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Who Killed Christopher Marlowe?

Honan thinks that he may detect in Marlowe’s writing some of the psychic cost, as well as the benefit, of his work for Walsingham’s secret service:

He paid a high price in anguish for selling his soul to Seething Lane, if he turned in anyone’s name. Yet we cannot be certain that he betrayed Corpus men, or lured them as a provocateur, even though a certain disenchantment informs his mature plays. In Faustus or even in Tamburlaine, a sense of grandeur is sometimes coupled with a deflating triviality.

If…yet…even though”: in an odd dance of ambivalence, what one half-sentence gives, the next half-sentence takes away. Triviality in the plays may be a symptom of disenchantment which may in turn be a symptom of personal anguish—and then again it may not. The biographer cannot decide. What he concludes instead—and the conclusion serves as the central claim of this biography—is that Marlowe’s works were not mere reflections of his sordid life. Having laboriously brought the life and the work together, Honan struggles to untangle them.

What he draws from the quarry of the self,” Honan argues, is “vividly etched into something…essentially not autobiographical at all.” Penetrating objectivity and fine, impersonal control are central, in this account, to Marlowe’s achievement as a writer. “Ruthlessly analytical and detached,”he found a way in his works “to distance himself from his feelings and transmute them.” But how far have we actually come from Marlowe’s life? Wouldn’t an ability to distance oneself from one’s feelings and transmute them also be of great use to a spy?

Riggs makes no comparable attempt to save Marlowe’s plays from contamination. “Poets and intelligence agents,” he writes, “had special skills in the decoding and recoding of texts; they shared a proficiency in wordplay, the various species of allegory and ironic allusions.” When he was recruited at Cambridge, Riggs suggests, Marlowe’s “assignment was to create the enemies that justified the exercise of state power; the crown encouraged him to voice what it regarded as sedition and heresy.” This elegant formulation enables Riggs to make an unusually powerful connection between matters that seem sharply opposed: Marlowe’s work as a double agent and his work as a playwright. The theology student at Cambridge gave people the distinct impression that he was an ardent Catholic; the professional playwright in London gave people the distinct impression that he was an atheist. Both poses helped to create the enemies that the state undertook to crush.

Early in her reign the Queen had declared, it was said, that she did not wish to “make windows into men’s souls,” but the rising tensions of the 1580s had led to mounting vigilance. If her government lacked the technological means of the German Democratic Republic (not to mention our own unleashed national security state), it maintained a small army of informers, listeners, and watchers whose purview extended beyond actual conspiracies to muttered expressions of discontent, ale house banter, and overheated fantasies. Marlowe’s plays can be understood against the background of the state’s increasingly sophisticated techniques for uncovering what it regarded as hidden threats.

His art drew up to the surface dangerous impulses and subversive ideas that were lurking half-formed in the darkness. Thus rumors quickly circulated of restless artisans whose dreams of rebellion were excited by the shepherd Tamburlaine’s rise to power or of students whose fantasies of magical powers were nurtured by Faustus’s pact with the devil. A certain Cambridge student, we are told by one seventeenth-century gossip, “would go out at midnight into a wood and fall down upon his knees and pray heartily that the devil would come, that he might see him (for he did not believe that there was a devil).” If he did not believe that there was a devil, why, we may ask, did the young, addle-brained fellow get down upon his knees? Because, the story goes, he had “learned all Marlowe by heart.” The conclusion is inescapable, at least for those already convinced that the theater is a dangerous and corrupting force: “Marlowe made him an Atheist.”3

But if it is reasonably clear that Marlowe’s role as Catholic provocateur was part of his work for the spy network, who or what accounts for his role as atheist provocateur? Was this also a part he had been assigned, or did he choose it for himself? Nothing in the surviving record suggests that anyone in the government thought that the playwright was doing the Queen’s good service in what he wrote, and writing provocative plays on the London stage would be a wildly implausible way to do so. On the contrary, when in 1593 someone nailed to a London church wall a bloodthirsty, rabble-rousing placard and signed it “Tamburlaine,” the royal commissioners immediately moved against Marlowe, as if they had long suspected him of harboring seditious ideas.

Marlowe himself was away from London, safely ensconced for the moment at the country house of his patron, Thomas Walsingham. But his former roommate, the playwright Thomas Kyd, was arrested, his rooms searched, and certain “atheistical” papers discovered (or planted). Interrogated under torture, Kyd claimed that the papers were Marlowe’s. The sordid informer Baines drew up a report, duly presented to the Queen’s Privy Council, which detailed Marlowe’s alleged “damnable” opinions: that the Virgin Mary was no virgin and that Jesus was a bastard; that Saint John and Jesus were homosexual lovers; that the New Testament was “filthily written” and that he, Marlowe, could do a better job; that religion was first invented “only to keep me in awe”; that if there were any good religion at all, then it would be the Papists’, because they use more elaborate and colorful ceremonies; that all Protestants are “hypocritical asses,” and so on. It is impossible to tell if Marlowe had actually ventured any of these opinions, which were not consistent in this period with a desire to lead a long life. The report had the effect it was no doubt intended to have: the “articles of Atheism,” a government agent reports, “were delivered to her highness and command given by herself to prosecute it to the full.”

