Sunday, December 18, 2011

Christopher Marlowe's Early Life: What If? by Samuel Blumenfeld

In writing The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection, I faced all of the same problems that other biographers of Marlowe have faced. Constance Brown Kuriyama summed up the problem very nicely in the Introduction to her biography, Christopher Marlowe: A Renaissance Life, published in 2002: “Although biography is technically nonfiction, all life-writing is an amalgam of fact and interpretation, logical inference and speculation, truth and myth.”

And this is certainly true when it comes to Marlowe. For example, we all know of Shakespeare’s supposed “lost years,” which biographers have tried to fill with as much fictional nonsense as possible. Apparently there seems to be a similar blank period in Marlowe’s early life – the period from 1572, when Marlowe was 8, and 1578, when at age of 14 he entered the King’s School. What was he doing during those six years? And why didn’t he enter the King’s School at the age of 9, when that was possible? What was he doing for those five years that made him wait until the final deadline for entering the King’s School at age 14?

The standard biographies of Marlowe start with his birth in Canterbury in 1564 and some known facts about his family that William Urry was able to gather through his intensive research in Canterbury’s archives. But little is known about Marlowe’s childhood until he enters the King’s School at age 14, for which there is adequate documentary evidence.

So we have no choice but to engage in a bit of speculation. I believe that young Christopher, who would become the greatest dramatist in all of human history, was a child prodigy and exhibited his high intelligence and linguistic genius at an early age. We all know of child prodigies. Today you can see such musical prodigies performing on YouTube. But we don‘t know how child geniuses were treated back in 16th-century England, particularly if the little genius came from a common family. It is also likely that Christopher's father, John Marlowe, a cobbler, recognized his son’s precocity and did not expect him to follow in his footsteps. His son was meant for better things.

Where did Christopher get his primary education? In 1569, when the future poet was five years old, Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, founded a new school at Eastridge Hospital for the education of poor children at no charge. Kuriyama writes: “The school opened its doors to twenty poor children at about the time Christopher was ready to begin his education, offering instruction in reading, writing, and singing.”

If young Christopher Marlowe was indeed a child prodigy, we can assume that the Archbishop would have readily recognized the precocious talents of young Christopher and been amazed at how quickly he learned the fundamentals of English literacy. Also, in 1572, the Archbishop may have been asked by his good friend Lord Burghley if he knew of a youngster who might make a good page to a young nobleman about to embark on a two-year tour of the Continent, and the Archbishop may immediately have thought of young Marlowe who had just turned 8, the appropriate age when boys became pages.

I have found no factual evidence that such an exchange took place. This is mere speculation on my part, and I made that clear in my biography. But it is speculation based more on possibility than probability. Young Marlowe had to be doing something between 1572 and 1578. He wasn’t at home playing video games, and he could have entered the King’s School in 1573. Why didn’t he?

Who was the young nobleman who needed a page? I believe it was Philip Sidney, who had gotten Queen Elizabeth’s permission to embark on a learning tour of the Continent where he would also make important political and literary contacts. And because John Marlowe was always having financial problems, the payment he might have received for the engagement of his son as a page, may have been welcome.

It was in 1572 that 18-year-old Philip Sidney was about to embark on his tour of the Continent. As a young member of the noble Sidney family of Penshurst Place in Kent, Sidney’s entourage consisted of three servants and four horses. Did Sidney’s chief servant need a page to do all of the mundane things that pages did: tend to the luggage, water the the horses, and go on errands of one sort or another? When a child reached the age of 8, he was qualified to be a page. And when he was as intelligent and gifted as young Christopher, he would have been chosen by an aristocrat for the job.

I have been told that a page from a common family would not have been hired by a nobleman. But could an exception have been made when a boy from a common family had uncommon gifts of intelligence and verbal skills? And so, I have speculated that the boy Christopher was engaged by Philip Sidney to be his chief servant’s helper.

And how would have Christopher come to the attention of Sidney? It is possible that Lord Burghley asked his friend, the Archbishop of Canterbury, if he knew of a boy at his school who could be a good page for Sidney. And is it not conceivable that he could have recommended Christopher?

