Kit Marlowe

CHRISTOPHER ‘KIT’ MARLOWE (1564-1593), Cambridge graduate, poet, playwright and most famous of the ‘University Wits’, homosexual or bisexual, died in a fight at the age of twenty-nine while waiting to face heresy charges brought against him by the Star Chamber.

Marlowe as always been seen as  as Shakespeare’s model and hero and the great trailblazer of English Renaissance theatre. Coming from a background as ordinary as William Shakspere’s, Marlowe proves (as does Ben Johnson) that you didn’t have to be from a privileged background to become a great writer. Marlowe won a scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University, where this portrait of him was found in a rubbish skip during renovations in 1952.

At Cambridge he has long been believed to have been recruited by Elizabeth’s spy-master, Sir Francis Walsingham, through his nephew Thomas, a friend and patron of Marlowe, but there is no documentary evidence of this. However, the entanglement of the entertainment and intelligence worlds is attested by the fact that Walsingham was also the prime mover behind the formation of The Queen’s Men, a kind of super-troupe of actors selected from all the existing companies in 1582, when the London theatre really began to take off. By the late eighties, the theatre world had produced its first celebrity – this wild young writer, ‘the Muses’ darling’.

At one point Marlowe was arrested in Holland on counterfeiting charges, deported to England and imprisoned for a time before being released. He was absent from Cambridge for such extended periods that the University authorities wanted to withhold his degree, suspecting that he might be a Catholic double-agent – but were ordered to confer it in no uncertain terms by the Privy Council, who stressed Marlowe’s faithful service to the state.

Then in 1590, Walsingham died, in 1590, and the secret service was taken over by Robert Cecil, son of Lord Treasurer William Cecil, who hated the theatre and was rapidly proving himself even more Machiavellian that his father. Marlowe’s iconoclastic plays, particularly, Tamburlaine the Great and its sequel, were alarming the authorities, heroising a man of humble originals who became a warrior and overthrew a king, going on to become the greatest emperor the world had (at that time) ever seen. This theme was dangerous and seditious – Tamburlaine was being referenced by some groups of rebellious young men among the common people – and an uprising was feared. 

Marlowe was an individualist, unorthodox in his sexuality, his writing and possibly his religion – though the pamphlet for which he was arrested, in which he denied the divinity of Christ, may of course been part of a sting operation. He is reputed to have been a member of the ‘School of Night’, a group of freethinking intellectuals which included Sir Walter Raleigh. 

The government – i.e. Robert Cecil – definitely had Marlowe in its sights. In 1592 his room-mate and/or lover, Thomas Kyd, was arrested on the order of the Star Chamber, over the authorship of a pamphlet denying the divinity of Jesus Christ. Kyd was tortured until gave up Marlowe’s name, and then tortured to death. Marlowe was arrested and brought before the Star Chamber, then released to await trial. Before he could come to trial, however, he was stabbed to death in a fight at a public house in Deptford, South-East London, close to the river Thames.

An account of his death emerges from the records of the inquest, conducted by the Queen’s own coroner. Marlowe spent the day (30th May 1593) in the company of three other men – all of them government agents – at the house of Eleanor Bull in Deptford. This was a public house – but one should not call to mind the stereotype of a rowdy, drunken ‘Merrie England’ type of locale. Rather, the men rented a private room, where they spent about eight hours together ‘in quiet mood’, ate lunch and dinner, and walked together in the garden before returning to the room. All those present at his death were connected with Marlowe’s protector, Sir Thomas Walsingham, but this may not mean much since Cecil was now in charge, and apparently determined to destroy the London stage. The man said to have stabbed Marlowe in the eye, after an argument about the bill, Ingram Frizer, was immediately pardoned by the Queen, who reserved jurisdiction over the case to her own Chancellery Court. The body had been thrown in a plague pit and was not examined by any authorities. 

These circumstances lead inevitably to the suspicion that the story of the brawl of a cover-up: but of what? Marlowe’s assassination? His forced expulsion from the country by ship? Dept ford is on the river Thames – were they waiting around all that time for a ship?

Given the location of the alleged incident, close to the river, and the protracted, day-long meeting which preceded the ‘death’, the latter seems quite a likely scenario, but neither of them can be ruled out.  The following year, Marlowe’s theatrical patron, Lord Strange, was murdered by poison (arsenic), so Kyd’s death followed by Marlowe’s may have been the beginning of a political purge which Cecil pursued for the next two decades, eventually ensnaring the man he really wanted to take down, the renowned Sir Walter Raleigh.

There is a third, intriguing possibility. As soon as Marlowe disappeared, literally two weeks later the name William Shakespeare appeared in print for the first time, in the registered publication of the erotic poem Venus and Adonis – a very successful edition which went to several reprints . 

This has given rise to seductive thought that perhaps Marlowe survived: that Walsingham’s men were there to shield him from Cecil by getting him out of the country. That the name is a pseudonym for Marlowe, who had learned from his mistakes (publishing under his own name and becoming too famous) and now continued to write from a hiding place overseas. Robert Cecil, a diminutive hunchback who always dressed in Protestant black, is viciously lampooned as the evil king in Shakespeare’s Richard III, which along with Richard II are the first plays ever published under Shakespeare’s name (1598). The sinister figure of the vicious, deformed Richard III of Shakespeare play stalked Robert Cecil from that moment on, the play receiving another reprint every time Cecil received a new honour or office – and, of course outlived him by at least four centuries. Was Shakespeare devastating satirical attack actually Marlowe’s revenge?

Whether or not Marlowe is the author, we should certainly see this as the literary world hitting back hard at the Cecils; the name ‘Shake-speare’ [sic], if it was a pseudonym, has connotations of defiance, and always appeared like that on the Richard plays, with the hyphen, which may be intended to reveal the pun (contemporary usage yields such examples) though it might also be just a quirk of the printer. 

Documentary evidence of Marlowe’s survival has not been found. There are intriguing rumours suggesting that Marlowe did indeed live out his days in Northern Italy (where many of Shakespeare’s plays are set). The scholar Calvin Hoffman claimed to have received notes bequeathed to him in the will of a journalist friend, saying that a 16th century Paduan, Petro Basconi, left papers stating that an English writer named Marlowe lived with him as a recluse until his death in 1627. The papers were passed down in the Basconi family and were said to have been shown in the 19th century to a British ambassador to Italy, who declined ‘to tamper with a matter so dear to the English heart’. Hoffman claimed to have ascertained that others had seen the Basconi papers, including the famous American author Washington Irving. John Hunt speaks of this matter at the end of the Frontline PBS documentary Much Ado about Something (dir. Michael Rubbo, 2003).

All of this is hearsay evidence (i.e. would not be admissibly in a court of law). The original Basconi papers have never been found, and nor has any other documentary evidence confirming the story, so it remains speculative. It should be noted, however, that very little primary research has been done in this area – indeed none at all in several decades, according to the archivist at the Gonzaga archives in Mantua (in the Frontline film). This would be the obvious first port of call for any serious researcher.


Author: Paul Dunbar

I have worked in international schools for the past 15 years, teaching English Literature and Theory of Knowledge in Amsterdam, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City. I'm also a musician, and a bit of a writer. Since 2001 I have come to question literally everything, the default position for an uncrippled epistemologist.

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