A few days later Marlowe lay dead at the widow Bull’s house in Deptford. Riggs and Honan share with Nicholl the conviction that this death was exceedingly unlikely to have been caused by a quarrel over the cost of lunch and dinner. Nicholl thinks that the killer (probably Frizer, acting in collaboration with the other two) acted on orders from someone in the circle of the powerful Earl of Essex—not the earl himself, in all likelihood, but one of his ambitious associates—who thought that Marlowe was getting in the way of a Byzantine plot to destroy the earl’s archrival, Sir Walter Ralegh. Nicholl is curiously diffident about the significance of this claim: “I am not trying to argue that Marlowe’s death has to have a meaning,” he writes; “My reading tends only to a more complex kind of meaninglessness than that of a ‘tavern brawl.’”

Honan thinks that Frizer, who hoped to thrive as Thomas Walsingham’s business agent, decided to kill Marlowe because he feared that Marlowe’s unsavory reputation was a liability to his master: “As patron of a well-known, flagrant ‘atheist,’ Walsingham risked damaging his own reputation, and so depriving his agent of profits and security.” Riggs, more intriguingly, thinks that Marlowe was killed at the command of Queen Elizabeth herself. She did not have to be explicit: a few ominous words, spoken in the right ears, would have been enough.

Why would Elizabeth, who was not by nature impulsively murderous, have wanted Marlowe dead? Her government, to be sure, was nervous about the threat of popular rioting, incited by the placard signed “Tamburlaine,” but Marlowe, off at his patron’s country house, was not directly implicated in this provocation. Still, Riggs argues, the combination of the placard and the spy’s report triggered in the Queen and her close advisers a “moral panic,” the paranoid fear of “an emergent alliance between atheists and Roman Catholic provocateurs.” After all, Protestant polemicists had so often repeated the line that the Pope was a cynical unbeliever and that the Catholic Church was the Antichrist’s conspiracy that they had come to believe that it was literally true. The list of scandalous opinions attributed to Marlowe did not seem to them either a deliberate slander or a piece of grotesque comedy; rather it seemed like the smoking gun they had long expected to find. And if anyone had bothered to notice that Marlowe’s “Catholicism” was a double agent’s role and his “atheism” the unverified report of a paid informer who was a notorious liar, it would not have made a difference. The authorities were spooked by their own fantasies. Marlowe was their worst nightmare.

The problem with Riggs’s tantalizing argument is that the Queen and her tough, sober councilors were not easily spooked. The argument only makes sense, I think, on one condition: that someone in the government, perhaps the Queen herself, had actually seen Marlowe’s plays and taken in their terrible, subversive power. That power does not reside either in outrageous aphorisms or in plot outlines: Faustus makes a pact with the devil, but in the end, like the homosexual King Edward and the Jew Barabas, he pays for his transgression with his life. Even the Nietzschean superman Tamburlaine finds that his will to power cannot escape the natural limitations of his mortal body. None of this really matters. What happens again and again in Marlowe’s plays is that the incantatory power of his verse releases a destructive energy that cannot be contained within any conventional boundaries.

Forsake thy king and do but join with me,” Tamburlaine cries,

And we will triumph over all the world.
I hold the Fates bound fast in iron chains,
And with my hand turn Fortune’s wheel about.

Something electrifying happened when these words were first intoned on the London stage. So too when Barabas first sang his cynical praise of money, or Gaveston his paean to homosexual love, or Faustus his desire for Helen:

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burned the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Her lips suck forth my soul. See, where it flies!
Come, Helen, come give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven be in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.

Reckless desire, mocking all hierarchies and indifferent to the consequences, had been given a passionate, devastatingly eloquent voice.

This desire was not a private affair. Marlowe’s plays, triumphant commercial successes on the public stage, were the first great mass entertainments of modern England. In theatrical performances at court in the winter of 1592–1593, the Queen may have finally seen for herself what the London crowds were so excited about. The daughter of the ruthless Henry VIII and a determined survivor, Elizabeth I was no fool: she wanted this kind of thing stopped: “Prosecute it to the full.”

  1. 3

    The story, jotted down around 1640 by Henry Oxinden, was published in 1935 by Mark Eccles (“Marlowe in Kentish Tradition,” Notes and Queries, Vol. 169).

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