The Marlowe Murder Case

The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe

by Charles Nicholl
University of Chicago Press, 413 pp., $14.95 (paper)

A Dead Man in Deptford

by Anthony Burgess
Carroll and Graf, 272 pp., $21.00

Christopher Marlowe, the most prodigally gifted of Shakespeare’s poetic contemporaries, was stabbed to death in an apparently casual brawl at the age of twenty-nine. This bloody mayhem was merely the latest in a succession of scandals that had darkened his career; but according to Charles Nicholl in The Reckoning the killing was deliberate and politically motivated. Nicholl is hardly the first to have made this suggestion, but he mounts much the most detailed case, and does so with a panache that helps to account for his book’s remarkable popular success. In Britain The Reckoning has won several major nonfiction awards and attracted respectful notices in the press.

Its reception among scholars has been rather more equivocal, however. Extensively researched and elaborately (though erratically) documented, The Reckoning remains too speculative to satisfy a historian. Intoxicated by the whiff of ancient corruption, and fascinated by the gaps and silences in the historical record. Nicholl sets out to illuminate the shadowy, conspiratorial underside of Elizabethan public life—a “secret theatre” of espionage to one of whose more elaborate plots, he believes, Marlowe fell victim. Yet, though he is only tangentially concerned with Marlowe the poet, Nicholl inevitably succumbs to the biographer’s itch to crack the code that binds the writer to his fictions. This is a risky project—and not merely because of postmodernist theorizing about the so-called Death of the Author. For there are good empirical reasons for thinking the modern idea of “authorship,” with its assumption of absolute artistic authority, a little anachronistic when applied to a writer like Marlowe.

Elizabethan dramatists surrendered effective control over their texts from the moment they delivered them to the acting companies. Plays were often published anonymously, or in a form that gave more prominence to the players than to the playwrights; and so far from being products of unique inspiration, many (including Hamlet and King Lear) began as reworkings of earlier plays, while others (like modern film scripts) were written in collaboration by anything up to half a dozen journeyman-playmakers. Even when “authorship” of a given text can be confidently assigned, notions of authorial “intention” are repeatedly compromised by textual corruption, evidence of revision by others, or the vagaries of a publishing history that may well place the surviving text at a considerable distance from what the dramatist actually wrote. Thus Marlowe’s best-known play, Dr. Faustus, survives in two very different texts, each of which contains scenes by other hands, and neither of which probably corresponds to the version performed in his own lifetime.

Yet there are good reasons why Marlowe’s admirers have found it difficult to separate the man from his work. Indeed Marlowe is the kind of writer (like Rochester and Byron) who seems determined to blur such distinctions—whether through the unmistakable “voice” that sounds repeatedly in his plays and poems, or through the self-consciously fashioned personality that often makes his life seem like a bizarre extension of the writing. So indeed it is in A Dead Man in Deptford, Anthony Burgess’s astonishingly energetic last novel, written as a tribute to Marlowe on the quatercentenary of his death, which is a rich and inventive account weaving together gossip and history, and the gorgeous thread of Marlowe’s poetry. Thanks to the patient exhumations of scholarship, we probably know more about Shakespeare’s biography than we shall ever know about Marlowe’s. Yet the wealth of detail assembled in Samuel Schoenbaum’s magisterial William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (1975), by its sheer ordinariness, stubbornly resists incorporation into our reading of the plays; while the tantalizing fragments which are all that remain of Marlowe’s life seem to form a scandalous commentary on his writing.

The Latin tag that concludes both printed versions of Dr. Faustus (“Terminat hora diem, Terminat Author opus“) suggests an uncanny symmetry between the playwright and his protagonist—as though Marlowe had laid down his pen on the very stroke of the midnight hour that sees Faustus carried off to Hell; and in the violent trajectory of his career Marlowe does indeed bear a notorious resemblance to the upstart heroes of his plays—a comet consumed by his own prodigious flames, as if in fulfillment of the defiant motto that adorns his portrait: Quod me nutrit me detruit. Born, like Faustus, “of parents base of stock”—his father was a barely literate Canterbury shoemaker—Marlowe was a beneficiary of the expanded education system that channeled gifted young men into the ambit of the Tudor monarchy. He exhibited a precocious cleverness that took him from the local grammar school to Corpus Christi, Cambridge, where his theological scholarship marked him as a candidate for holy orders. But Marlowe aimed at a different kind of preferment.