This makes a very plausible story for which, as of yet, I have found no documentary proof. But in this biographical business, you never know what some literary researcher will discover in the future. For example, nothing was known of Marlowe’s involvement in a supposed counterfeiting scheme in Holland until a letter written by Robert Sidney to Lord Burghley in 1592 was discovered in 1976 by Professor Richard B. Wernham.

While an army of scholars has spent decades and tons of money scouring every archive in England to find evidence of Shakespeare’s life as a dramatist, very little has been spent by scholars digging up information about Marlowe. But so much that has been discovered so far has tended to corroborate the theory that Marlowe wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare (or, better stated, has not disqualified Marlowe's authorship), as this blog has demonstrated since 2008.

In any case, there are several reasons why I believe my speculation makes sense. Becoming part of the Sidney entourage would have made young Marlowe acquainted with how the aristocracy lived and what their values were. Second, a tour of Europe with the Sidney entourage would have introduced Christopher to foreign lands and languages. They spent enough time in Italy so that the young page would have been able to quickly learn Italian.

Also, the Sidney party arrived in Paris just a few days before the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of the Huguenots on August 24, 1572. The Huguenot leadership had gathered in Paris to attend the marriage of Huguenot King Henry of Navarre and the Catholic Princess Marguerite de Valois. The marriage was supposed to bring the Protestants and Catholics together. However, Catherine de Medici, the Queen mother, saw this special occasion as a golden opportunity to destroy the Huguenot leadership in one fell swoop, and therefore she planned and ordered the massacre with help of the famous Duc de Guise.

Sir Francis Walsingham was Elizabeth’s ambassador in Paris, and Sidney and his entourage took refuge in the English embassy. The massacre would haunt Sidney and Walsingham for the rest of their lives – as well as (as I have speculated) the young page Christopher Marlowe, who in later years would write a play on the subject, Massacre at Paris.

From Paris, the Sidney party traveled to Germany, Austria, and Italy. On February 26, 1574 Sidney sat for his portrait by Paolo Veronese in Venice. In Padua, Philip took a house where he could study at the university. If young Christopher was among them, he had ample opportunity to learn Italian.

In March, 1575, Philip began his journey back to England. By then young Christopher, future literary genius, was eleven years old, and virtually everything he would have learned as a page would find itself in his future plays.

Back in England, young Marlowe may have remained in service to Sidney and lived with the family in London or at Penshurst. And it was there that he would have become acquainted with Philip’s sister, Mary Sidney. As Philip Sidney’s page, Christopher may have attended the great party that Sidney’s uncle, the Earl of Leicester, threw for Queen Elizabeth at his famous estate at Kenilworth in July 1575 during the Queen’s summer progress. The romantic gaieties, the ambrosial feasts, the ceremonious devotion to the Queen, the sparkling entertainments, the merrymaking, the idyllic twilight interludes with exquisite music and dance will all be found years later in a play called A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

In February 1577, Sidney once more had the occasion to travel to the Continent. Elizabeth had ordered him to offer her condolences to the Empress Maria upon the death of her husband Maximilian II in Vienna. Among his suite were two of his closest friends, Edward Dyer and Fulke Greville. As ambassador of the Queen, his train was richly appointed.

After stops in Brussels and Heidelberg, the party reached Vienna in April 1577. Sidney paid his respects to Maximilian’s widow, the Empress Maria. He then proceeded to see if the projected league among the Protestant princes was possible. Part of his mission had been to study the new incumbents of thrones, to observe conditions in Germany and the Empire, and to report on the prospects of a league of the Protestant princes of Europe. But he found that disunity among the princes made such a league unlikely.

By June 10, 1577, Sidney and his entourage were back in England. Young Marlowe was 13 years old, and if he was to enter the King’s School at the deadline age of 14, he would have to leave Sidney's service (hypothetically) in less than a year. Marlowe obtained his scholarship on January 14, 1578/9 and began his studies in the Michaelmas term of 1578/9.

