The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe
This biography done in the early 1990’s is an arresting variation on the little sonata usually played by Christopher Marlowe’s biographers. Their performances are almost always tuned to the minor key of Marlowe’s early death (at 29) and the tragedy this posed to English letters. Charles Nicholl decided to play things in a different mode altogether and the suspenseful true crime narrative he composed is jaunty and percussive instead of a dirge for a dead poet.
Nicholl’s strength was his ability to go in for a great deal of archival work and he was exhaustive in running down whatever leads there remained after three centuries. There were relatively few left though Nicholl tracked them down assiduously in Britain and the Netherlands as far as he could.
Marlowe of course is famous for being that brilliant boy from Canterbury, son of a cobbler, who made his way to Cambridge on scholarship and took not merely a BA but also an MA at Corpus Christi college. Then the story of Marlowe grows obscure. He seems to have been part of the spymaster Walsingham’s network of agents and may have been to Rheims masquerading as a candidate for Roman Catholic priesthood. If he was recruited by Walsingham’s agency, Nicholl argues that this probably occurred while Marlowe was still at Cambridge and before he went to London and began his career as a playwright. If true, that would make Marlowe’s story a familiar one, with counterparts in the twentieth century such as the turncoat Burgess during the Cold War.
Nicholl shows how this probable involvement in espionage led inevitably to the ominous encounter with three men in a small room in Deptford, and the fatal struggle during which Ingram Frizer, another agent and London con man, stabbed Marlowe in the eye and instantly killed him.
The complication of The Reckoning is not Nicholl’s well argued and sensible proposition that Marlowe could just as easily have been the victim rather than the instigator of the attack which ultimately killed him “with his own dagger”as the inquest of the time found, rather it is the motive of such a slaying that proves elusive. Nicholl lays the blame on the split between the Burghley espionage system by which Marlowe was still very likely employed and the Earl of Essex’s new faction of informers and spies for which his companions at Deptford may have been agents. He suggests that Marlowe had become dangerous and could not be easily silenced by Essex’s men and therefore had to be killed. However this is no more than speculation there exists no evidence to back up Nicholl’s surmise.
Marlowe was an ambivalent, frequently amoral character. He was on at least one occasion also a coiner, whose activities were discovered in Flushing during the English campaign and stopped. Marlowe was never punished for this serious crime, although at the time of his death he was reporting to the Privy council, he was still not arrested.
He was perhaps most damnably of all a free thinker with a habit of speaking his mind-a dangerous proclivity in those days- accused of being an atheist,most probably gay. He is quoted on the foolishness of those who did not love tobacco and boys, and that Christ had been a bastard child, as well as that Jesus’ relationship with the apostle John was a homo- erotic one. This sort of opinion was bound to create controversy, and Marlowe never seems to have shunned intellectual dust ups, any more than physical ones.
What remains behind this tale of possible murder is the curious twisting track of a mind trapped in the wrong century, and the trail of this mind is stil to be seen in Marlowe’s plays, corrupt texts that they are. In them belief and rationality always seem to be locked in a desperate struggle for a means of annihilating each other, the sort of dichotomy more familiar from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Edward II, Dido of Carthage, The Massacre at Paris, Tamburlaine, the Jew of Malta, and to us most famously Dr. Faustus, all contain this same essentially modern struggle.
Marlowe’s heroes too are outsized, riders of destiny, shod with the rhetoric that strides over time and place like seven league boots. His grandiloquence straddled not only the stages of the day, such as the Rose in London, but its retreating footsteps reverberate down the corridor of centuries since. His Tamburlaine created the earliest great star of the British stage in Edward Alleyn, the first actor to interpret the part and the founder of Dulwich College.
Most of all Marlowe raised the standard of language for the stage. His blank verse, his swaggering braggadocio imagery, all compensated for the lack of props and special effects, and made the theater an exciting place to be. The crowds loved his plays and crammed the pits when they were on. We know that he influenced Shakespeare, his exact contemporary, and in may ways his successor. “Dead shepherd,” Shakespeare wrote of Marlowe, using the slang for poet current then,”Now I find they saw of might,’Whoever loved that loved not at first sight?'” By then Marlowe was lost to the stage, but whatever his ambitions were he out-topped them, as the Elizabethans would have said, quite a reckoning after all.