Much Ado About Something
home
a fine mystery
a bard in the hand?
what's at stake?
discussion
The Killing of Christopher Marlowe By David Riggs

David Riggs is a professor of English at Stanford University. His new biography of Christopher Marlowe will appear in 2004. This essay was orginally published in the Spring 2000 issue of Stanford Humanities Review and is reprinted here with the permission of the author.

THE QUEEN'S CORONER ATTRIBUTED the killing of Christopher Marlowe to a quarrel over money, but scholars have long suspected that the killer had ulterior motives. Although both views remain tenable, the body of evidence that Charles Nicholl assembles in The Reckoning strengthens the claim that Marlowe's death was an act of state power. But Nicholl's hypothesis that the Earl of Essex used Marlowe to smear Sir Walter Raleigh and then had the playwright murdered in order to silence him has not held up under scrutiny: the connections between Essex and the other participants in the alleged conspiracy are too tenuous.[1] My interpretation of the killing is much simpler and goes like this: at a time when Queen Elizabeth and her Privy Council were cracking down on disobedient subjects, Marlowe gave offence; and the Queen, in turn, made him pay.

I.

THIS ACCOUNT BEGINS in the Winter of 1593, when Elizabeth launched the first all-out heresy hunt since the reign of her sister Mary -- and the last in English history. The Separatist leaders John Barrow and Henry Greenwood, together with the three printers who had published their work, were hanged early that Spring. On March 26, the Queen created a new Royal Commission to hunt down, examine, and punish Barrowists, Separatists, Catholic recusants, counterfeiters, vagrants, and all who "secretlie adhere to our moste capitall Enemy the Bishoppe of Rome or otherwise do willfullie deprave contemne or ympugne the Devine Service and Sacraments." The Queen's Commission did not distinguish between alien religions and no religion, or atheism. Elizabethan church governance rested on the bare premise of outward conformity. The Commissioners incarcerated any parishioners who "refuse to repaire to the Churche to heare Devine service," including many who held no religious beliefs at all.[2]

During the latter half of April, when written libels threatening violence against Protestant immigrants from Holland and France appeared in the City, the investigation broadened in scope. These placards challenged the Queen's authority to impose a Protestant consensus. She and Lord Treasurer Burleigh looked to the immigrant congregations "to help forge England into a Reformed Protestant nation and to assist their persecuted brethren on the continent." Viewing the same policy from the perspective of a Catholic exile, Cardinal Allen complained that Elizabeth was repopulating England "with innumerable strangers of the worste sort of malefactors and sectaries, to the great impoverishinge of the inhabitantes, and no small perill of the whole realme."[3]

The libels that materialized in late April gave the Queen and her Council new cause for concern. During the notorious Evil May Day uprising of 1517, a thousand apprentices and watermen had spent the night looting aliens' houses in the liberty of St. Martin-le-Grand. On June 11, 1592 another mob of apprentices, motivated in part by resentment against the aliens, had rioted outside the public playhouses in Southwark. Eleven days later, "for avoidinge of theis unlawfull assemblies in those quarters," the Privy Council had ordered "that there be noe playes used in anye place neere thereaboutes, as the Theator, Curtayne, or other usuall places where the same are comonly used." Although the exact provenance of The Book of Sir Thomas More, a dramatization of the Evil May Day riot, remains uncertain, the evidence at hand indicates that the play was written in 1592-93 for Lord Strange's Men, the premier acting company of the early 1590's.[4]

Strange's Men were risk-takers. When government officials ordered them to cease playing on an earlier occasion, they had replied "in very contemptuous maner" and went ahead with their performance. Their repertory included Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part One, Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, and Marlowe's Jew of Malta and Massacre at Paris. "These are drastic plays," Scott McMillin observes, "drastic in dramaturgy and political boldness, for they seize on controversial subjects and vivify them with new techniques of stagecraft that could not help but draw crowds." Among the multiple authors of Sir Thomas More, scholars have identified Hand D, the individual who penned the climactic scene in which More confronts an angry mob of apprentices, with Shakespeare. Hand D depicted the most volatile moment in the Evil May-Day story. Yet the mob soon grows obedient in response to More's eloquent defence of authority: the scene prefigures the powerfully persuasive speeches on "degree" in Shakespeare's Henry V, Troilus and Cressida, and Coriolanus. Nevertheless, Edmund Tilney, the Queen's Master of the Revels, heavily censored the authorial manuscript of Sir Thomas More and ordered the actors to "Leave out the insurrection wholy & the Cause ther Off."[5]

