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Who Killed Christopher Marlowe?

At the time of his death Marlowe was known not only as a notorious blasphemer but also as England’s greatest playwright. His spectacularly violent two-part epic Tamburlaine, about the rise of a Scythian shepherd to become king of half the world, had revolutionized the Elizabethan theater; his cynical comedy The Jew of Malta had entertained mass audiences by ruthlessly mocking conventional moral pieties; his daring history play Edward II had offered a complex, sympathetic portrayal of a homosexual king. And the passionate intensity of his tragedy Doctor Faustus exceeded anything that his rival and exact contemporary, William Shakespeare, had yet written. Many echoed and amplified Beard’s smug satisfaction at the young playwright’s murder, but there were other, more sorrowful voices as well. The playwright George Peele lamented the loss to England of “the muses’ darling.” George Chapman celebrated Marlowe’s “free soul,” Michael Drayton his “fine madness,” Thomas Nashe his willingness to contemn his own life “in comparison of the liberty of speech.”

Shakespeare’s response, when it came some six years after the event, was more allusive and elusive: “Dead shepherd,” says the lovesick Phoebe in As You Like It, “now I find thy saw of might: ‘Whoever loved that loved not at first sight?’” The “saw”—that is, the saying whose power Phoebe now grasps—is a line from Marlowe’s erotic poem Hero and Leander. The invocation of the unnamed “dead shepherd” is so brief that it almost escapes notice, and the minor character Phoebe is so negligible that it is difficult to take seriously her tribute: only now does she understand the “might” of something that Marlowe had written. One would be tempted to dismiss Shakespeare’s allusion altogether, were it not that it comes fast on the heels of another, even more elusive one. “When a man’s verses cannot be understood,” the clown Touchstone says, “nor a man’s good wit seconded with the forward [i.e., precocious] child, understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.”

We are suddenly back, for a split second, in the little room in widow Bull’s house in Deptford where in an argument over the “reckoning” Marlowe was struck dead. Why in 1598, when Shakespeare was writing As You Like It, did Marlowe’s death flash through his mind? Probably because, trying his hand at a pastoral comedy—that is, a sophisticated comedy about lovesick shepherds—Shakespeare would inevitably have thought of Marlowe’s most celebrated poem, “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.” For years on end, this irresistibly seductive lyric—“Come live with me and be my love”—had echoed and reechoed in Elizabethan sensibilities, like a haunting melody that a whole generation finds almost impossible to exorcise. Perhaps Shakespeare, who had long been troubled by Marlowe’s achievements as a poet and a playwright, needed to remind himself that the “passionate shepherd” was a “dead shepherd.”

But what should we make of the odd remark that when a poet’s verses are not understood, it strikes him more dead than a great reckoning in a little room? Why did Marlowe in this account seem an enigma to his contemporaries, even to so perceptive a contemporary as Shakespeare? And why was this elusiveness, this failure to understand “his good wit,” fatal? Or rather, who really killed Christopher Marlowe and why?

Shakespeare repeats the word that had been used in the official inquest back in 1593, the “reckoning.” But very few contemporaries would have had occasion to read the report of this inquest; at the time most of the gossip about Marlowe’s death centered on a lurid story of love, probably homosexual love, and violent jealousy. There was evidently in circulation an alternative account—a fatal quarrel over the bill—that the lines in As You Like It appear to endorse and that must have been based on the coroner’s report. But the report itself dropped out of sight (and the meaning of Shakespeare’s allusion was lost) until a brilliant, Harvard-trained archival scholar, Leslie Hotson, found the report in 1925 and found too the record of the official pardon shortly thereafter granted to the murderer, Ingram Frizer. The case finally appeared to be understood and closed.

Instead, as Charles Nicholl chronicled several years ago in his thrilling book The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe, the whole story gradually began to fall apart under the pressure of modern scholarship.1 That scholarship is impressively on display in two important new biographies—David Riggs’s The World of Christopher Marlowe and Park Honan’s Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy. Both Riggs and Honan know that nothing is quite as it seemed, either to Hotson or to Shakespeare (whom Honan characterizes as “nauseatingly self-protective”) or to the sixteen jurors, “good men and true,” who were gathered by the coroner for the inquest.

The widow Bull, it turns out, was not running a tavern; she was a woman of property, with links to powerful figures at court. The three men with whom Marlowe spent the last day of his life were not a random group of tipplers; they were all figures deeply involved in the murky world of Elizabethan espionage, fashioned in the 1570s and 1580s by the crafty Sir Francis Walsingham and largely run from his residence at Seething Lane. Robert Poley, like Marlowe a poor boy educated at Cambridge, had once been caught distributing seditious Catholic pamphlets; at some point he had been turned by Walsingham into a spy against his fellow Catholics and had revealed (and no doubt partly fomented) dangerous plots to kill Queen Elizabeth and install her Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, on the English throne. Nicholas Skeres, a small-time confidence man, also busied himself with spying on Catholic conspirators and carried confidential letters from the powerful Earl of Essex to Walsingham. Ingram Frizer, whose twelve-penny dagger entered Marlowe’s brain, was employed as a kind of business agent by the spymaster Walsingham’s cousin, Thomas Walsingham, who also happened to be Marlowe’s patron. And Marlowe himself, as scholarly sleuths have been able to tease out, was immersed in this same shadowy realm.