But if he had indeed spent the years 1572 to 1578 as Sidney’s page, he would have been able to bring to the King’s School an incredible experience and knowledge of foreign language and Continental geography and history. The young poet would have gotten to know some of the most important people in the aristocracy: Walsingham, Burghley, Leicester, Greville, Dyer, and Sidney’s sister Mary who had married Henry Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke in 1577.

Of course, this entire story is pure conjecture. However, I have found nothing in the biographies of all of the individuals involved that would have made this story impossible. While nowhere is the name Christopher Marlowe mentioned in the many letters Sidney wrote during his travels, it may be that a page was simply too unimportant to mention. Perhaps someday we may find among papers at Penshurst proof that John Marlowe was paid for the services of his son.

But if we cannot find proof that young Christopher was Sidney’s page, we shall still have to find out what he was doing from age 8 to 14 and why he didn’t enter the King’s School at age 9.

© Samuel Blumenfeld, 2011

Samuel Blumenfeld, a regular contributor to MSC, has authored more than ten books. His latest, The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection: A New Study of the Authorship Question, was published by McFarland. His writings have appeared in such diverse publications as Esquire, Reason, Education Digest, Vital Speeches of the Day, Boston, and many others.


Anthony Kellett said...


I know you have received some criticism, for continuing to espouse this theory. First, I would like to say that you have never implied you have evidence for it; and that it is merely a possibility, to explain some connected events. As such, I believe it is perfectly valid. Moreover, I believe it is a practice essential to our search for new evidence. Without such speculation, and by continuing to explore only those ideas which traditional scholarship highlights, we are destined to progress at snails pace; if everyone, who is prepared to share a theory, is condemned for not complying with academic sensibilities.

This is not a criticism of traditional scholarship; far from it. When formulating and proposing specific theories, for general acceptance, proper evidence is essential. However, the search for that evidence will be greatly advanced by such speculations that may cause investigation in areas, otherwise left untouched. These ‘new’ arenas may provide new facts which disqualify certain theories; and so remove them from consideration. That, in itself, is a useful step-forward. However, the possibility exists that these theories may be advanced by those findings; which would be very rewarding indeed.

At the end of the day, in searching for evidence, we cannot rely on evidence. We must use intuition, in order for us to root out where it lies. This is how we found ‘relativity’, which was decades away from a practical proof, when it was proposed; it is how we found Tutankhamen’s tomb; and we might be about to find Odysseus’ Ithaca, by similar means.

I have been spending time on another theory, regarding Venus and Adonis, recently. Subsequently, I discovered that it is not a new idea (as usual); but the previous proposer had some (in my opinion) flawed ideas behind their particular interpretation. Unfortunately, this does nothing but perpetuate your theory of ‘Marlowe as Sidney’s Page’, without actually doing much to prove it; since my idea is nothing but more guesswork. However, as more and more conjectures (as long as they are not based on each other) coalesce, we may build a probability that is difficult to ignore. None may prove to be correct, but we will only know that when we find the truth; which may be precipitated these ‘wild imaginings’.

I say, “Carry on Speculating”, Sam; and I encourage more people to do so.

Sam Blumenfeld said...

Thanks Anthony for your encouragement. Considering the liberties that Stratfordians take in speculating about Shakespeare, I think my venture into the unchartered waters of Marlowe's early life deserves the same consideration that Shakespeare's biographers get. I read several books on Philip Sidney and his sister Mary, and found nothing in them that would have cancelled out the idea of young Marlowe being a page to Sidney's chief servant. But it is my hope that some sort of evidence will be found by present and/or future scholars that will confirm my hunches. If we believe that Marlowe was the greatest poet and dramatist in all of literary history, then it is important for us to find out as much about him as possible.

daver852 said...

Marlowe serving as a page is hardly more speculative than the assertion that William Shakespeare attended the Stratford Grammar School. As you point out, so much time and money has been invested investigating the life of the Stratford man that it is unlikely much remains to be uncovered. With Marlowe, however, the reverse is true; who knows what discoveries await?