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.

Stasi files were being made public, and in his fourth or fifth letter my scholarly acquaintance wrote that he had to admit something to me: his trip across town to West Berlin in 1986 was not in fact his first visit to the West. He had, he wrote, been a spy for some years against NATO in various European cities. His motives, he assured me, were entirely idealistic. He was not part of the secret army of domestic informants who pried into the private lives of virtually all East German citizens. Rather, he thought there was a dangerous power imbalance between the East and West blocs, and he had the opportunity to do his small part to assure world stability and peace. Knowing this, he asked me, could I still write a letter of recommendation on his behalf, a letter in which I would speak of him as a scholar and not as a spy? He wanted to continue his Renaissance studies and, in particular, to write a book about Christopher Marlowe.

I told him that I would be happy to write a letter about his scholarship—I particularly admired an essay he had published about the crowd scenes in Coriolanus—but that I would have to mention that he had served as an East German spy. It did not seem to me inherently dishonorable to spy for one’s country, and I could legitimately write, I told him, that the experience might have some bearing on his attempt to understand Marlowe. But I also had other reasons for not colluding in any attempt to suppress this information. I had no idea, after all, what he had actually done or what twisted path he had followed to reach those European capitals where he had done his espionage work. After a long silence, I had another letter.

He had, he said, decided to undertake what the Germans term a Vergangenheitsbewältigung, a public coming to terms with the past. He was compelled to do so by a further disclosure of documents, documents that complicated his earlier assurance that he had never participated in domestic spying. When he was being recruited for the spy service, his superiors asked him to demonstrate his skills—as a condition for being sent abroad on an important mission—by writing reports on several of his fellow students and professors. He had been promised, he told me, that the reports would never be used; they were simply exercises to prove his competence. But now he was shocked, deeply shocked, to discover that they had in fact been instrumental in damaging the lives of those about whom he had written. He had, unwittingly of course and in all innocence, betrayed his friends and teachers.

I did not answer this letter, and after this I heard no more from him. A friend of mine who did hear from him recently told me that he is teaching in a German high school and is quite bitter that his career has been blighted, while others in the Stasi, at far higher levels than he, have emerged unscathed into the new world order.

How was Marlowe recruited into the Elizabethan spy service? What did he have to do to prove his competence? We do not know. But we can, I think, be reasonably confident that whatever it was involved a comparable blend of bad faith, betrayal, and play-acting. The fact that the university authorities believed that the theology student was about to flee to Rheims almost certainly means that Marlowe had been actively cultivating the reputation of a Catholic dissident, one who was not merely quietly sympathetic to the old religion but poised to participate in treasonable efforts to bring it back.

This reputation would have given him access to a diverse clandestine community at Cambridge, a secret sodality of pious young men who longed for the Roman rites and feared for the damnation of their immortal souls, nostalgic dreamers, would-be saints and martyrs, muddle-headed romantics who idealized Mary, Queen of Scots, Machiavellian plotters who dreamed of overturning the state, drunken adventurers, visionaries, idealists, ideologues, intellectuals, mercenaries in the pay of Spain or France, fervent believers stubbornly clinging to the faith of their ancestors. The Elizabethan spy’s business was not only a matter of observing carefully, remembering, and passing along compromising details to the authorities; the task also typically involved provocation. The successful double agent would draw his targets out, encourage them in their schemes, shore up their shaky confidence, urge them on to the most violent courses. Then the trap would be sprung, and the gullible intriguer would find himself in the capable hands of the Queen’s torturer Topcliffe and on the way to a hideous death on the scaffold.

We know that Marlowe eventually made his way to the Continent—he was arrested on a charge of counterfeiting in 1592 in the Netherlands town of Flushing, where he was sharing a room with the sinister government spy Richard Baines—but his work, like that of my German acquaintance, must have already begun at home, among his fellow students.


David Riggs’s The World of Christopher Marlowe and Park Honan’s Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy both concern themselves centrally with Marlowe’s secret life as a spy. Neither has very much new documentary evidence to add to the tangled web of fact and speculation that Charles Nicholl expertly wove in The Reckoning. For sheer narrative pleasure, Nicholl’s book remains unrivaled, but its focus is sharply on Marlowe’s murder. Nicholl has very little to say about the plays and poems that make this murder seem a catastrophe for literature comparable to the killing of Pushkin. Both Riggs and Honan, by contrast, have a specific interest in literary lives—Riggs has written a fine biography of Ben Jonson; Honan of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and others—and both are determined, as Nicholl is not, to tease out the relation between Marlowe’s espionage and his art. “Marlowe’s work as a spy,” Honan writes, “has to be seen in the light of his devotion to his art.”

But what does this actually mean? At moments it is simply a reminder that Marlowe had more on his mind at Cambridge than betraying his friends. He continued the passionate engagement with literature, and particularly with classical literature, that he must have begun as a student at the King’s School in Canterbury. Shakespeare characteristically makes fun of the years in which he was himself a “whining schoolboy, with his satchel/And shining morning face, creeping like snail/Unwillingly to school.” But Marlowe’s encounter with the classics, though it must have included its share of mind-numbing tedium and routine beatings, was life-transforming: “It may be that no discovery he made,” Honan remarks, “and no love he ever felt, affected his mind and feelings so terribly, so unsettlingly, as the writers of ancient Rome.”

Riggs is particularly acute on the syllabus that an ordinary Elizabethan schoolboy would have slogged his way through: Lyly’s introductory Latin Grammar, Susenbrotus’s Epitome of Schemes and Tropes, with its practical instruction in paraphrase, contrast, comparison, example, and vivid description, Aphthonius’s Progymnasmata, with its guide to organizing thoughts into a continuous argument. Out of such dry bones, and out of an astonishingly intense reading of Terence and Lucretius, Virgil and Ovid, the young Marlowe fashioned his own poetic voice, a voice that had never before been heard in English. “For his peers,” Riggs writes, “Marlowe’s great achievements were an English blank verse line that stood up to Virgil’s stately measures, and a rhymed English couplet that reproduced the elegance and wit of Ovid’s love poetry.”

All well and good, but what has this literary accomplishment to do with spying and betrayal? It is possible, of course, that the answer is: nothing. Marlowe could have been drawn into Walsingham’s sinister network for any number of reasons—poverty, blackmail, a taste for adventure, even patriotic zeal—that may have no relation whatever to his blank verse and his love poetry. But this would be a very disappointing answer for the ambitious literary biographer whose project is driven by the dream of a whole life, not a life in pieces. There can in such a life be conflict, contradiction, bad faith, and mixed motives, but it is difficult for any biographer to accept that significant parts of an artist’s existence remained in hermetic isolation from the others, just as it is difficult for any biographer to accept that a major literary achievement had a purely literary genesis.

That Marlowe was an inspired reader of the classics is clear, but that his creative achievements depended exclusively on his reading and not on anything else in the life he was living seems implausible. It would, in any case, reduce biography to simple source study: tell me what he read, and I’ll tell you what he wrote. Those of us who commit the act of literary biography (or who are drawn to read one) have a weakness for just-so stories. This or that obscure piece of the poet’s life, laboriously winkled out of the archive, accounts for this or that aspect of the work that has drawn us to the life in the first place. Thus, for example, Honan pores over the will that Marlowe’s mother, Katherine, drew up in 1605, long after the death of her gifted son. She leaves various items to her three married daughters (two of whom led turbulent lives, constantly in and out of court on charges of blaspheming, fighting, stealing, and cursing). The will mentions several gold and silver rings, along with a “red petticoat,” and the biographer is off and running:

Her son’s eye for colours and jewels may be traceable to his mother; equally, either she or another adult may have encouraged his interest in the night sky.

This is pretty silly stuff, but it is a silliness to which almost all literary biographies are prone. And if some might have given the red petticoat a pass, no serious literary biographer of Marlowe could resist the attempt to link his spying and his writing.

Marlowe’s expert knowledge of Latin, French, and Italian formed part of that link, since it would have been impossible to gain access to the world of European Catholicism with English alone. It was obviously important as well to be able to fashion a role and to play it convincingly. Marlowe, Honan writes, “blundered as a secret agent: he gave rise to a rumour that he meant to go to Rheims himself.” But it is difficult to understand how that was a blunder; it seems rather to have been part of the job description and a tribute to Marlowe’s skill that he managed to fool the university authorities. So too was the ability to contrive plots, dig out secrets, read between the lines, attend to nuances, and spring traps: all qualities of the greatest utility for the playwright as well as the spy.

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.”

This Issue

April 6, 2006