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A Royal Mystery

Did Queen Elizabeth order the death of playwright Christopher Marlowe?

Glenn Matsumura

SUSPICIOUS: Biographer Riggs says Marlowe's inquest doesn't make sense.

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By Cynthia Haven

On May 31, 1593, England’s greatest playwright lay dead on a tavern floor in Deptford, stabbed through the eye in a brawl about the tab. He was 29.

The inquest was hurried, confused and largely disregarded. Within a few years, the dead man’s reputation would be eclipsed by the up-and-coming William Shakespeare. Christopher Marlowe’s plays waited centuries for reappraisal.

His life awaited reappraisal, too. Since Marlowe’s rediscovery in the 19th century, biographers have tended to put him in the best possible light. The myth that a good poet is a good man dies hard.

Enter Stanford English professor David Riggs, author of The World of Christopher Marlowe (Faber & Faber, 2004). With his portrait of an “intellectual radical and social dissident,” he is out to rock the boat.

“At the time of his death, Marlowe was a more prominent playwright than Shakespeare,” Riggs notes. By then, “Shakespeare had written Henry VI and Titus Andronicus, and they aren’t as good as Tambourlaine or Doctor Faustus.

In addition to being a revolutionary playwright, Marlowe was a blasphemer, a homosexual, a secret agent, “someone involved with a wide range of criminal activities,” Riggs says. In all probability, he wasn’t killed in a brawl but in a political hit, very likely on orders of Queen Elizabeth.

The poet pushed the envelope in his plays as well as his life, always testing how much gore, satire, moral and sexual ambiguity, as well as glorious poetry, his audiences could bear in plays like The Jew of Malta and Edward II. According to International Herald Tribune drama critic Sheridan Morley, “Marlowe makes Joe Orton—another radical, bleakly comic gay playwright who was untimely murdered almost four centuries later—look about as threatening as Winnie the Pooh. . . . What makes Marlowe interesting is his readiness to offend everyone and anyone.”

Sounds like a man for our times, and revivals of Marlowe’s plays are on the rise. “Marlowe has found his way back into the repertory,” says Riggs, who also wrote Ben Jonson: A Life. “I think part of the reason is that in the last 40 or 50 years, it has become possible to stage plays that earlier audiences would have found too shocking,” especially given contemporary “fascination with over-the-top violence.”

The fascination extends to the playwright. A rock musical was created about Marlowe’s life, as well as a New York play or two. He makes a historically inaccurate appearance in the film Shakespeare in Love. Clearly, it’s time for someone to puncture some of the myths.

Marlowe was a shoemaker’s son; Shakespeare a glover’s son. They had in common an unusual window of opportunity: boys from the bourgeois classes got an unprecedented crack at a top-notch classical and literary education during Elizabeth’s reign. With scholarships, Marlowe earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Cambridge.

But it was a case of all dressed up and nowhere to go. Although educated young men could have academic careers, they depended on very competitive scholarships. They could enter the Church, but the system was rigged in favor of the rich. Poor boys didn’t get the good jobs.

What could the overeducated do? “They found an outlet on the stage—it was a real growth industry,” Riggs says. The Reformation had destroyed passion plays and touring miracle plays, but in 1576, “The Theatre” opened—the first successful commercial theater since the Romans. From the mid-1580s until the death of Jonson in 1637, English theater made a “fantastic leap forward—from being uninteresting and undistinguished to becoming very good,” Riggs says.

Another boom industry was spying. Catholicism was outlawed under Elizabeth; and Catholics were suspected, sometimes rightly, of plotting against the palace. Of the playwrights who came to the fore in the 1570s and 1580s, George Gascoigne, Thomas Watson, Anthony Munday and Marlowe “all combined the trades of intelligence gatherer and playwright,” Riggs writes. Others, such as Jonson and Samuel Daniel, were known to have carried messages for the government. Did they do more? In the squishy, gray world of Elizabethan intelligence networks, the lines between spy and counterspy, informant and messenger, were blurred.

Inevitably, espionage washed over into playwriting: “The question of what was inside a person and how to discover it bridged the novel professions of secret service agent and playwright,” Riggs writes. “Elizabethan plays taught their audiences to look for the inward truth beneath the outward show of theatrical presentation. . . . The plots and counterplots of this era taught Marlowe that spies and scriptwriters had a lot in common.”

