Christopher Marlowe’s life lasted for twenty-nine years and three months, that is, about 10,670 days, and more attention has been paid to the last day of it, Wednesday, May 30, 1593, than to any other. On that day Marlowe, who had been summoned before the Privy Council ten days earlier for reasons that remain obscure, was stabbed in a Deptford tavern by Ingram Frizer after a dispute over the bill for their food and drink. Frizer and the other diners, Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley, were on the fringes of government espionage, as Marlowe himself had been. A coroner’s inquest found that Frizer had acted in self-defense, and the matter was dropped. This has led to suspicion that Marlowe’s death was a political assassination, a case made most elaborately by Charles Nicholl. Nicholl’s The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe (1992) argued that Marlowe was killed on the orders of the Earl of Essex, with whom Skeres was linked, because Marlowe was an associate of Essex’s rival, Sir Walter Raleigh, and that the quarrel story was an official cover-up.

The story of Marlowe’s life, unlike that of his death, is quickly told.

The most valuable parts of Nicholl’s book are his investigations into the workings of the intelligence agency masterminded by Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, Francis Walsingham. Constance Brown Kuriyama is coolly sceptical about Nicholl’s account of Marlowe’s death. She doubts that Marlowe was important enough to be a target for Essex and points out that Raleigh’s influence at court was in any case on the wane. The witnesses swore that Marlowe had attacked Frizer without warning, behavior which seems entirely characteristic of him; his one-time roommate Thomas Kyd ascribed to him “rashness in attempting sudden privy injuries to men.” “Most of the grounds for suspicion,” Kuriyama concludes, “seem baseless on dispassionate examination.” Dispassionateness is a key characteristic of Kuriyama’s book; her instinct is to take the heat out of everything.

The story of Marlowe’s life, unlike that of his death, is quickly told. Born in 1564, the same year as Shakespeare, he was the son of a Canterbury shoemaker. After the King’s School, Canterbury, he went to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where a possible portrait of him can still be seen. Several otherwise unexplained absences from Cambridge may be illuminated by a letter to the university authorities from the Privy Council in 1587, urging that he be allowed to proceed to the M.A. degree because of his “good service” to the Queen, and scotching rumors that he was about to join the Catholic seminary at Rheims. Instead of taking holy orders, as he might have been expected to do, Marlowe gravitated to the London theatrical scene and wrote six plays within as many years. His translations of Ovid’s Amores and Book I of Lucan’s Pharsalia may belong to the same period; his original poetic masterpiece Hero and Leander was left unfinished at his death. His last four years are a catalogue of court appearances for suspected murder, counterfeiting, and sedition, interspersed with murky accusations of atheism, blasphemy, heresy, and crypto-Catholicism. The Privy Council may have been about to move against him, but following that afternoon in Deptford the rest was, not silence, but rumors. The most bizarre of these—that the body in the tavern was not Marlowe’s but someone else’s, and that he survived to write the plays of Shakespeare—began in 1819, and is still mentioned from time to time, despite its patent falsehood on every count of aesthetic judgment, let alone probability.

Marlowe gravitated to the London theatrical scene and wrote six plays within as many years.

