Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Grafton Portrait and Kit Marlowe's Dangerous Living by Isabel Gortázar

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

© Isabel Gortázar, April 2009

Isabel Gortázar can be reached at

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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Dave Herber said...

I think the Ludgate family are clutching at imaginary straws. I am highly suspicious of what you put as “an old family tradition”. From my own research these are almost always legends created by well-meaning individuals. I have debunked many “family legends” over the years claiming the Gunpowder Plot originated in their house, their town, or with their family and that people are descended from the families of the conspirators. Alas none of them bear any semblance of truth. The Ludgate-Palmer-Grafton connection may genealogically be provable, but the passing of a painting along that family line and that painting being Marlowe? Long shot is right.

I am interested by what you mean by “something embarrassing about the identity of the sitter”. I hope you mean his perceived sexual orientation because I have a problem with you meaning that he was actually Shakespeare – such a claim would support the idea that his identity was ‘generally’ known and if that is the case why is there such conjecture today? How has the ‘identity’ issue gone from a generally known and ‘embarrassing’ thing to complete theory where only sparing evidence exists? If you are talking of his orientation, explain why something relatively commonplace in Elizabethan England was ‘embarrassing’.

I am also skeptical of people claiming aspects of Marlowe or Shakespeare’s lives from ‘reading between the lines’ of their plays. In recent years you may remember the revelations of The Bible Code and the software that was used to discover hidden truths in the Bible. The same software was later used to discover ‘hidden truths’ in A Tale of Two Cites, Moby Dick and a host of other classics. In my mind, seeking enlightenment of Marlowe and Shakespeare’s lives from their works, beyond the inclusion of personal experiences and references is extremely dubious. Have you read Roberta Ballantyne’s book “Marlowe Up Close”? I couldn’t express my skepticism at the material without disrespecting the life’s work of Ms Ballantyne.

I’m all for research, study and scholarly speculation, but sometimes in the search for answers or the prospect of something new people are willing to push the envelope too far too quickly.

Isabel Gortázar said...

5th May 2009-
Hi Dave Herber:
I cannot imagine why my article has upset you, but reading your reply I must conclude either that I have not made myself clear, or that I have touched a sensitive spot.

In the first place, when speculating on the possibility that, if the Grafton is not William Shaxpere, it could conceivably be Marlowe, I was not trying to establish a dogma. I was just presenting a hypothesis, based on a series of “accepted” facts, such as the origin of the portrait, etc. We all know that some of those “accepted” facts may eventually prove to be false; after all, the Grafton has been mistakenly accepted as a portrait of Shaxspere until very recently.

All I thought was that if Stanley Wells can make a pronouncement to the International Media to the effect that the Janssen/Cobbe portrait is William Shaxpere of Stratford, my theory on the Grafton deserved testing among colleagues. I did say it was a long shot, but sometimes long shots hit the mark, and if nobody ever attempted long shots, we might still be accepting “truths” we are no longer accepting.

As for “something emabarrassing in the identity of the sitter”, of course I do NOT mean homosexuality (did I not start the essay saying that Marlowe was fond of drink, tobacco and women?). I mean that, if Marlowe wrote the plays in the First Folio, the Royal Stuart family, including the Palmer/Grafton bunch, probably knew about it, so they would have known, however vaguely, that a cover up had been organized, (with James I’s blessing), ending in the William Shakespeare scam. I call that an embarrassing little secret for the Stuarts - one of many.

As for what you call my “reading between the lines”: I am surprised you don’t see any difference between my reading possible “obscured” meanings in the actual texts, and all those code-breaking ciphers, including dear Roberta Ballantines’, much as I respect her unflinching efforts to vindicate Christopher Marlowe.

As a matter of fact, I do not believe Marlowe used ciphers; therefore, I do not look for them, nor have I mentioned any in my essay. I believe he used anagrams, equivocation, double meanings, word-play in several languages, including Hebrew which he knew, but not ciphers. If I am mistaken and Marlowe ever used a cipher, it won’t be me who decodes it; I am hopeless at that sort of thing.

But, if you don’t believe that the author of the plays used language tricks, to provide us with information he could not provide in any other way, it seems to me you are discarding what I consider a valuable source of circumstantial evidence. This includes (without any need for ciphers of any kind) what I interpret to be interesting information related to the Gunpowder Plot.

So, I shall continue with my combined method of “interpreting” the texts to see how they match with the known historical facts. I realize I will make mistakes, but perhaps not every time.

Dave Herber said...


Yes, elements of your post were unclear, perhaps it was as much my fault at not trying too hard to interpret them.

My biggest problem with your theory regarding the Grafton painting is that 'embarrassing little secret'. The problem with a conspiracy, and this has been borne out in my own research on the Gunpowder Plot, as well as countless other examples from history, is that the more people who know, the less likely it is to remain hidden, especially when you begin to introduce second and third parties into that conspiracy/secret.

Your theory is as commendable as the next, but I am reluctant to look too far into it myself as the claim is being made that Marlowe's secret life (post 1593) was something that plenty of people knew about and it was the sort of thing people whispered to each other in private. To go from this kind of a "we know but we don't know" situation to a complete whitewashing of any actual evidence that he led this secret life and we are now forced to speculate and join dots I believe is also a stretch.

I believe it is human nature that at some point someone would have let something slip, whether to a person who could not continue the cover-up, or on paper.

I feel you are asking a person to almost believe in 'the perfect crime', which alas I don't, human nature being what it is.

I did not mean to offend you and the only nerve you touched is that by and large with selective evidence and no counter argument, almost anything can be 'proved'. That's not a reflection on you personally though - it can be attributed as easily to people like Stanley Wells and Jonathan Bate, and probably me as well. We all have our axes to grind.

If you have encountered anything interesting in 'reading between the lines' regarding the Gunpowder Plot I would be more than interested in stacking such discoveries up against both the known facts and my own research.


PatMatr22 said...

I've always felt Grafton looked a bit like Marlowe!

Anonymous said...

This isn't a new theory. A.D.Wraight proposed it 44 years ago - See A.D.Wraight & Virginia F Stern's "In Search of Christopher Marlowe", Adam Hart (1965) pp.216-7 (where the Corpus Christi and Grafton can be seen side by side) and 219-224 where she discusses the provenance of the Grafton.