Upon achieving his BA in 1584, the scholar joined the ranks of those who, like the aspiring Baldock in his Edward II, “[fetch’d their] gentry” from the university, “not from heraldry.” But even in that fiercely status-conscious society, the mere achievement of genteel status was of little practical worth, unless its possessor could secure the patronage of some prince or noble. How well Marlowe understood the route to advancement is apparent in Edward II, where he traces a whole hierarchy of patronage descending from the king through his adored favorite Gaveston to Gaveston’s train of ambitious hangers-on. An arriviste “dapper jack” who “wears a lord’s revenue on his back,” Gaveston manipulates his retinue of players, “pleasant wits,” and “wanton poets” to show how art can operate in the service of power by catering to the patron’s appetite for pleasure and cultural prestige.

While still a student, Marlowe began to advertise his own talents as a poet whose elegant translations and witty adaptations of the classics were expertly tailored to the self-esteem of literary-minded patrons. But in his final university year, he made a bid for a more public kind of fame, bursting onto the London stage with his revolutionary two-part drama Tamburlaine the Great (1587). Arguably the single most important play of the Elizabethan era, it did more than any other to transform an insignificant form of public entertainment, barely distinguished from the juggling, fencing, and animal-baiting with which it shared its performance space, into an art of national importance. By yoking the power of iambic verse and classical rhetoric to the energies of popular drama, Tamburlaine became the first play to realize the full possibilities of the new playhouses established in London a decade earlier.

The key to Tamburlaine’s effectiveness lies partly in the sheer hypnotic drive of the verse through which Marlowe gave expression to the more heated ambitions and desires of his time; and partly in a mordantly ironic subtext that exposes those very desires to subversive questioning. Tracing the rise of “a Scythian shepherd” through a succession of “rare and wonderful conquests” to become the “most puissant and mighty monarch” of the world, Tamburlaine explores the deeply ambiguous Elizabethan enchantment with ambitious self-fashioning and imperial triumphalism. Though anchored in the history of the fourteenth-century Mongol tyrant, Timur the Lame, the play is a fantasy on the New Cosmography, circling the world “from Persepolis to Mexico” and filling the stage with “armadoes from the coasts of Spain,/Freighted with gold of rich America,” while its resounding catalogs of armies, potentates, and prostrate territories carry the audience from Africa to “East India and the late-discover’d isles,” and on to the obscure “Antarctic pole,/Conqu’ring the people underneath our feet.”

Tamburlaine cranks the excitements of language and spectacle to an unprecedented pitch, not simply to indulge the fantasies of the audience but as an exemplary demonstration of poetry’s dangerous potency. Indeed we are repeatedly tempted to recognize in the iconoclastic hero a figure for the poet himself: in a world where “words are swords,” Tamburlaine makes his sword the pen with which he “write[s himself] great lord of Africa.” No wonder that his first victim should be a verbally impotent king who fondly imagines that ” ‘tis a pretty toy to be a poet;” for this is a work whose volatile combination of sadomasochist violence and supercharged lyricism means to proclaim that poetry has nothing to do with mere play. Rhetoric, it announces to any great man who will listen, is not merely an instrument but a source of power.

This absorbed fascination with power is what binds Tamburlaine to the restlessly inventive sequence of plays that followed—Dr. Faustus, The Jew of Malta, Edward II, and The Massacre at Paris. But that fascination was by no means confined to the fantasies of the stage: in the very year of Tamburlaine, the award of his MA degree was imperiled by rumors that Marlowe “wasdetermined to have gone beyond the seas to Reames [Rheims],” whose English seminary was regarded as a notorious center of conspiracy against Elizabeth’s Protestant regime. He was rescued, however, by the hurried intervention of the Privy Council, which made it plain to the university authorities that, far from being embroiled in treason, Marlowe “had done Her Majesty good service, & deserved to be rewarded for his faithful dealing.” He had, it seems, been engaged as some sort of government spy or “intelligencer” in the covert war against Catholic exiles.

