In a recent piece posted on this blog, Peter Farey develops the theory that despite appalling accusations of heresy and immorality presented against him by Richard Baines, the entire Privy Council, including Archbishop Whitgift, decided to spare Marlowe’s life, fake his death and send him abroad without interrogation and trial.
For my part, I find Farey’s theory improbable in the extreme, so I will explain my interpretation of the available evidence according to my sense of logic.
Farey’s research traces all Councillors absent and present at the Privy Council’s sessions on the dates when Marlowe’s fate would have been been discussed, logically between May 21st to 29th. He points out that both the Earl of Essex and Lord Burghley did not attend the Council Meetings during that period. Indeed, Lord Burghley remained at home towards the end of May on account of his gout.1
When debating the issue, presumably those Councillors present would have been aware of the consequences of their decision, and the two possible scenarios in the “dead” man’s immediate future:
A) Marlowe could be left somewhere in the Continent to fend for himself, without a legal persona and without funds, papers or travelling companions, which would have meant a slow death from exposure and starvation, or being murdered at the first crossroads for whatever money he may have had on him. This would be practically tantamount to a death sentence without any attempt at exemplarity. So, what was the Deptford charade in aid of? Whom were they trying to fool that could not have been fooled more easily and with a lot less fuss?
That said, eventually Marlowe might have learned to cope with such a situation like his late character Autolycus (or Autolykos, the lone wolf) in The Winter’s Tale. The mythological Autolycus, son of the god Hermes/Mercury, was like his father a thief and a trickster; he also had, like Pallas Athena, a helmet that made him invisible. Unless the merciful Councillors had come to his rescue, Marlowe may have had to survive, hopefully not for long, as a pickpocket and a ballad-monger.
In any case, I don’t see how in these circumstances it would have been possible for Kit to send the MSS of his new plays more or less regularly to London, as he did between 1593 and 1599.
B) The Privy Council, in their infinite mercy, decided not just to spare this atheist’s life without an exemplary punishment, but also to provide him with money, passports, and letters of introduction, so that he could travel in the Continent, find a job and send his new MSS (to whom?) in England.
Farey has suggested that Marlowe’s fate was discussed in the Privy Council; therefore, the risky decision would have been taken in the absence of at least Essex and Lord Burghley. In the recorded Acts of the Privy Council, there is no mention of Christopher Marlowe at all after May 20th, when his appearance (or attempted appearance), before the Council was recorded.2 Had the case been officially discussed during the sessions, some mention of it would have remained, though perhaps allowing a “criminal” to escape to the Continent on a State pension is not the kind of decision that the Council would leave on written record.
That said, the intervention of Coroner Danby strongly suggests that the decision to save Marlowe’s life was approved by the Queen, however reluctantly. This then might imply that the idea was privately discussed, not by the Privy Council as such, but by some individual Councillor/s who had enough influence with the Queen to persuade her to agree. As Queen Elizabeth was notoriously tight-fisted, whoever was at the head of the Marlowe-friendly conspiracy would have undertaken to keep him in funds abroad.
Once I reach this point in my reasoning, I need to think which of the two most influential men at the time, Lord Burghley or the Earl of Essex, would have agreed to do this. Given that Lord Burghley had been cutting “Inteligence Network” expenses since Sir Francis Walsingham’s death in 1590,3 while Essex had been building his own network, paying for it out of his own pocket, it seems to me the choice is easy between these two men. Biographers tell us, by the way, that Essex and his close friend, the Earl of Southampton, were fond of attending plays. Presumably they would have admired the best playwright of all; the dedication of Venus and Adonis supports such conjecture.
Farey’s scenario, however, requires not only Lord Burghley making an exception in his spy network's cost-cutting policy, but also an ungrateful Marlowe shifting his allegiance to Essex, the Cecils’ political rival, and joining the Earl’s new spy team barely two years after Deptford. This seems to be an unavoidable conclusion since I believe (and so does Farey) that Marlowe probably was one Mr Le Doux that appeared under Anthony Bacon’s wing, in October 1595 at the latest, in the household of Sir John Harington at Burley, in Rutland, as tutor to his son.4
In view of all this, my proposed scenario runs smoothly from May 1593, with Essex persuading the Queen to save Marlowe’s life, and then keeping him hidden somewhere, providing him with passports and money and/or jobs until 1599. This arrangement would have included a regular courier service across the Channel, such as Essex would have organized in the Continent in order to obtain his various agents’ reports. As we know from the papers related to Le Doux and others, Anthony Bacon would have received any such reports and letters from the agents; these couriers could also have brought the MSS of new plays written by one particular agent.