The son of a Canterbury shoemaker, the gifted Marlowe had been sent at the age of sixteen to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, on a scholarship that was ordinarily awarded to students preparing for the ministry. He held the scholarship for the maximum time, six years, as if he were going to take holy orders and trudge off to some provincial parish, but that is not what happened.

Since the college’s Buttery Books—ledgers in which weekly charges for food and drink were recorded—survive for much of this period, it is possible to follow Marlowe’s university career quite closely, at least as concerns his consumption of lamb chops and beer. The pattern of charges suggests that Marlowe took up residence and pursued his studies steadily and prudently until 1584, when he received his BA degree. At that point, things changed: he evidently had more money to spend—though certainly not from his family or the scholarship—and, shortly after his twenty-first birthday, he began to be absent from Cambridge for extended periods of time.

The college officials noticed these absences and were alarmed. They would have been familiar enough with wealthy students periodically disappearing to go whoring or hawking (or, for that matter, to participate in the endless lawsuits to which the Elizabethan elite was addicted). But Marlowe’s absences, they suspected, stemmed from a more sinister motive, one with which they were also disturbingly familiar. England under Elizabeth I was officially a Protestant country—regular attendance at Anglican church services was required, and no other religious faith was tolerated—but a substantial portion of the population retained a quiet, residual loyalty to the Catholic Church. A small number of those loyal to the old religion found the situation intolerable: some fled abroad and entered various Catholic religious orders, others joined secular communities of English Catholics living in exile in France or the Low Countries, others remained at home and secretly harbored at great peril Catholic priests who could take confession and administer the sacraments.2 All of these die-hards were regarded by the English Protestant authorities as threats to the state, real or potential traitors poised to assassinate the Queen and return England to the clutches of the Antichrist who sat on the papal throne in Rome.

During Marlowe’s years at Cambridge, tensions steadily grew as rumors of Catholic plots and foreign invasion feverishly circulated, and the officials redoubled their efforts to ferret out conspirators. The task was maddeningly difficult: Catholics and Protestants looked alike, came from the same backgrounds, believed most of the same things. Virtually all large families, including the families of the principal persecutors, had Catholics in them. But the fate of the nation seemed to depend on sorting it all out—and the fears were not, after all, entirely the manifestation of paranoia. The Pope had excommunicated Elizabeth and encouraged assassination attempts. Conspiracies were hatched to kill the Queen—including the Babington plot which Poley and Skeres infiltrated—and in 1588 the Invincible Armada of the Catholic King of Spain tried to invade the island and return England to the faith of Rome.

When Christopher Marlowe applied for his Master of Arts degree in 1587, university authorities set about to deny it to him. There was, they thought, a sinister explanation for his mysterious absences: he intended to go abroad to join the dissident English Catholics at Rheims. But at this point the highest authorities in the land—Lord Treasurer Burghley, Archbishop Whitgift, Lord Chancellor Hatton, and others on the Queen’s Privy Council—intervened. They informed the university officials that Marlowe had in fact done the Queen “good service” and instructed that he be granted his degree at the next commencement. “It is not Her Majesty’s pleasure,” the privy councilors added, “that anyone employed as he had been in matters touching the benefit of his country should be defamed by those that are ignorant in the affairs he went about.” Although much sensational information about Marlowe has been discovered in modern times, we are still largely “ignorant in the affairs he went about.” The likeliest possibility is that he served as a spy against English Catholics at home or abroad.


I have only been acquainted (as far as I know) with one spy. He was a young East German Shakespeare scholar whom I first met in 1986 at the World Shakespeare Congress in West Berlin. This was, he told me at the time, his first trip outside East Germany, and I complimented him on the flawlessness of his English. “It is a tribute not to me,” he replied modestly, “but to the educational system of the German Democratic Republic.” When in 1989 the Wall fell and the GDR collapsed, I began to receive letters from my young acquaintance. The letters, eloquent and anguished, expressed his growing disillusionment in the wake of the embarrassing revelations that were emerging about the secret luxuries of East Germany’s leaders. I am cynical enough, I confess, to have anticipated that what would eventually follow would be a request for a letter of recommendation for a fellowship or an academic position in the United States. I was not wrong, but before that request came, there was a surprising revelation.

  1. 1

    Harcourt Brace, 1992; University of Chicago Press, 1995.

  2. 2

    The intricate network of Catholic loyalists and their extraordinary struggle to cling to their faith is vividly evoked in Gerard Kilroy’s recent book Edmund Campion: Memory and Transcription (Ashgate, 2005).

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