The extent and duration of this involvement is still unclear; but, as Nicholl demonstrates, the poet had extensive connections in the intelligence world—including his principal patron, Thomas Walsingham, a cousin of the founding father of the Elizabethan secret service, Sir Francis Walsingham. And the ease with which Marlowe (apparently with the connivance of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Elizabeth I’s chief minister) was to evade the capital charge of forging currency leveled at him in a mysterious episode at Flushing suggests that he continued to be regarded as the government’s man until at least 1592. Two known spies were in his company at the time of his death a year later.

From the beginning, the circumstances of Marlowe’s death have been obscured by moralizing propaganda, libel, and lurid conjecture. The best-known contemporary accounts all associated it with the scandalous rumors of the poet’s atheism and homosexuality, making him an exemplary instance of God’s revenge against blasphemers. Among his Cambridge coevals, the puritanical divine Thomas Beard declared that Marlowe had inadvertently stabbed himself in the head in the course of a street quarrel—thus impaling his wicked brains with “[the very] hand, which had written those blasphemies” (The Theatre of God’s Judgements, 1597)—while the littérateur Francis Meres inveighed against the “epicurism and atheism” that led to Marlowe’s being “stabbed to death by a bawdy serving-man, a rival…in his lewd love” (Palladis Tamia, 1598).

In 1925, however, the American scholar Leslie Hotson’s discovery of the inquest records seemed to reveal a less sensational explanation. On May 30, 1593, Marlowe and three acquaintances, Ingram Frizer, Robert Poley, and Nicholas Skeres, had met in the house of a certain Eleanor Bull. They spent the day conversing in “quiet sort together,” drinking, eating, and walking in Widow Bull’s garden. After supper, however, Marlowe and Frizer fell into a quarrel “about the payment of the sum of pence, that is, le recknynge.” Tempers rose, “divers malicious words” were spoken, and Marlowe suddenly lost control: he ran at Frizer, who was seated with his back toward him, snatched his dagger and wounded him twice in the head. Frizer, wedged between Poley and Skeres so that he could “in no wise…take flight,” struggled with his attacker and “gave the said Christopher then & there a mortal wound over his right eye of the depth of two inches & of the width of one inch; of which wound [he] then & there instantly died.” Marlowe’s death, it seemed, was merely a cruel accident, the result of drunken disagreement over the price of a meal. 1

Doubts nevertheless persisted. Official documents showed that at the time of his death Marlowe was under investigation by the Privy Council for suspected authorship of the “Dutch Church libel”—an ugly chauvinist broadside, whose doggerel threats against foreign merchants were (inconveniently for Marlowe) signed “Tamburlaine.” He had been betrayed by another suspect, his former roommate and fellow dramatist, Thomas Kyd, who claimed, under torture, that Marlowe was the real owner of an atheistic tract discovered in their lodgings, and went on to attribute to him a number of outrageous opinions, including the assertion that Saint Paul was a “juggler” and Saint John “our Saviour’s Alexis…that is that Christ did love him with an extraordinary love.”

Similar charges were made by other witnesses, including the spy Richard Baines, who had been Marlowe’s accuser in the 1592 forgery scandal. In a fashion that chimes disconcertingly not only with the rumor mongering of Thomas Beard and Francis Meres but with heterodox attitudes so frequently exhibited in the plays, Baines, in a written report, linked Marlowe’s atheism to the pederastic tastes flaunted in his alleged declaration that “all they that love not Tobacco & Boys were fools.” The informer, sinisterly enough, concluded his note with the suggestion that, for the good of the commonwealth, “the mouth of so dangerous a member [should] be stopped.”

Hotson himself was sufficiently bothered by the unexplained passivity of Poley and Skeres to suggest that they might have collaborated with Frizer in some sort of cover-up; and it was not long before other investigators began to discern anomalies in the official record. Not only did the witnesses’ story appear inconsistent with the account of the wounds sustained by Frizer and Marlowe, but there was evidence implicating both Poley and Skeres in the shadier reaches of Elizabethan espionage. Furthermore the unusually quick pardon given to Frizer suggested a suspicious anxiety to close the case as expeditiously as possible. All three of Marlowe’s companions, moreover, could be linked to his patron, Thomas Walsingham, at whose nearby estate the poet had been arrested ten days before his death. Frizer, like Marlowe, was Walsingham’s man; and, apparently untainted by the killing, remained in Walsingham’s family’s service until his death in 1627.

It was partly Walsingham’s surprising complaisance that led another American scholar, S. A. Tannenbaum,2 to conjecture in 1928 that Frizer, Poley, and Skeres were covering more than their own tails: Marlowe, he suggested, had been the victim of a political assassination. Tannenbaum’s prime suspect was another of Marlowe’s patrons, the declining royal favorite, Sir Walter Ralegh, whose own rumored atheism Marlowe was supposedly in a position to expose, having (in the words of another informer, Richard Cholmeley) “read the atheist lecture to Sir Walter Ralegh & others.” Tannenbaum’s indictment of Ralegh has not been widely accepted, but his work ensured that the Widow Bull’s house would become the Texas Book Depository of Elizabethan England.

In the welter of conspiracy theories, candidates for the hidden hand behind the assassination have ranged from Marlowe’s embarrassed patron Thomas Walsingham to the rising star among Elizabeth’s councillors, Sir Robert Cecil, who, along with his even more powerful father, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, was maneuvering for control of the espionage system after the death of Francis Walsingham in 1590. At the extreme of bizarre conjecture, it has even been suggested that Marlowe was never killed at all, and that the body in question was really that of a common sailor, drugged and murdered at the instigation of Thomas Walsingham, to provide a cover that would enable his endangered protégé to assume a new identity as “William Shakespeare.”3

Building upon the discoveries and conjectures of earlier researchers, The Reckoning takes an entirely new tack. At the center of his web of conspiracy Nicholl places another royal minion, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex—Ralegh’s bitter rival for the Queen’s favors. Essex also happened to be the Cecils’ principal competitor in the struggle to control royal intelligence, a position he could exploit to move against Ralegh. Ralegh himself might still be too powerful to touch, but he could be smeared by association. Richard Baines and Richard Cholmeley, according to Nicholl, were Essex’s chosen agents in a plan to discredit Ralegh through his iconoclastic protégé Marlowe; and the “Dutch Church libel” was deliberately concocted by the provocateur Cholmeley to draw official suspicion upon the dramatist, providing a handsome occasion to expose all his subversive opinions to the glare of official investigation.

The plot must have seemed a good one; yet unlike the luckless Kyd, Marlowe was arrested only to be released on bail, after cursory questioning. The reason, Nicholl concludes, was that Marlowe had a powerful protector in the shape of Sir Robert Cecil. With Cecil’s backing it would be easy enough for Marlowe to present his “atheism,” like his coining and his flirtations with Catholicism, as a mere cover. At that point, if their plot were to succeed, the best bet for Essex’s men might be to persuade him to collaborate in Ralegh’s undoing—a not implausible ambition, given the notoriously shifting allegiances of the intelligence underworld. It was for this reason, Nicholl believes, that Marlowe was lured to Deptford by Skeres and his intermediary, Frizer. Poley, who also worked for Cecil, would have been there as Marlowe’s ally. Marlowe was killed, in this scenario, because he refused to play ball. Nicholl thinks it is unlikely that Essex had actually ordered Marlowe’s elimination: it would have been a spur-of-the-moment decision, “a rogue event, a tragic blunder”; and once it was done Poley would have colluded in the cover-up because his first priority was to save his master from public embarrassment.

It would be difficult, even in the lengthiest review, to do justice to the skill with which Nicholl pieces together the fantastically complex jigsaw upon which these conclusions depend. He constructs a detailed picture of the milieu of Elizabethan “intelligencing,” with its spies, Catholic plotters, petty criminals, double agents, and agents provocateurs, tracing their elaborate filiations with the court and with the poet’s own circle—including the poetspies Matthew Roydon and Thomas Watson, and the Italian philosophermystic Giordano Bruno, who may have served as Francis Walsingham’s spy at the French embassy under the unlucky pseudonym (for a future victim of the inquisition) of “Henry Fagot.” No character in this extensive cast is too insignificant to evade Nicholl’s suspicious investigation: even Eleanor Bull, far from being an obscure tavern-keeper, the disreputable Mistress Quickly of Hotson’s reconstruction, turns out to have been a rather well-born widow with influential court connections—exactly the sort of woman whose discreet premises might have been chosen as a convenient “safe house,” where dangerous matters could be negotiated behind closed doors.

A skeptical eye will inevitably discern gaps and disconcerting slithers in the author’s logic. The evidence that connects the various players in Nicholl’s Great Game is often as tenuous as that tying Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby to the CIA. Essex’s links with Nicholas Skeres, for example, are by no means as conclusive as Nicholl makes them appear, while his patronage of Marlowe’s denouncer, Richard Baines, remains purely conjectural; and though Baines’s fellow informer, Richard Cholmeley, does seem to have been Essex’s man, his identification with the “Tamburlaine” who signed the so-called Dutch Church libel is equally speculative. Given the acute rivalry between Essex and Cecil, Robert Poley’s role in Deptford still leaves a good deal to be explained; and the part played by Thomas Walsingham remains obscure—if he approved of the killing, how did he retain the good opinion of Marlowe’s friend and posthumous collaborator, George Chapman; if he disapproved of it, why did he retain the services of the killer? More damagingly, Nicholl’s characterization of Marlowe is colored by quite baseless guesswork about the intelligencing role he may have played in the Catholic-leaning households of the Earl of Northumberland and Lord Strange (patron of the company that performed most of his plays)—guess-work that is said to open “Marlowe’s literary relations to the tinge of betrayal.”

Like all conspiracy theory, The Reckoning thrives on paranoid associations. This is the kind of detective work in which the most trivial coincidence—such as the fact that Robert Poley was briefly married to “one Watson’s daughter,” who Nicholl thinks was “probably” Thomas Watson’s sister—can be made to seem like another link in a sinister chain. But in this it designedly mimics the systemic paranoia of the world it seeks to evoke. Here is “a political house of games in which everything is potentially different, potentially reversible,” Nicholl writes; and that house is nicely characterized in the epigraph Nicholl borrows from the crafty Burghley: “I find the matter as in a labyrinth: easier to enter into it than to go out.” In some respects, therefore, the question of fidelity to fact is a side issue: in exploring a milieu where “true meanings are notoriously hard to come by,” and where the historian’s best hope is to “dig away some of the lies, and perhaps find beneath them a faint preserved outline where the truth once lay,” The Reckoning aims only to be “as true as [its author] can make it.”

At this level it is a tour de force, amply justifying the Crime Writer’s Gold Dagger Award for a nonfiction thriller. But, as with the fictional genre it self-consciously emulates, the book’s persuasiveness depends not simply on its dazzling reconstruction of the immediate circumstances of the victim’s death but on its ability to imagine the world that made such a murder possible. It is here that more substantial doubts arise. The seductive immediacy of Nicholl’s writing is inseparable from the breezily anachronistic idiom that allows him to speak without embarrassment of the private circle of Sir Francis Bacon as “gay” and to place Marlowe in an all too modern world of “[spymasters] hungry…for leverage, for product.” Easily conflating Marlowe’s circle of writer-spies with the likes of Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, and other bright young men recruited from Oxbridge colleges by twentieth-century intelligence services, he is insufficiently attentive to the material conditions of patronage and “place-getting” faced by the new breed of secular intellectuals to which Marlowe belonged; and so he fails to convey the peculiar function of intelligencing within the ambit of Elizabethan royal power.

At this point, readers old-fashioned enough to worry about the distinction between fiction and history (another of the Enlightenment nostrums that postmodernism has seriously destabilized) may well find themselves opting for the open fantastication of Anthony Burgess, or for the more sober cultural history of John Michael Archer’s Sovereignty and Intelligence. In Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford, the inaccessibility of “the true truth” is embodied in the witty device of a narrative persona whose story is confessedly a tissue of more or less extravagant “supposes.” Though he claims to have played a number of female parts in Marlowe’s plays and to have been his occasional catamite, the narrator’s position “on the margent of [the poet’s] life” means that he and his readers must salvage what comfort they can from the knowledge that “time is proving that dim eyes and dimmer wits confounded the periphery with the center”—even if what sits stubbornly at the center of his story is still the nagging secret of a murder whose real author remains chillingly obscure even to the victim (“you will never know whether it is a knight or an earl who wishes the voiding. The wise man takes his money where he can, like the judge that takes bribes from both sides”).

Despite the rather too innocent Marlowe which this ending requires, it is all done with panache. Burgess, whose linguistic erudition and marvelously tuned ear gave him the ability to coin new dialects at will, endows his narrator with a language that seems to reinvent the greedy profusion of Elizabethan English without falling into the fustian mimicry of historical romance. Yet at the very point when the novel’s exposure of history’s “lying verdict” seems about to sweep away all objections to its own imaginative veracity, Burgess unstitches his own illusion. On the last page, just as the narrator has dropped the clue that will enable readers to identify him with the historical Jack Wilson (a minor Elizabethan actor best known for playing the part of Balthasar in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing), another voice interrupts his valediction:

Your true author speaks now, I that die these deaths, that feed this flame. I put off the illmade disguise and, four hundred years after that death at Deptford, mourn as if it all happened yesterday.

This “true author” can scarcely escape the reflexive ironies of Burgess’s design; but the “false truth” of his gracefully registered emotion, in which the pain of Marlowe’s death is verified in the wry salute of a dying successor, may be as close as we can get to the real thing.

If Burgess makes Nicholl’s brand of historicism seem chimerical, for a critic like John Michael Archer it is simply beside the point. His Sovereignty and Intelligence suggests that the literary relevance of Marlowe’s intelligencing is to be discovered not through any quest for the empirical “facts” of the poet’s career, but through an examination of the practical and symbolic centrality of espionage and “observation” in the court culture where the poet hoped to thrive. Archer shows how surveillance became “the dark, obverse side of the culture of display.”4 Elizabeth made full use of the silent watchfulness proclaimed by her motto, video et taceo, to play on the anxieties of a world in which a dangerously high degree of visibility was indispensable to advancement; so that the Queen became “the central representation of the paranoia that each member of court society felt before a general gaze.” The power of that image is made menacingly explicit in the latest of the great icons of royal authority, the Rainbow Portrait (c. 1602) in which Elizabeth reminded her subjects of the effective continuity of sovereignty and surveillance: in it the Queen stands cloaked in an “Irish mantle” (a sign of politic invisibility appropriated from her Irish enemies) ornamented with eyes and ears—the emblematic instruments of espionage.

This portrait speaks of a court like Shakespeare’s Elsinore, where (as Claudius darkly reminds his nephew) nothing can escape the royal eye, whose “cheer and comfort” will take the shape of those prying “observers” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Like Marlowe, they are university men, un-beneficed scholars desperate for patronage, and forced, like their counterpart, Bosola, in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1613), to assume the “base quality/Of intelligencer.”

