Friday, May 30, 2008

This Day in Theater History (Christopher Marlowe Murdered)

May 30, 1593—Nearly three and a half centuries before Raymond Chandler began turning out a series of mysteries featuring a detective named Marlowe, Elizabethan England featured a real-life mystery revolving around a protagonist of the same name, as the short and tumultuous life of playwright-poet-spy Christopher Marlowe ended with his stabbing death.

Scholars bemoan the lack of documentation concerning the life of William Shakespeare. However, in the case of Marlowe—born only two months before the Bard—a different problem exists: the suspect nature of the documentation that does exist. Controversy over the truth of these sources stems directly from the repressive nature of Shakespeare’s and Marlowe’s times.

Shakespeare and Marlowe seem to have been aware of each other in the small, circumscribed London theater world. However, their fates—and, to an extent, their posthumous reputations—owed much to how they chose to protect their innermost secrets.

Several recent scholars, notably Stephen Greenblatt and Clare Asquith, have seriously considered the possibility that Shakespeare—or at least his family members—was a recusant or secret Catholic, using coded language in his plays that could only be understood by others of his faith, lest he be brought up on charges. He lived like a bourgeois, dying comfortably after retiring from the stage in his late 40s.

Marlowe, on the other hand, was only 29 when he died. He was part of a group of “university wits” –products of a restless, urban, higher-education culture—drawn, as Greenblatt described the milieu of one of them, Thomas Watson, to “impressive learning, literary ambition, duplicity, violence, and ruthlessness.” 

While at Cambridge, Marlowe was recruited by Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, Francis Walsingham. (Why is it that so many spies over the years—not just Marlowe, but also Whittaker Chambers and the Cambridge Spies for the Communists--are recruited on campus?) 

Before long, Marlowe was pretending to be a Catholic seminarian on the Continent, feeding Walsingham the kind of information that made Her Majesty’s intelligence network so feared (and admired) among European rulers that, it was said, she knew more about the Spanish Armada than the Spanish monarch, King Philip II, did.

Pretending to be something you’re not is great training for the theater, but it can also produce a fractured identity, particularly if you have many secrets of your own to guard—and Marlowe had at least some. 

At various times, Marlowe faced accusations related to sexual orientation, counterfeiting, and atheism, in addition to spying. In the dark atmosphere of the time, when slanders were produced by means of torture (no press in those days), it’s impossible to say how much of this was true. Even if only one or two of the many accusations made against him were true, however, the playwright was running counter to the ethos of his time.

Within a few years of his death, rumors began to circulate about the manner of Marlowe’s passing .One of the first instances of the rumor that he died in a barroom brawl came in five years after his death, when the critic Frances Meres observed that the playwright was “stabbed to death by a bawdy servingman, a rival of his in lewde love.”

Remarkably, the document with the most information about his death—the coroner’s inquisition—didn’t turn up until Marlowe scholar Leslie Hotson discovered it in the archives of the Public Records Office in London in 1925. It’s just as important for what it doesn’t say as what it does.

To start with, Marlowe did not die in a barroom, as many otherwise reputable reference books commonly state. It occurred in the home of the widow Eleanor Bull, in the town of Deptford. Bull’s connections at the court of Queen Elizabeth, as well as her home’s presence by the sea (making for easy access to the Continent, where spies like Marlowe worked), made hers a safe hosue for government agents. 

The four men at the house on the day in question—Robert Poley, Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres, and Marlowe—were all connected to Thomas Walsingham, Marlowe’s patron and a cousin of England’s recently deceased spymaster.

The coroner’s report identified Poley, Frizer and Skeres each in turn as a “gentleman.” What it did not note was their connection to Thomas Walsingham. Nor did it identify what the four men were doing there at Bull’s home, nor who gave exactly what testimony. 

It placed the blame for the incident on Marlowe (called “Morley”—the Elizabethans were notoriously flexible in how they spelled names) over “the payment of the sum of pence, that is, le reckoning.” After some words were exchanged, Marlowe attacked Frizer with a dagger, and in the ensuing commotion fatally stabbed the playwright over his right eye, the report claimed.

All kinds of rumors have circulated over the years as to the real cause of Marlowe’s death, including a case of rough sex getting out of control and the need to silence him over his heresy (an order for his arrest had just been issued by the Privy Council). 

But given Marlowe’s associations and the furtive world of 16th-century English espionage, one of the strongest possibilities of all, according to Russell Aiuto, is that the playwright was a victim in the struggle for survival by Francis Walsingham, Walter Raleigh, and the Earl of Essex. (The latter two were beheaded some years after the Marlowe murder.)

In any case, Frizer was quickly pardoned. At this point, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know for sure if Queen Elizabeth accepted the judgment that he had acted in self-defense or that the powers that be hoped to bring down the curtain of silence forever on the brilliant but reckless rival of Shakespeare.

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