In the Marlowe Society Newsletter Nº 30, (Spring 2008), there are two articles, by Donna Murphy1 and Stewart Young2 respectively, shedding new light on Marlowe’s youthful habits and proving, almost beyond reasonable doubt, that he was fond of drink, tobacco and women.
What follows is part of my reply3 to both Murphy’s and Young’s articles. Since the alleged portraits of Shakespeare are so much in the news of late, and since the speculative pirouettes of Prof. Stanley Wells in regard to the Janssen/Cobbe Portrait encourage us to propose almost any theory in respect of the other portraits, I thought I’d put forward a hypothesis about the Grafton Portrait. I must say I am grateful to Dr. Wells for being so sure that the Janssen/Cobbe is the genuine article, as that leaves the Chandos, which I believe to be Marlowe’s, a non-starter for Shakespeare.
In order to elaborate my hypothesis about the Grafton, I need to comment on that extreme thinness of Marlowe’s, about which we have heard several echoes, including the lines in The Scholler, quoted by Murphy in her article: That mickle study make men lean, / As well as doth a curst queane…
There are several clues in Shakespeare to extraordinary thinness.4 We have Falstaff’s declaration that he used to be as thin as an eagle’s talon,5 which matches the information, in The Boy’s Song, that at the time of his stay with Sir John Harington6 under the alias of Mr. Le Doux, Marlowe, the author of Song, was lark’s-heels trim; lark’s heels and eagle’s talons sound to me too similar, as metaphors go, for coincidence. Then we should take into account the meaning of the Latin-derived name Macilente (pale and thin). Macilente is a character in Ben Jonson’s play Every Man Out of His Humour; I believe that this character represents Marlowe. In the play’s last speech, Macilente (in theory addressing himself to the Queen), wishes that you may in time make lean Macilente as fat as Sir John Falstaff; so, lean Macilente, stressing the original meaning of the name.
On the basis of all these clues, I had come to the conclusion that Marlowe had been unwell, and probably very thin, from, say, 1595 till 1599, the year of Every Man Out. I also conjectured that it could have been such illness the reason why Essex, or Anthony Bacon on his behalf, had asked Sir John Harington the favour of giving shelter and a teaching job to Marlowe-Le Doux, as some of us believe he did during at least part of 1595-6.7 These years’ span would fit with the publication dates of the 1Q Henry IV Part One (1598), with the wedding (June 1595) of Elizabeth De Vere -first-born child of Ver- to the Earl of Derby, mentioned in The Boy’s Song,8 as well as with the dates of publication of Sir John Davies’s Epigrams about Faustus and his loss of hair due to his having seene a Lyoness.9
Now it appears that Marlowe’s infection and consequent loss of weight (and hair?) may have happened, according to Murphy’s references, as early as 1588, when Robert Greene’s Perimedes was published, and no later than 1590, the year of publication of The Cobler of Canterburie with its lean Scholler. This does not preclude the possibility that Marlowe may have suffered the emaciating effects of such infection for several years after the disease itself had disappeared, and it would not be fanciful to imagine that the events in May 1593 might have made matters worse. As Falstaff says: a plague of sighing and grief! it blows a man up like a bladder!10 - which of course may be taken to mean exactly the opposite, vg: that a plague of sighing and grief can reduce a man to a skeleton. This interpretation would confirm Macilente’s last comment, in the sense that it would be in the Queen’s power to dispel Marlowe’s plague of sighing and grief, so he could become as fat as Sir John Falstaff. I also suspect that Marlowe created a fat, witty, clown in parody of his emaciated self.
The conjecture that Marlowe may have caught a venereal disease in, or before, 1588, losing a lot of weight as a result, presents us with the intriguing possibility that he may be the sitter in the Grafton Portrait. Let us remember some facts: In 1587 Marlowe had obtained his Cambridge degree, he had been involved in important spy work for the Crown, he had obviously decided against ordination and had plunged instead into a dramatist’s life, writing his first serious play: Tamburlaine the Great. And so, by 1588, having found his own mighty voice, Marlowe had become famous. He was now a popular man with powerful patrons (and the success probably went to his head). Friends and foes spoke of him, or wrote about him, his eccentricities were noted, apparently his illnesses too. Would it be too extravagant to surmise that the same person – patron, relative or whatever - who had paid in 1585 for the portrait in Corpus Christi College, paid for a new portrait of the up-and-coming new genius?
The so-called Grafton Portrait of Shakespeare bears the date 1588; the age of the sitter is 24 years. We are presented with a thin young man with short, dark hair and beard, dressed in clothes remarkably like the clothes that Marlowe (if it is Marlowe) is wearing in the Corpus Christi Portrait; the mouth, nose and eyes are very similar despite the thinness, the moustache is identical, and the higher forehead and receding hair-line may suggest premature loss of hair.
But what do we know about the Grafton Portrait? To begin with, we have been told that it cannot possibly be a portrait of William Shakespeare. (The National Portrait Gallery issued that statement in October 2005, a statement further supported by Dr. Wells’s recent declarations about the Janssen/Cobbe Portrait), which leaves us with the task of finding another man born in 1564 who might qualify.
One curious detail observed by the specialists was that the number 24, in AE SVAE, 24, was altered from an original 23, and it has been suggested that the sitter passed his 24th birthday before the portrait was finished, and he requested that his age be changed accordingly. If the portrait took longer to paint than expected, the year and the sitter’s age might have changed. (And this might be the place to remember that, as I pointed out in a previous article,11 if the Aetatis of a subject was fixed according to the year of their date of birth and not as regnal years, the age of William Shakespeare on 23rd April 1616 was 52 years, not 53, as carved in the Stratford Monument. And thereby hangs a tale.)