In the end the sordid pathos of such figures may reveal more about the actual conditions of low-born ambition than the egotistical Marlovian swagger by which Nicholl is so beguiled. As the crony of “neglected poets,” a “fantastical scholar,” whose frantic efforts “to gain the name of a speculative man” have rendered him “half blear-ey’d,” Bosola perfectly illustrates the uneasy marriage of convenience that existed between the intellectual arts and the craft of intelligence. The point of such wearisome study lay precisely in the place-seeking intellectual’s ability to persuade a potential patron that “speculation” was an indispensable adjunct of power—a necessary supplement, perhaps even an alternative, to the chivalric accomplishments of the courtier.

Thus espionage has to be understood, Archer writes, as “an inevitable product of [the] multilayered system of mutual obligation that rendered English society…susceptible to the influence of various interests at court”; and the profession of spying, however odious it might sometimes seem, was comparable to other kinds of “intelligence” as innocent-seeming as cartography, chorography (the description of regions and districts), historiography, news gathering, or even simply reading on a patron’s behalf. For Marlowe, Archer suggests, dramatic poetry, with its conspicuous displays of political and psychological observation, was a way of exhibiting his intelligencing talents. The Massacre at Paris, after all, turns the public theater into a “forum for the display of secret intelligence” about the conspiratorial treachery of Rome; and even the cryptic practice of magic in Dr. Faustus may stand as a metaphor for the sister arts of scholarship and spying.

Contemplating the relation between the dramatist and the spy, Nicholl observes that the “interesting question is not how much [Marlowe’s] political position influenced his work as a writer, but the opposite question…how much did his position as a writer influence his political work?” Archer’s Sovereignty and Intelligence suggests that both these questions are based upon a false dichotomy; and the intimacy between Marlowe’s two callings may offer a further clue why criticism of his work has remained so entangled with biographical speculation. For the “personality” that seems impressed on every page of Marlowe’s writing—argumentative, iconoclastic, and full of quick contempt—is, we can begin to see, itself a piece of conscious artifice, designed to demonstrate its author’s hardheaded familiarity with humiliating and brutal necessities of power:

You must cast the scholar off,
And learn to court it like a gentle- man.
‘Tis not a black coat and a little band…
Or making low legs to a noble- man.
Or looking downward with your eyelids close,
And saying, “Truly, an’t may please your honour,”
Can get you any favour with great men;
You must be proud, bold, pleas- ant, resolute,
And now and then stab as occa- sion serves.
Edward II, 2.1.31–43

Marlowe may have overestimated his skill with a dagger; but the real irony of his self-fashioning, as the fascinated conjecture of The Reckoning perfectly illustrates, lies in the extraordinary success with which the image he contrived continues to impose itself upon the world. Between the overlapping canvasses of the book’s wittily designed dust jacket, half of a familiar face stands revealed, as if peering out from behind another picture frame: with its sardonic half-smile and cool observer’s eye, it is the face of the Corpus Christi portrait, a face that has launched a dozen books—the accepted face of Christopher Marlowe. Yet this may not in fact be Marlowe’s portrait at all, for the evidence identifying it with the poet is about as fragile as anything in The Reckoning itself. It has been accepted as Marlowe’s portrait perhaps only because he so insists on being seen; but this may be no more than the latest of his egregious impositions, another trick of one who remains (like Bosola) a “quaint, invisible devil.” Charles Nicholl sets out to expose Essex’s game; but in the end it is difficult to resist the suspicion that he is merely playing Marlowe’s. The poet, we know, died at Deptford; but reports of his death, he made sure, have been greatly exaggerated.

  1. 1

    J. Leslie Hotson, The Death of Christopher Marlowe (London: Nonesuch Press, 1925). The coroner’s report is cited from Hotson’s translation of the original Latin.

  2. 2

    S. A. Tannenbaum, The Assassination of Christopher Marlowe (A New View) (Tenney Press, 1928).

  3. 3

    See Calvin Hoffman, The Murder of the Man Who Was Shakespeare (Messner, 1955) and A. D. Wraight, In Search of Christopher Marlowe: A Pictorial Biography (London: Macdonald, 1965).

  4. 4

    John Michael Archer, Sovereignty and Intelligence: Spying and Court Culture in the English Renaissance (Stanford University Press, 1993), p. 17.