What kind of man
was Christopher Marlowe? This was the question in the coroner’s mind on
summer’s day in 1593. There were many strange tales circulating. The dead
man had been in trouble before. Some said he held dangerous, shocking views.
It was rumored that, while still a clerical student at Cambridge, he had
been involved in a secret mission for the Queen in foreign parts and was
awarded his M.A. only after royal intervention. He had friends in high
places, yet there were ugly rumors of treason. A warrant for his arrest
had been issued only two weeks before his death. Witnesses at the inquest
spoke of a tavern brawl, daggers drawn suddenly in anger. A verdict was
rendered and Ingram Frizer, Marlowe’s assailant, was issued a royal pardon
based on a plea of self-defense. What kind of man was Christopher Marlowe?
Four centuries later, questions are still being asked.
Little is known of Marlowe’s
childhood beyond the facts that he was reared in a family of shoemakers,
began his studies at a later age than most young men of his day, and arrived
in London at a time when drama was beginning to emerge as public entertainment.
Unlike Shakespeare, who arrived in London about the same time, Marlowe
seems to have had no desire to act. It was writing which appealed to him.
With the exception of his translations of the Roman Poets Lucan and Ovid
and his last, most sensuous poem Hero and Leander, he wrote dramatic tragedies.
While most Elizabethan dramaturgy was filled with ghosts, phantoms and
comic relief, Marlowe was essentially a rationalist and his plays, avoiding
"popular entertainments," dealt with the corruption of power, the search
for self-knowledge, with human frailty and folly.
The first and most celebrated
of his plays to be performed during his short lifetime was Tamburlaine
The Great, written in two parts. Subsequent works were The Massacre At
Paris, Dido, Queen of Carthage, The Jew of Malta, Edward II, and Doctor
Faustus. His use of blank verse was unprecedented and is generally believed
to have strongly influenced Shakespeare; likewise, his remarkable use of
Information about Marlowe
in fragmentary at best. It can be presumed that he turned away from taking
Holy Orders because his mind was too independent, his utterances too radical,
his habits too unconventional. The theatre of the time represented everything
that was new and daring and opposed to the stuffy respectability of the
middle class. It stood for freedom of speech and thought and behavior.
At this same point in history all Europe was divided by an ideological
barrier. "Protestant" and "Catholic" were not just religious labels but
political ones. In Elizabeth’s England, the man who questioned the views
of authority could lose his livelihood and even his life.
Marlowe was known to be friendly
with a family named Walsingham. Sir Francis Walsingham, until his death,
was the head of Elizabeth’s Secret Service, raising it to a high pitch
of efficiency, and training his men to break codes, forge documents and
reseal letters. Fifty-three of his agents were planted in key positions
all over Europe. Whether Marlowe was one of them is unproven. One thing
is sure: Marlowe could not have lived on his earnings as a writer, as companies
paid only about five pounds for new play-scripts, no matter how many performances
were given. (Shakespeare made his fortune as a "sharer," that is as an
actor and co-manager.)
The cause, date and time
of Marlowe’s death remained a mystery for over three centuries until, in
1925, the actual written inquest was discovered. At the time of his death,
Marlowe was in the company of three men, Frizer, Robert Polleye and Nicholas
Skeres, all three of whom worked for Sir Francis Walsingham. Polleye and
Skeres were the witnesses who testified that Frizer had killed Marlowe
in self-defense "with a dagger delivered over the eye and into the brain."
Since the publication of these facts, various scholar’s theories and hypotheses
continue to surface. A favorite, possibly supported by the fact that Marlowe’s
grave has never been found, is that Marlowe was not killed at the tavern
in Deptford Strand, but was spirited away and hidden abroad, where he wrote
all the plays attributed to Shakespeare.
Shakespeare often tells us
certain truths through his clowns or fools. In As You Like It, Touchstone’s
speech may well mirror that author’s view of the life and work of Marlowe: