February 26, 1564– Christopher Marlowe:
“Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?”
400 years after his mysterious, violent death cut short his brilliant career, Christopher Marlowe: playwright, poet, spy, radical atheist, homosexual, still fascinates with his poetic and tragic life. He was depicted as a suave genius with the looks of Rupert Everett in the film Shakespeare In Love (1998).
If Marlowe had attended high school, his yearbook would probably have listed him as: “Least Likely to See the Age of 30.” His own motto was: “What nourishes me, destroys me”, and that might be the last word. Marlowe was into excess, with a big appetite for drinking, tobacco and boys.
Marlowe was born in the same year as William Shakespeare, and was a member of the same social class. Unlike Shakespeare, however, Marlowe attended university. His strong education in the classics made him a talented translator and also informed his darkly hip poems. Marlowe popularized a change in the way poetry was written, heavily influenced by Latin, and by the late 1580s his writing style was all that, and widely imitated by the other writers of the era.
His work showed terrific empathy for morally ambiguous characters. Marlowe was quite caustic and quick to anger. He certainly wasn’t afraid to offer his opinion and to criticize other writers and their techniques.
The show biz world was rather insular in Elizabethan times, and Shakespeare would have had a personal acquaintance with Marlowe in 1591 at the Rose Theatre, where Marlowe’s big star actor, Edward Alleyn, was performing the juiciest roles. Shakespeare must have learned a lot from Marlowe’s plays, picking up tips and cribbing some of the best material. Eventually, Marlowe was knocked off the top spot at the box-office, failing to take the successful step into producing the history plays which would make Shakespeare a noted celebrity. This probably sent Marlowe to some intense therapy sessions, after all, he attended a university and he was a famous wit, disparaging of anyone with a humbler educational background.
In 1593, London was a city dealing with the Plague, a threat of invasion, a faltering economy, and high unemployment. Marlowe found his plays were gaining popularity with the increasingly xenophobic populace angered at the influx of immigrants, refugees that were used as a scapegoat for all of society’s problems. Isn’t that positively uncivilized?
At the same time, conspiracy theories abounded. Plots by religious extremists were everywhere. The people no longer had trust in the press.
Thomas Kyd, the playwright who had a hit with his Spanish Tragedy, had his home raided by government agents, where his papers revealed heretical content. In another person’s handwriting and different color ink, the name Marlowe was mentioned as a source for most of the opinions.
Kyd was savagely interrogated and tortured. He denied any knowledge of the items found at his place. He eventually died from the beating by the police.
Marlowe was arrested and interrogated by the English equivalent of the NSA. He had been being paid as an agent by the government, but he was arrested for allegedly counterfeiting coins and expressing pro-Catholic views. The second time he was arrested he was released on the condition that he check in with the police each day.
Marlowe believed his own press and, as the bad boy of the theatre scene at that time, his plays presented the dark side of politics. Though his writings had gotten him into trouble, his was probably more a case of death by allegory. In a state of heightened paranoia, the government took Marlowe’s Edward II to be a depiction of an ineffective monarch and a corrupt court, and as a personal attack on Queen Elizabeth I.
This was a society where the right words interpreted in the wrong way could possibly mean torture and death for the writer. This was not an era to make any enemies.
Scandal continues to cling to Marlowe’s legend. He was arrested for fighting in the streets. He spied on the Roman Catholics as a secret agent for the fanatical Protestants. He was also an atheist with a penchant for blasphemy, a serious charge in 16th century England. Just before his death in 1593, he was denounced for mocking religion. Marlowe repeated what seems to have been a common heresy at the time: Jesus and Saint John The Evangelist were boyfriends.
Marlowe died under conveniently dubious circumstances. He was stabbed through the eye in a brawl that could be interpreted as a quarrel over his bill at a gay bar. His killer and several witnesses had criminal and espionage connections, and most historians believe he had been marked for political assassination. But Marlowe’s murder had much more the feeling of a “hit” about it.
Adding an additional twist to the mystery are theories that Marlowe probably wrote portions of the Shakespearean canon, even after 1593, with the possibility that his death was staged and Marlowe had escaped to live and write under a new identity.
Marlowe is said to be buried in an unmarked grave in London’s Saint Nicholas’s Church, near the spot where he was supposedly killed. There is a memorial plaque to him on the wall of the churchyard. He was just 28 years old when he was taken by murder or simply disappeared.
Marlowe most assuredly did author Edward II, which I believe is the first major play with a gay hero. I could be wrong, occasionally that will happen. Check out young Ian McKellen‘s (then in the closet) breakthrough performance as Edward II from the 1969 Edinburgh Festival. It is available on DVD. Also seek out openly gay Derek Jarman’s accessible, interesting, relevant, contemporary film adaptation from 1991.
“The mightiest kings have had their minions;
Great Alexander loved Hephaestion,
The conquering Hercules for Hylas wept;
And for Patrocles, stern Achilles drooped.”