On the night of May 5, an anonymous rhymester who styled himself "Tamberlaine" posted an unusually provocative ultimatum on the wall of the Dutch churchyard in London. Tamberlaine ventriloquizes the hero Marlowe's Tamburlaine in order to stir up mob violence against the immigrant community. The agitator's verses evoked his namesake's notorious custom of slaughtering the inhabitants of a besieged town if they disobeyed his orders to evacuate. Marlowe's Tamburlaine broadcast this message with colored flags; his streetwise imitator used a wall poster. Like The Jew of Malta, Tamberlaine conflates popular animosity towards strangers, Machiavellians, merchants, and Jews:

Your Machiavellian Marchant spoyles the state,
Your usery doth leave us all for deade
Your artifex, & craftesman workes our fate,
And like the Jewes, you eate us up as bread

Twenty-six lines later, at a particularly bloodthirsty moment ("Weele cutt your throtes, in your temples praying") Tamberlaine again evoked Marlowe's work: "Not paris massacre so much blood did spill / As we will do just vengeance on you all." Lord Strange's Men had performed The Jew of Malta and The Massacre at Paris to packed houses the previous winter. Massacre, the last new play to enter the company's repertory before the plague brought performances to a halt on January 28, was the hit of the truncated winter season.[6]

Tamberlaine caught Queen's Elizabeth's attention. On May 11 her Privy Council informed the Royal Commissioners that among the recent spate of "lewd and malicious libels set up within the citie of London"

there is some set uppon the wal of the Dutch churchyard that doth excead the rest in lewdnes, and for the discoverie of the author and publisher thereof her majesties pleasure is that some extraordinary paines and care be taken by the Commissioners appointed by the Lord Maior for th'examining such persons as maie be in this case anie waie suspected. [7]

This category that had to include the author of Tamburlaine, despite the absence of any evidence that Marlowe had written the libel.

Marlowe's former chamber-fellow Thomas Kyd was under arrest the following day. Among Kyd's papers the Commissioners found what it called "vile heretical Conceiptes denyinge the deity of Jhesus Christe" -- in fact a transcript of Arian positions recorded in John Proctor's Fall of the Late Arian. If suspects "shal refuze to confesse the truth," the Council's letter of May 11 instructed the Commissioners to "put them to the torture in Bridewell, and by th'extremity thereof to be used at such times and as often as you shal thincke fit, draw them to discover their knowledge concerning the said libells." The Commissioners tortured Kyd, who, in the words of an endorsement inscribed on the transcript of the heretical conceits, "affirmeth" that he had received this document "from Marlowe," despite the fact that it appears to be written in the informant's own hand. Kyd also could have told them that it was Marlowe's custom "to jest at the devine scriptures [and] gybe at praiers"; or that "He wold report St. John to be our saviour Christes Alexis." Kyd subsequently wrote these and other allegations down in two letters to Thomas Puckering, Elizabeth's Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal; he had small incentive to withold them while he was being tortured at Bridewell.[8]

At this point, the Privy Council took the investigation into its own hands, under the supervision of Puckering, and his accomplice Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst. Puckering employed an agent named Thomas Drury to gather more intelligence. In a cryptic letter to Nicholas Bacon written that August, Drury indicated that he had performed three tasks for the Council between May 10, when the City posted a reward of one hundred crowns for "whosoever shall shal discover and bring perfecte knowledge ... What person or persons hath wrytten, dispersed, or sett up the sayd libelle," and May 27, the day when Drury evidently transmitted "the notablest and vildest articles of atheism that I suppose the like were never known or read of in any age" to Puckering and Sackville.[9]