If the young man were Marlowe, the portrait may have been started late in 1587, to celebrate perhaps his Cambridge degree; then it was suddenly interrupted. The painter had time enough to include the AE SVAE, 23, but not the year. Then the portrait could have been resumed at any time after March 25th (or much later in the year), in any case after Marlowe’s 24th birthday; so the AE SVAE had to be altered.
According to further information released by the National Portrait Gallery, we also know that, although a specific artist has not been identified, the portrait was painted in England, in the late sixteenth century, on wood deriving from a tree grown in the areas around Surrey and London, both of which areas border with Kent, Marlowe’s county of birth. This is apparently a rarity, as professional painters of the period generally used wood from the Baltic region.
But how could a portrait of Marlowe be linked to Grafton Regis? Not until the early 20th century did the Grafton Portrait obtain that name, when its owners - the Ludgate family from Grafton Regis - claimed an old family tradition by which the portrait had been bequeathed by one of the Dukes of Grafton to their ancestor, a yeoman farmer, five or six generations previously.
And here is a long shot: If the portrait had been the possession of the early Dukes of Grafton, it might conceivably have come to them from the Palmer family. The first Duke, Henry Fitz-Roy, was the illegitimate son of the notorious Duchess of Cleveland, mistress of Charles II and wife of the unfortunate Roger Palmer, whose Catholic faith did not allow him to seek a divorce, despite the Duchess’s scandalous behaviour. As Palmer had no children outside his marriage (and there are serious doubts as to his having fathered any of his wife’s), it would not be adventurous to guess that some heirlooms he may have inherited from his own family passed on to her children, one of whom was created first Duke of Grafton in 1675 by his royal father. So, if by any chance the portrait was originally owned by the Palmer family this would explain why one of the early Dukes would think so little of it as to bequeath it to a stranger, particularly if there were something “embarrassing” about the identity of the sitter.
And what seems relevant at this point is that Roger Palmer’s direct ancestor, Sir Thomas Palmer, 1st Baronet of Wingham (1540-1624/5), was Sheriff of Kent during the lifetime of Christopher Marlowe. Therefore, all things considered and after five hundred years of posing as Shakespeare merely on the grounds of that AE SUAE.24, it seems not impossible that the lean young man may have been Marlowe after all.
© Isabel Gortázar, April 2009
Isabel Gortázar can be reached at email@example.com
1Donna N. Murphy: "Clues About Christopher Marlowe’s Sexuality in John Davies’ Epigrams and The Cobler of Canterburie." The Marlowe Society Newsletter, nº 30, Spring 2008.
2Dr. Stewart Young: "That All They That Loue Not Tobacco & Boies Were Fooles, an Opinion Attributed to Christopher Marlowe by Richard Baines, May 1593." The Marlowe Society Newsletter, nº 30, Spring 2008.
3"Tobacco, Booze and Women: Kit Marlowe’s Dangerous Living." The Marlowe Society Newsletter, nº 32, Spring 2009.
4Needless to say, I believe that Christopher Marlowe is the author of the Shakespeare works, including The Boy’s Song in The Two Noble Kinsmen.
51 Henry IV (II, 4, 323) Falstaff: …when I was about thy years, Hal, I was not an eagle's talon in the waist; I could have crept into any alderman's thumb-ring: a plague of sighing and grief! it blows a man up like a bladder. (1Q HIV, publ. 1598, and FF.).
6The Boy’s Song: Second Stanza:
Primrose, first-born child of Ver/Merry springtime’s harbinger/With harebells dim, Oxlips,in their cradles growing/Marigolds on deathbeds blowing/Lark’s-heels trim.
My own interpretation of The Boy’s Song would by far exceed the limits of this article, but I agree with some of Sandra Lauder’s interpretations, specifically her suggestion that harebells mean ha-ring-ton. (Sandra Lauder: "An Examination of ‘The Boy’s Song'": The Marlowe Society Research Journal nº 4, September 2006).
7A series of letters, passports and other documents, as well as a list of books including some of Shakespeare’s known sources (The Bacon Papers. Lambeth Palace Archives), led A.D. Wright to propose that a Mr. Le Doux, the supposed owner of these papers and books, may have been Marlowe. This Mr. Le Doux had apparently been hired by Sir John Harington of Exton as tutor to his young son. I agree with Wright’s theory, not least because of the added scene (IV, 1) in The Merry Wives of Windsor (FF), which does not appear in the 1Q. Although Wright does not mention the scene in The Merry Wives, the Le Doux theory was explained in depth in her book: Shakespeare. New Evidence. 1996.
8I believe that The Boy’s Song that was later included in The Two Noble Kinsmen (by Shakespeare and Fletcher), was originally written by Marlowe, for a private family party during the Christmas/New Year festivities in 1604-5, to celebrate the marriage of Susan de Vere to Philip Herbert, Earl of Montgomery. In the Song, the author reminisces on the previous marriage, in 1595, of the bride’s elder sister, Elizabeth de Vere, to the Earl of Derby. Shakespeare is supposed to have written Midsummer’s Night’s Dream for that occasion. MND includes the marriage between Theseus and Hippolyta, queen of the Amazones. The Two Noble Kinsmen opens precisely with the marriage feast of Hippolyta and Theseus, which can hardly be a coincidence. The exact date of composition of TNK is unknown, but cannot be earlier than 1606, when John Fletcher started his career as a dramatist.
9Published, according to Murphy, in 1595/6.
10See Footnote 5.
11"Let’s Talk of Graves and Worms and Epitaphs." The Marlowe Society Newsletter 27, Autumn 2006.
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