Kuriyama provides a clear narrative of all this, and does valuable service by reprinting and translating the documents, some of them hitherto hard to find, which are our authorities for the facts. (Her most fascinating exhibit is the inventory of the possessions of John Gresshop, briefly Marlowe’s schoolmaster, which includes an astonishing number of books and affords rare evidence of an individual’s literary tastes in the 1570s.) She also provides a succinct sketch of Marlowe’s posthumous reputation, which went into eclipse after the Restoration, briefly re-surfaced in the early nineteenth century in the work of Charles Lamb and J. P. Collier, and gathered momentum in the twentieth thanks to T. S. Eliot’s essay of 1919. She shares none of these writers’ excited response to the frissons and audacities of Marlowe’s plays, which are mentioned at the appropriate times for purposes of documentation, not for literary appreciation or analysis. This is baffling, for there are few writers of the period whose life and work seem so closely allied. Admittedly there is the danger of an infinite regression, in which interpretation of Marlowe’s plays and understanding of his character validate one another. However, such an excellent book as Lisa Hopkins’s Marlowe: A Literary Life (Palgrave, 2000), ignored by Kuriyama, shows that the interconnections can be made without distortion: and, indeed, the gleefully shocking image which Marlowe created for himself seems modelled on his own protagonists. The remarks reported by his associates Thomas Kyd and Richard Baines are a startling medley of scoffing at the low literary quality of the gospels, the possible homosexuality of Jesus, the delights of tobacco and pederasty, and the palpable absurdity of religion. Conventionally, Kyd and Baines are seen as suspect witnesses, hoping to save their own skins. Kuriyama is typically level-headed, noting that Baines was a leading government informer and that “an informer who provided false and misleading information would soon be out of work”; moreover, even if he was malicious, he need not have been lying; “telling the truth can often do more damage.” As for Kyd, while he was rebuffing charges of atheism, and the dead Marlowe was a convenient scapegoat, he may have been sincere in his distaste for his former fellow-lodger.

Would anyone be writing on Marlowe now, if he had not written plays? His poems would survive as among the most accomplished of the age (Hero and Leander, even though unfinished, seems to me more enjoyable than either of Shakespeare’s narrative poems). Otherwise, we would hear of him as part swaggering ruffian, part assertively naughty schoolboy, a petty law-breaker with a walk-on part in the grand drama of Elizabethan politics: in fact, pretty much what we have in Kuriyama’s book. Marlowe the playwright is capable of exuberantly bad taste and excruciatingly monotonous verse on occasion, but where his imagination is aroused—as by brutality, fantasies of power, and the torturing importunities of sexuality—he commands an energy beyond the reach of most of his contemporaries. His plays are lineal descendants of the medieval drama, above all in their refusal to adopt a univocal tone (there were once comic scenes even in the mind-numbing Tamburlaine, we’re told, which were omitted in the printing). The influence of Shakespeare is probably responsible for the relative steadiness of focus in Edward II: but elsewhere Marlowe runs riot. Eliot was absolutely accurate in calling The Jew of Malta a “savage farce”; comparing it with The Merchant of Venice, one has to say that Marlowe commands a range of tonalities which Shakespeare either doesn’t permit himself, or—I’ll risk suggesting—can’t achieve. It is simply beyond morality.

Would anyone be writing on Marlowe now, if he had not written plays? 

Doctor Faustus remains Marlowe’s masterpiece, and one of the greatest non-Shakespearean plays of the Renaissance, because of its brilliant fusion of the techniques of medieval morality drama—which locates moral choice in a world of absolutes transcending an individual’s fluctuating mind and will—with a profound dramatization of psychological solipsism. Only Macbeth, among Shakespeare’s plays, can match its quality of hallucinatory nightmare. The important point is not whether Faustus (like Luther and Hamlet, a graduate of Wittenberg) is saved or damned, but that he believes himself to be damned. Yet he is not simply a Calvinist stereotype; Marlowe concocts a breathtaking mixture of grandeur and squalor. The comic episodes, so long derided, are essential in showing the trivia for which Faustus has sold his soul, and hence for making his bargain all the more shocking and pitiful. In this play we can watch the Middle Ages turning into the Renaissance, and, like Orpheus, casting a wistful, fatal glance back. Yet what does Professor Kuriyama have to say about Faustus? That debates at Cambridge on the question of free will “may well have influenced” Marlowe; that the early date of composition (1588–89) is to be preferred to the later (1591–92); that the play “continued to be performed profitably in the 1600s and 1610s” and was still in print, in a contaminated version, in 1663. This does not set our pulses racing.

William Empson, in his posthumously published Faustus and the Censor (1987, again unmentioned by Kuriyama) argued, for once unconvincingly, that Marlowe intended to show Faustus becoming extinct rather than going to Hell. Finding a second-hand copy years ago, I took it gleefully to the till. The bookseller, glancing casually at the title, remarked as he took my money, “There’s some more showbiz over there, sir.” Empson and Marlowe would have loved that; one fears Professor Kuriyama might not find it so amusing.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 4, on page 88
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