To begin with, Drury visited "on[e] Mr Bayns and gott the desired secret at his hand; for which the City of London promised ... a hundred crowns"; in other words he extracted from Baines the identity of the Dutch Church libeller. In his second batch of chores, Drury discovered a libel, a vile book, "and a notable villain or two which are close prisoners and bad matters against them of an exceeding nature." This inventory matches up quite closely with the work done by the author of two unsigned spy's reports -- "Remembrances of words and matter against Richard Cholmeley" and an undated followup note on the same subject -- around the same time. Nicholl has convincingly identified this unnamed spy with Drury, who knew Cholmeley intimately and had a score to settle with him. The spy discovered that Cholmeley made libels, had a vile book, led a gang of sixty armed followers, and -- the "notable villainy" -- boasted "that he now meante to kill the Queene." A brief endorsement on the back of the "Remembraunces" includes the phrases "Tippings ii" and "Younge taken and made an instrument to take the rest." John and James Tippings were Catholic extremists who had been involved in the Babington conspiracy to murder Elizabeth, and had now returned from France to join forces with Cholmeley. Henry Young was presently involved in the so-called "Stanley plot" to assassinate the Queen.[10] Thanks to Young's subsequent cooperation, Cholmeley was in fact a "close prisoner" when Drury penned his retrospective account that August. In May, however, he was at large and dangerous. Marlowe had fallen into dangerous company.

Unlike the Babington conspirators, Cholmeley did not profess Catholicism. Instead, Cholmeley "saieth & verely beleveth that one Marlowe is able to showe more sounde reasons for Atheisme than any devine in England is able to give to prove devinitie." In the followup report, two of Cholmeley's companions elaborated on the gang's plan to "drawe her majesty's subjects to bee atheists":

their practise is after her majesties Decease to make a Kinge amonge themselves & live according to their own lawes, & this saieth Cholmeley wilbee done easely because they bee & shortely wilbe by his & his felowes p[er]suasions as many of their opynon as of any other religion.

In exhorting his followers to become atheists, Cholmeley's "course is to make a jest of Scripture." His witticisms ("that Ihesu Christe was a bastarde St Mary a whore & the Anngell Gabriel a Bawde to the holy ghoste & that Christe was Iustly persecuted by the Iewes for his owne foolishnes that Moses was a juggler") closely resemble Kyd's allegations about Marlowe's tendency to "jest at the devine scriptures."[11]

If Cholmeley's plan sounds overly optimistic, bear in mind that informed public officials agreed with him about the spread of atheism in late Elizabethan England. Cholmely's appraisal is echoed in the writings of (among others) the J.P. and antiquarian William Lambarde, Bishop Thomas Cooper, Richard Hooker, and Francis Bacon, who testified that there was "no heresy which strives with more zeal to spread and sow and multiply itself than atheism." In a letter dated December, 1591, Lambarde cautioned Sir William Leveson about the selection of trustworthy militia commissioners for the county of Kent:

For, as touching religion, they ought to be, not only no papists, but no Libertines, or Atheists, whoe are (next to the papists) the most dangerous; by cause as the Romanists desire a chaunge, so theise Epicureans care not for the present estate, persuading theimselves that by that even hand which they beare, all mutations (I meane touching religion) will beare with theim.

A year later, Marlowe's collaborator Thomas Nashe complained about newfangled sects that "thinke of heaven and hell as the heathen philosophers" and "take occasion to deride our Ecclesiasticall State ... hence Atheists triumph and rejoice."[12]

The heresy hunt of 1593 was the official response to this moral panic, just as Christopher Marlowe was to be its enduring symptom. The Dutch Church Libel and the "Remembraunces Against Richard Cholmeley," both of which turned up in the course of this investigation, bore out the government's anxieties about an emergent alliance between atheists and Roman Catholic provocateurs. The common denominator in these two projects was Christopher Marlowe. Cholmeley's gang was small, but political assassins wielded an influence that was disproportionate to their numbers. The murder of William of Orange in 1584, for example, had paved the way for the Spanish takeover of the Netherlands.

On May 18 Henry Maunder, a Messenger of the Queen's Chamber, was ordered to arrest Marlowe "and bring him to the court" at Greenwich. After posting bail on May 20, Marlowe was "commanded to give his daily attendance to their lordships, until he shall be licensed to the contrary." This proviso obliged him to hover "within the verge" of the court, a vicinity that extended twelve miles in every direction from the person of the sovereign. Since crimes committed within the verge fell under the special jurisdiction of the Queen and her personal servants, the Council's order meant that Marlowe no longer enjoyed the protection of the common law courts.[13] The Council's order likewise prevented the Commissioners appointed on March 26 from examining him under torture; indeed there is no evidence that anyone ever interrogated Marlowe at all.

