So, Ros, May 30. Any thoughts on today being the anniversary of Christopher Marlowe's alleged death in Deptford?
RB: Thanks, Carlo, I am very pleased with how the book has been received. This is the day, of course, that Marlowe's name began to sink into infamy. The story that emerged from that day and seeped into the public consciousness - at first in inaccurate hearsay accounts and from its discovery in 1925, from the inquest document - was that Marlowe died in fight and that he was the aggressor. From these comes the common perception - I would say misconception - of Marlowe as a violent brawler.
The most influential version of the tale was that of puritan clergyman Thomas Beard, whose "The Theatre of God's Judgements" was published in four editions over a fifty-year period. Beard's account doesn't tally with that in the inquest document in any significant detail except that Marlowe was apparently stabbed through the eye. Beard takes this as God's just punishment for a notorious atheist: "see what a hook the Lord put in the nostrils of this barking dog." Marlowe, name blackened, thus sank into the mire of history, and though his most popular plays continued to be sporadically performed until the middle of the 17th century, the reality of his existence had become so murky by the early 19th that in 1820, one critic even wrote that "Marlowe" was "a borrowed designation of the great Shakespeare." 1
Yet, since the inquest document came to light, over half the scholars who have expressed an opinion about it believe it to be some kind of cover-up. The only named witnesses to the event were all professional liars: con men and intelligence services agents. The chief of them, Robert Poley, a key figure in the Babington Plot of six years earlier, is on record as saying he is happy to lie even to the Secretary of State if it serves his purposes; his contemporary, William Camden, describes him as "very expert at dissembling." If the inquest document was, as many scholars believe, false, then Marlowe was either the victim of violence (rather than the perpetrator of it), or was using the staged "brawl" to escape capital charges of atheism and heresy being levelled against him (a warrant for his arrest having been issued ten days earlier). In either case, the only unambiguous evidence of his violence is then dissolved, since the other incidents in which he was involved would make him no more violent than his contemporaries and considerably less so than Ben Jonson (who killed a man and was said to have put a boy's eye out).
As the foundation for our assessment of what kind of person Marlowe was, 30 May 1593 is a riddle in need of a solution. In 85 years of scholarly argument over the likely truths behind the inquest document, no consensus has been reached, chiefly because his biographers thus far have only been prepared to consider two options, manslaughter or assassination, and a close analysis of the historical evidence will bring up very reasonable objections to both. What interests me about the third possibility - faked death and escape - is that it explains all the evidence we have, including the objections to the other two theories. Why some people find it unlikely, given the parlous position Marlowe was in, is quite a puzzle in itself. Imagine for a moment that your work on behalf of Queen and country had gotten you into serious trouble and you had been targeted by a double agent (Richard Baines). Say a warrant for your arrest had been issued, you were facing serious accusations of crimes punishable by imprisonment, torture and execution, and had friends in government and the intelligence services who could help you start a new life abroad with a new identity. Would you actually think twice?
© The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection, 2012
1MacLure, Millar. Christopher Marlowe: The Critical Heritage. London and New York: Routledge, 1979. p.8
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