Even in this unusual company, Marlowe stood out and was himself a subject for surveillance. He was a notorious brawler—in one case, the brawl resulted in a murder. Marlowe was held in Newgate, a “gloomy, rat-infested hold” for part of the time before he was discharged at trial.

Newgate was an excellent place to form contacts with the Catholic underground—and to extend job skills. He met an activist who was an expert counterfeiter. Counterfeiting was punishable by death but attractive to inventive men who were perennially hard up for cash, like Marlowe.

A brief counterfeiting collaboration in the Netherlands ended when the authorities apprehended Marlowe in 1592. He wriggled out of the charge, claiming his sole interest was “to see the goldsmith’s cunning.” Returning to England under guard, he was released by Elizabeth’s chief adviser, Lord Burghley, without punishment or pardon.

“People like Burghley didn’t hang out with sons of shoemakers because they thought they were clever poets,” Riggs says. Marlowe “was being protected. Why was he being protected? Because he had information.”

Marlowe got into trouble again a year later, this time over a clumsy conspiracy against the queen headed by Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange, Marlowe’s theatrical patron. The plot was so inept that Riggs suggests it might have been a government sting to entrap disloyal subjects. The mercurial Marlowe, as always, was suspect. “All we know is that this guy is in the middle—and the middle was a very dangerous play to be,” Riggs says.

In the climate of suspicion and treachery, rumor had it that Catholics and atheists, adherents to that “sin of sins,” were joining forces against the government. On May 20, 1593, Marlowe was ordered to report to the Privy Council every day.

Informants, rogue agents and loan sharks in Marlowe’s circle told officials that he “saieth & verily believeth that one Marlowe is able to show more sound reasons for Atheism than any divine in England is able to give to prove divinity.” Marlowe also was said to have quipped “that Jesus Christ was a bastard, St. Mary a whore and the Angel Gabriel a Bawd to the Holy Ghost and that Christ was justly persecuted by the Jews for his own foolishness.” Another informant claimed: “Into every Company he Cometh he persuades men to Atheism, willing them not to be afeared of bugbears and hobgoblins, and utterly scorning both God and his ministers.”

The queen’s command on seeing these reports was to “prosecute it to the full.” Elizabeth was “a hands-on queen,” Riggs says. Within days, Marlowe was dead.

Let’s go back to that scene in Deptford, as Riggs sees it. It wasn’t a tavern, but the home of Eleanor Bull, a kinswoman of the queen’s governess, Blanche Parry. There is no evidence the premises were ever rented out. The three witnesses to the crime included Robert Poley, Nicholas Skeres and Ingram Frizer, the murderer. Poley was Lord Burghley’s man and chief of the queen’s security apparatus. Frizer was a swindler and Skeres his accomplice who also had done intelligence work.

“Poley, Skeres and Frizer had worked with one another before,” Riggs writes. “They had practical experience in manipulating the law; they knew how to fabricate a trial narrative and maintain it under interrogation.”

According to these questionable witnesses, the eating, drinking and conversation went on for about eight hours. Frizer said that when he insisted Marlowe pay the bill, Marlowe attacked him and he killed Marlowe in self-defense.

But would Marlowe attack his higher-up’s thugs? If Frizer couldn’t get away from the attack, as he claimed, how could he turn the dagger against Marlowe? And how could Marlowe’s hand be turned against Frizer if it was self-defense? Why didn’t the other two witnesses intervene?

To Riggs, the inquest doesn’t make much sense. “I find the whole choreography not very plausible.” No one at the time seems to have asked many questions, and one wonders if Poley’s presence inhibited the proceedings. The queen signed Frizer’s pardon a month after the killing. Everything was brushed under a royal carpet.

Marlowe’s sulphuric reputation outlived him. When his translation of Ovid’s Elegies appeared in print six years later, the archbishop of Canterbury ordered all copies to be burned in St. Paul’s Churchyard.

By the time scholars began piecing together the Marlowe story, the trail was cold. “I don’t think anyone ever dreamed he would be as big a deal as he became. Nobody guessed there would be a dozen scholars in the last century trying to figure out what happened,” Riggs says. But there’s still a staggering amount of archival evidence. “To simply say we can’t know—that’s a cop-out.”

CYNTHIA HAVEN is a writer in Northern California.

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