Drury's third task was to procure a transcript of "the notablest and vildest articles of atheism" for Puckering and the Council. In light of Drury's previous errand to "on[e] Mr Bayns" there can be little doubt that these articles correspond to Richard Baines's "note Containing the opinon of on[e] Christopher Marly Concerning his Damnable Judgment of Religion, and scorn of God's word." Just sixteen months previously, when the two men were living together in Flushing, Baines had accused Marlowe of counterfeiting and treason, Marlowe had responded in kind, and the two men were sent to Lord Treasurer Burleigh for interrogation. So the Council knew in advance that Baines would testify against Marlowe. Baines's note, which arrived at Greenwich on May 27, contains seventeen articles of atheism (mimicking the format of ecclesiastical manifestos like the Thirty-Nine Articles) several of which elaborate on the jests mentioned by Kyd and Cholmeley. It further alleged that Cholmeley "hath confessed that he was perswaded by Marloes reasons to become an Atheist," and that Marlowe claimed "as good a Right to coin as the Queen of England." A special copy of Baines's note, "as sent to her H" survives in the Harleian Manuscripts. This was the climactic moment in Drury's three weeks of intelligence-gathering: "the notablyst and vyldist artyckeles of Athemysme ... wer delyverered to her hynes and command geven by her selfe to prosecut it to the fule."[14]

The ambiguous "prosecute" hinted at legal proceedings. The recently enacted 1593 statute "to retain the Queen's majesties subjects in their due obedience" made it a crime "to maliciously move or persuade any other person whatsoever to forbear or abstain from coming to church to hear divine service." But the penalty for this offence was banishment. Baines and Kyd both testified that Marlowe wanted to emigrate to Scotland or Spain. This was hire and salary, not prosecution "to the fule."[15]

The 1581 statute "Against seditious words and rumours uttered against the Queen's most excellent majesty" had more teeth. Anyone convicted of uttering "false and slanderous news or tales against the Queen" was to "have both his ears cut off, except he pay 200 pounds to the Queen's use in the exchequer within two months." But even Star Chamber proceedings were porous events: Father Robert Person's Jesuit propaganda machine stood to gain a raft of sensational reportage from the trial of Christopher Marlowe for atheism. Although Marlowe's conviction would have been a foregone conclusion -- there were no acquittals in Tudor state trials -- defendants had the right to speak on their own behalf. Moreover, the recent executions of Barrow and Greenwood had provoked a public outcry. The Catholic intelligencer Richard Verstegan reported to Persons that "the officers durst not execute them by reason of the great multitude ... insomuch that a present commotion was feared." Nor was there any guarantee that removing Marlowe's ears, the maximum penalty for blasphemous speech, would close his mouth.[16] Baines's concluding recommendation went directly to this point: "all men in Cristianity ought to indevor that the mouth of so dangerous a member may be stopped." With her exquisite sense of occasion, Queen Elizabeth gave the order to prosecute Marlowe "to the fule" just when he was ready to enter history as the overreacher, a wholesome caution for aspiring minds.

Marlowe died of a puncture wound through his right eye on May 30, three days after the Queen's command. Was this a coincidence? The facts surrounding Marlowe's death indicate that Drury had it right: all the relevant evidence leads back to the court. An inscription on the Queen's personal copy of Baines's note states that "within 3 days after" Marlowe "came to a sudden and fearful end of his life." The killing took place on May 30 at the home of Eleanor Bull, a notional cousin of Elizabeth's lady-in-waiting Blanche Parry and of her chief counsellor Lord Burleigh. Although the legend of the tavern brawl persists in reputable sources like The Norton Anthology of English Literature, there is no reason to suppose that the genteel Widow Bull maintained a public inn, a circumstance that could have exposed the killer(s) to stray witnesses. The ranking official at the scene of the crime was the Queen's man Robert Poley, a government agent who specialized in protecting her from would-be assassins like Henry Young and the Tippings bothers. The initial entry in one of Poley's code books epitomizes his official responsibilities: "Queenes Majestie her lyfe." A Treasury warrant authorizing payment of thirty shillings to Poley states that he was "in her majesties service all the aforesaid time" between May 8 and June 8. None of the twenty-five comparable warrants issued to Poley bears this all-inclusive royal authorization.[17]

