adolf Hitler, it was “a worthless piece of paper”. The fate of Czechoslovakia, and Poland, hung in the balance. The second world war was on the horizon. This was a burning issue of the late 1930s. So was Philip’s ambitions in the 1580s, and Marlowe’s play hit right in the centre of the target. Philip wanted to close the gap in his empire by occupying France and England. It was a very real threat to the English of Elizabeth’s day.
It is this tension between the evil tyranny of Tamburlane and his restless yearning for more, yet more, that form, I think, the dramatic tension in the play. He is like Aeschylus’ Prometheus, imprisoned yet defiant, as he moves between these two contrasting modes.
“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…”
Marlowe’s next play was the Jew of Malta, a blood and thunder revenge tragedy in the mode of Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy. Both plays are thought to have been written and performed about the same time. Kyd and Marlowe were friends and associates apparently, and the two plays, as well as founding a dominant genre of Elizabethan drama, inspired later Jacobean dramatists such as John Webster, and gave rise to the Gothic genre in drama and fiction in my opinion.
Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy was the biggest hit of the entire Elizabethan theatre and was being played to full houses over a 50 year period. I think it is also the best constructed play in the Elizabethan repertoire. Kyd was yet another genius as a dramatist, and it is all the more a pity we know virtually nothing about him, and have no certainty about his works, which were all issued anonymously. He was caught up in the investigation about Marlowe it seems, tortured to obtain ‘evidence’ against him, and died the following year, 1594, probably from damage inflicted by the torturers, who had by then killed Elizabeth’s two greatest writers (though Shakespeare survived to shine in the reign of James).
The revenge play is best known to us today through the example of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but there is another play of his, seldom performed: Titus Andronicus. This is more typical of the kind of blood and thunder drama the Elizabethans were enthusiastic about, a reminder that the most popular sports of the day were bear baiting and attending public executions.
These plays came straight from imitations made from classical tragedians, which in the Renaissance meant Seneca, with some influence through Seneca from Euripides. They were what we would call melodrama, but quite actable (if you like melodrama). Kyd and Marlowe took this classical model, and combined it with topical references and storylines to create plays that drew huge audiences, and created the great age of Elizabethan drama. To appreciate the Jew of Malta I think you have to forget The Merchant of Venice, anti-Semitism and any modern concern, and relish the verse.
“As for myself, I walk abroad o’nights
And kill sick people groaning under walls:
Sometimes I go about and poison wells”.
Better known is
“Fornication: but that was in another country;
And besides, the wench is dead”.
“…as their wealth increaseth, so enclose
Infinite riches in a little room”.
The Jew stood for England’s enemies: the Pope, Spain, and the Ottoman Empire. The world depicted in the play seems akin to that of the 18th century wandering Jew Melmoth the Wanderer of Maturin, or one of Ann Rice’s non Christian vampires. With lots of blood.
Marlowe wrote three other highly popular plays, Doctor Faustus, Edward II and The Massacre at Paris. His final work, I think his most beautiful, most accomplished and most popular one, was the lyrical poem Hero and Leander, unfinished at Marlowe’s death. It went through 10 editions to 1637.
Marlowe seems to have followed the same career path as Shakespeare, determined by the civic authorities of London, the Court of Elizabeth, and both organisations’ attempt to avoid the plague. First Thomas Kyd virtually created the Elizabethan drama, then was excelled by Marlowe. Meanwhile Shakespeare was a contributor to the writing of plays, perhaps with Kyd and Marlowe, in the years 1590 to 1592. The theatres were closed in 1593 and 1594 as the plague raged, by which time Marlowe had become the most pre-eminent and popular writer for the stage. Like Shakespeare he then turned to court patronage for a long narrative poem. Shakespeare wrote Venus and Adonis, Marlowe Hero and Leander, both based on classical works, both with an erotic theme. Would Marlowe, like Shakespeare, have returned to the theatre? Marlowe was a lyric poet beyond compare. Although a master also of dramatic construction, he showed at the time he was murdered no sign of dramatic characterisation other than his main protagonists’ tragic conflict. He may have developed as a poet rather than as a dramatist. We’ll never know. But he certainly would have excelled his earlier work.
Court patronage was dangerous, as the great nobles fought for power and influence over the sovereign. Marlowe may have been involved, and killed, as Raleigh fell from power. Shakespeare disengaged with the Earl of Southampton as Southampton moved closer to rebellion with the Earl of Essex, and this influenced Shakespeare’s return to the theatre. Both poets may well have eventually appealed to the reading public for support rather than noble patronage, but both died before this was really possible.
For the persons unknown none of this was important, and Christoher Marlowe was ‘eliminated’. For Thomas Heywood, looking back on his youth in 1633, Marlowe was “renowned for his rare art and wit”. Kyd was “famous Kyd”, Thomas Watson, Thomas Nashe he all remembered, but Marlowe was something special, “the best of poets in that age”. George Peele called him “the Muses’ darling”. Nashe, Jonson, Drayton and Shakespeare all mourned his loss. Many of these were friends and acquaintances shocked by Marlowe’s sudden death. All were professional writers with a keen appreciation of Marlowe’s gifts as a writer, and the enormous waste his death meant to literature.
The works of Marlowe, seven plays, a long poem and two translations, take up 660 pages in the OUP edition of 1962, edited by Tucker Brooke. The fruit of little more than seven years work by Marlowe, the most concise thing I can say about it is that it is all highly readable. For those who know Shakespeare, it’s like Romeo and Juliet on steroids. A good biography is Charles Norman’s The Muses’ Darling (The Falcon Press 1947). Both a great detective story and an investigation of source material approaching genius is Charles Nicholl’s The Reckoning (Vintage Books 2002), which investigates Marlowe’s murder.
The painting found at Cambridge University dated 1585 thought to be of Marlowe, could be: right date, right place. And it looks like Marlowe. But why would a shoemaker’s son have his portrait painted? That was unusual for the time. Why would Marlowe wear such sumptuous attire, surely beyond the means of any but a wealthy aristocrat? Why would someone posing as a Catholic for intelligence work reveal to any enquirer who he was? In 1585 Marlowe had just received his Bachelor of Arts degree. He was initially refused his Masters degree two years later. So why donate a painting of himself to the university? And what does the motto mean? “That which nourishes me destroys me”. I think it more likely this is someone else.
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