Charles Nicholl is the author of The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe (Vintage). He is currently completing a biography of Leonardo da Vinci which will be published by Penguin in Autumn 2004.
Seven plays by Christopher Marlowe survive (as opposed to thirty seven by Shakespeare) but though much else about Marlowe is mysterious the brevity of his output is not. He was just twenty nine years old when he was stabbed to death, apparently - though there is no lack of alternative intepretations - in a trifling squabble over a bill or ‘recknynge’. The year was 1593, a bad year for writers which also saw the arrest and imprisonment of two of Marlowe’s colleagues, Thomas Kyd and Thomas Nashe, and the execution of the dissident religious pamphleteers, Penry, Barrow and Greenwood. These were edgy times, and it was precisely at this dangerous edge where literature shaded into politics that Marlowe lived, and wrote, and died.
At the time of his death Marlowe was probably the most famous dramatist of his day - Shakespeare was still very much in his shadow; Kyd had run out of ideas; Ben Jonson was an unknown former bricklayer and soldier just beginning to get some bit-parts as an actor. The son of a Canterbury shoemaker, a scholarship boy at Cambridge, Marlowe left university in 1587 and immediately scored his first commercial success with Tamburlaine the Great, a remorseless tale of ambition and conquest based on the exploits of the fourteenth century Tartar warlord, Timur-i-leng. He swiftly cobbled up a sequel, Hollywood-style, titled The Second Part of the Bloody Conquests of Mighty Tamburlaine. At a performance of the latter, by the Admiral’s Men in November 1587, a ‘caliver’ or musket used onstage was accidentally loaded, and killed two members of the audience, one of them a pregnant woman. An explosive new talent had arrived. Another play which spilled off the stage was Dr Faustus. The author Thomas Middleton recalled an early performance at the Theatre in Shoreditch, when the wooden walls of the playhouse suddenly ‘crackt’ and ‘frighted the audience’. More apocryphally there was the story of a performance at Exeter, when the players suddenly stopped in the middle of a scene ‘for they were all persuaded there was one devil too many amongst them’. On learning this the audience promptly fled - ‘every man hastened to be first out of doors’. This is theatrical folklore but the upshot of these stories is pretty clear: Faustus, for its first audiences, was extremely scary.
This is one of the pioneering features of Marlowe’s plays - his shrewd exploitation of popular formats. He gave the audience what it wanted - thrilling poetry (his ‘high astounding terms’, as he puts it), spectacular action, plenty of violence and villainy - but also he used the medium to convey more subtle and challenging ideas, to pose questions, to lace the overt message of the play with subliminal ambiguities. Dr Faustus is a complex meditation on Renaissance magic wrapped up in spine-chiller special effects. The Jew of Malta is a study of Machiavellian ‘policy’ or realpolitik that plays like an extremely black comedy.
To be accounted London’s premier dramatist - or as the Elizabethans more bluntly put it, ‘playmaker’ - did not necessarily endear Marlowe to the authorities, or to the many citizens that heartily disapproved of plays. The first London playhouses were built outside the city walls, in the so-called ‘liberties’ beyond the control of the Mayor and his aldermen. Their increasing commercial success was viewed as something of a civic nuisance - a potential for riotous assembly, for the transmission of plague, for prostitution and pick-pocketing and apprentices behaving badly. A potential also for the spreading of dangerous ideas: a potential for disaffection and dissent. The playhouses were policed - they were frequently shut down, usually on health grounds - and plays had to be subitted to the censor. The manuscript of the play Sir Thomas More survives with the censor’s annotation: ‘Leave out the insurrection wholly & the cause thereof’. These suggest the official vigilance was deemed necessary.
Nor was ‘playmaker’ by any means the worst of the words you might hear applied to Christopher Marlowe. His reputation was extremely lurid. The most frequent accusation levelled at him was that he was an atheist and blasphemer, who held and indeed broadcast ‘monstruous opinions’ about religion. Marlowe was accused of ‘diabolical atheism’, in print, by his literary rival Robert Greene, but the locus classicus of Marlovian heresy is a grubby sheet of writings produced by a professional informer, Richard Baines, who claimed to have heard Marlowe say such heinous things as: ‘Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest’, and ‘the sacrament would have been much better being administered in a tobacco pipe’, and ‘Christ was bedfellow to St John and used him as the sinners of Sodoma’. This last squib draws on another related heterodoxy, for Marlowe was also said to be (and most probably was) homosexual. Baines reports the famous gay quip - ‘that all they that love not tobacco and boyes were fools’ - the phrasing of which is so good that one feels that, in this instance at least, Baines is recording authentic Marlowe talk. Baines concludes his report by suggesting that ‘the mouth of so dangerous a member’ should be ‘stopped’ - a recommendation made more sinister by the fact that Baines’s note was handed to the authorities just three days before the fatal stabbing of Marlowe at a lodging-house in Deptford.
