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…

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