The fact that no new Shakespeare plays appeared on the stage (as far as I know), between 1600 and 1603/4, suggest that this routine was suspended at the time of Essex’ Irish campaign, which started April 1599, and his ill-advised return to London in September of the same year. If my conjecture is right and unless he found another patron, as from this time Marlowe would have been job-less, money-less and courier-less, as it seems until 1604, when the next new Shakespeare plays appeared: The 2Quarto Hamlet, twice the length of the 1Q; Measure for Measure and The Moor of Venice. At this point, with a new monarch on the English throne showering favours on the friends of the executed Essex, Marlowe may have found help and protection, at least for a time.
So, what happened between the end of 1599 and November 1604, the period of Shakespeare’s sudden and unprecedented long silence? And why was it that the Bard never again wrote the sort of “happy” comedies that obtained such praise from Francis Meres in his Palladis Tamia?5 In fact, what comedies did he write after 1603?
- The sinister Measure for Measure (1604), most of which action takes place in a prison: An innocent man is sentenced to death, but in order to spare his life the prison authorities execute a common criminal in his stead.
- The Tempest (1611), a bitter tale in which a magician called Prospero shows himself to be alive when everybody thought he had been long dead. The name Prosperus in Latin is synonymous to Faustus.
- The Winter’s Tale (1611); its original title, A Winter’s Night’s Tale,6 was altered sometime after 1604. The play tells the sad story of a queen falsely accused of immorality that faked her death turning into a statue and could only come to life after sixteen years.7
No more comedies; and despite their happy endings, these three don’t raise many laughs.
So, what happened to Shakespeare in or around 1599/1600 when all his plays seem to have been swept from the boards and, it seems, as many rights as could be sold went to the publishers? And why did he not write any new plays between 1599 and 1603? And why did his merry wit become sour after 1603/1604?
We all have our pet theories, based on our own personal interpretation of the available evidence. My own opinion of what happened is a logical sequence to my Essex-as-Patron scenario. As it is another of the several theories in which Farey and I disagree, I shall leave it for some other time.
Let me just mention as an example a letter that may shed some light on the situation of penniless exiles in the Continent: On March 27, 1613, a certain Edward Eustace wrote a letter to William Trumbull that included the following comment: “I have no means to live in France more than here, except I enter into a College and become a priest."
© Isabel Gortázar, June 2011
Isabel Gortázar is an independent scholar, specializing in Shakespeare and Marlowe studies. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Marlowe Society (UK) and a founding member of the International Marlowe Society. She divides her time between London and Bilbao, Spain.
who wrote shakespeare's sonnets?emmerich devere
1Lord Burghley wrote letters dated May 21st and 28th to his son, Robert Cecil, from his sick bed. He attended the Privy Council on May 29th. Ref: Conyers Read's Lord Burghley and Queen Elizabeth (1960), Jonathan Cape, London. V II, p. 485. Read’s ref: Thomas Wright’s Queen Elizabeth and Her Times: A Series of Original Letters Selected From Unedited Private Correspondence (1838), London. V 2. I owe Cynthia Morgan this information, published in her essay "A New Interpretation of Sonnet 112." The Marlowe Society Research Journal, nº 7.
220th may. This daie Cristofer Marley (sic) of London, gentleman, being sent for by warrant from their Lordships, hath entered his apparance accordinglie for his indemnity therein, and is commaunded to give his daily attendaunce on their Lordships untill he shalbe lycensed to the contrary. Acts of the Privy Council. The Lambeth Palace Archives.
3Hammer, P.F.J. The Polarization of Elizabethan Politics: The Political Career of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, 1585-1597. Cambridge University Press, 1999. pp. 154-155.
4Wraight, A.D. Shakespeare, New Evidence. Ref.The Lambeth Palace Archives: The Bacon Papers.
5Meres F. Wits Treasury: A Comparative Discourse of our English Poets, with the Greek, Latin, and Italian Poets. Published in 1598.
6In 1609 a Spanish book of tales by Antonio de Eslava was published in Pamplona under the title Winter Nights. The story in The Tempest seems to be based on one of Eslava’s Winter Nights’ tales.
7The acknowledged principal source of The Winter’s Tale is Pandosto, a novel by Robert Greene (1588); however, the original title of the play suggests that Marlowe was aware of Eslava’s book. In the source story, there is no statue, the Queen dies and the King commits suicide.Emmerich Anonymous
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