We hear of other allegations about his disorderly opinions - that he was a malcontent Catholic intending to ‘go to the enemy’; that he was a dabbler in magic. And we hear of his actual run-ins with the law. In a single year, 1592, he was arrested three times - once in the Netherlands, whence he was deported on a charge of counterfeiting coins; once in Shoreditch, where he was bound over to keep the peace towards the constable and beadle of Holywell Street; and once in Canterbury, when he fought in the streets with a tailor named Corkine, his weapons being a staff and a dagger.
And, floating among these allegations and rendering many of them more complex, we learn that he was a spy of some sort - an intelligencer or ‘projector’, a meddler in secret politics. While the ‘Baines Note’ is dubious as a record of Marlowe’s religious views, it is one of many documents which open up this habitat in which Marlowe moved - that shady world of informers and intelligencers which was such a feature of late Elizabethan politics. As early as 1587 the Privy Council commended him for his ‘faithful dealing’ in certain unspecified ‘affairs’, and defended him from rumours that he was about to defect to the English Catholic seminary at Rheims. His presence in the Netherlands in 1592 was probably also in an intelligence connection; his ‘chamber-fellow’ on that occasion was the same Richard Baines who later denounced him as an atheist.
When he died his fellow-writers paid tribute to his huge powers as a poet. George Peele called him ‘the Muses’ darling’, a poet ‘fit to write passions’. Nashe compared him to the Italian satirist Aretino: ‘his pen was sharp-pointed like a poignard; no leaf he wrote on but was like a burning-glass to set on fire all his readers’. Shakespeare paid him a kind of tribute in As you like it, when Rosalind quotes a famous line from Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, and praises the ‘dead shepherd’ who wrote it: it is the only occasion when Shakespeare openly quotes, rather than quietly filching, a line by a contemporary writer. Perhaps the loveliest epitaph is Michael Drayton’s, who calls him ‘neat Marlowe’ - neat as in a shot of whisky - and says he
Had in him those brave translunary things
That the first poets had; his raptures were
All air and fire
These are fine words but they cannot be called representative. Many were glad to see Marlowe’s violent end as a sign of God’s judgement on him and his scandalous lifestyle. ‘See what a hook the Lord put in the nostrils of this barking dog’, wrote a young Puritan preacher named Thomas Beard (who was later schoolmaster to Oliver Cromwell). Marlowe was reviled as much as he was revered, and his reputation is probably summed up more accurately by the anonymous author of a college comedy, the Return from Parnassus, performed at Cambridge around Christmas 1601, who said of him:
Pity it is that wit so ill should dwell:
Wit lent from heaven but vices sent from hell.
The terminology is simplistic, but he is surely right that if Marlowe was famous for his ‘wit’ - in the Elizabethan sense of intellectual brilliance - he was no less notorious for his ‘vices’.
For this author the wonderful poetry and the vicious lifestyle seemed irreconcilable, but another perception is that they are both an expression of Marlowe’s questioning, challenging, edge-working temperament. His police record identifies him as a ‘disturber of the peace’, and this is true also of his plays, which disturbed the peaceful complacency of the audience’s expectations. As Stephen Greenblatt has observed in his Renaissance self-fashioning, Marlowe is the antithesis of Spenser - they are ‘mighty opposites’ in the ongoing Elizabethan debate on the poet’s role within society. Spenser sees ‘identity as conferred by loving service to legitimate authority, to the yoked power of God and the State’, but for Marlowe identity is precisely ‘established at those moments in which order is violated’.
Part of the elusiveness of the plays is the way he gives poetic and intellectual charisma to characters he ought to be condemning, thus creating treacherous cross-currents running counter to the orthodox argument of the play. This is already notable in Dr Faustus (in my view an early play, c.1588, though there are other views) which promises and delivers the message of damnation for Faustus’s ‘devilish practices’, yet conveys also a rhapsodic sense of mental adventure and liberation -
These metaphysics of magicians
And necromantic books are heavenly:
Lines, circles, scenes, letters and characters -
Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires...
This deliberate tangling-up of the audience’s responses is even more marked in later plays like the Jew of Malta, where the Christian governor proves as treacherously Machiavellian as the Jew; and the Massacre at Paris, a bleak reportage of the events surrounding the St Bartholomew’s Eve massacre of Protestants in 1572, in which the fanatical Duke of Guise - the perpetrator of the outrage, the Osama bin Laden of Elizabethan Protestantism - is another of Marlowe’s dis-turbingly charismatic villains with all the best lines:
Oft have I levelled and at last have learned
That peril is the chiefest way to happiness…
The poetry here has that spare, sardonic, hard-boiled style which is the mark of Marlowe’s mature work, as in this cynical card-sharping metaphor for the seizure of political power -
Since thou hast all the cards within thy hands
To shuffle or cut, take this as surest thing:
That right or wrong thou deal thyself a king.
Heavenly wit or hellish vices, the Muses’ darling or the barking dog, the government’s man or the renegade rule-breaker - which, if any, is the real Christopher Marlowe? Ambiguity was the element he lived in, belonging to both sides and to neither, and finding thereby a kind of freedom from the harshly enforced certainties of the time.
Christopher Marlowe, The Complete Plays
William Shakespeare, As You Like It
Return to features homepage