Since Eleanor Bull's dwelling lay within the verge, William Danby, the Queen's coroner, conducted the all-important inquest on June 1. Danby found that the killer, Ingram Frizer, had acted in self-defence during an argument over "le reckonynge." On June 15, one of the Queen's clerks summoned Danby's deposition to the royal court of Chancery, where it fell under the purview of Lord Keeper Puckering. Elizabeth pardoned Frizer just two weeks later, a remarkably brief interval for a capital offence committed within the verge. The only contemporary who publicly alluded to the killer by name ("one Ingram") was Blanche Parry's nephew William Vaughan.[18]

Within this network of sovereign power, the most conspicuous agent apart from the Queen is not Essex, who was absent from all of these proceedings, but Lord Treasurer Burleigh. It was Burleigh and his faction who came to Marlowe's rescue when he was accused of defecting to the Catholic seminary at Rheims in 1587; Burleigh who interrogated, and then released, Marlowe and Baines upon their return from Flushing in 1592; and Burliegh who oversaw the heresy hunt that brought Marlowe into harm's way. Cholmley was in the service of Burleigh's son Sir Robert Cecil during the months leading up to the Spring of 1593 and gave a "very scandalous report" of his employer to Drury. Cholmeley alleged that Cecil had given him a copy of Father Southwell's Epistle of Comfort and urged him to "frame verses and libels in commendation of constant priests and virtuous recusants." Moreover, Cholmely "repented him of nothinge more then that he had not killed my Lord Treasurer with his owne hands." Marlowe's case resembled that of his ally Cholmeley in several key respects. Burleigh and the Council had protected him in the recent past; he gave scandal; he needed to be silenced; a formal trial was fraught with hazard.[19]

In sum, the archival records do not support the claim that Marlowe became fatally involved in a conflict between rival aristocrats. The documents describe a quarrel between Marlowe and the court. This dispute came to a climax when Baines's Note arrived at Greenwich and ended with the death of Marlowe shortly thereafter. The Queen's servants promptly determined that Marlowe had died in a quarrel over money; but the royal household was a party to the ongoing conflict that preceded the killing. The court bureaucracy that summoned Marlowe into the verge cannot be relied upon to tell the truth about what happened there. Nor is this a trivial matter. The killing of a poet requires close scrutiny from people who care about poetry. Students of literature have a large stake in freedom of expression and belief; when a writer is silenced, it is their job to find out why. The fact that the official account trivializes the killing should provoke skepticism, not easy acquiescence. A skeptical reading of Danby's inquest (which strains credulity even on its own terms) restores explanatory power to the quarrel between Marlowe and the court.[20]

How active a role did Marlowe play in this quarrel? On the face of it he posed a clear and present danger to the oligarchic Protestant theocracy headed by the Queen. Since the crucial documents pertaining to Marlowe's criminality appear within her state security apparatus, their provenance remains open to question. Was Marlowe a bona fide atheist? Or was he a double agent attempting to entrap men suspected of that crime -- Raleigh, for instance, to whom Marlowe read his atheist lecture? Within the fluid, opportunistic world of the double agent, it is hard to imagine what sort of evidence could categorically exclude either alternative. Sir Francis Walsingham's secretary Robert Beale grouped Cholmeley with government agents "such as the laws of the realm esteemeth traitors, together with all others that shall deal with them."[21] When such operatives threatened the security of the state that employed them, they became indistinguishable from traitors in earnest. The rogue agent and the malcontent subversive were two sides of the same coin. Marlowe could easily have enacted both roles at once -- and paid the price.

The radical critique of the Marlowe dossier maintains that his enemies concocted this evidence for the express purpose of incriminating the playwright. This scenario is conceivable, but far less plausible than the first-level narrative that unfolds within the archival records themselves. The "frame-up" thesis requires the invention of an undocumented prior motive that would warrant the production, placement, and coordination of spurious evidence emanating from many sources: the Dutch Church Libel, Kyd's testimony and subsequent letters, the two reports on Cholmeley, and the Baines Note. This is a complicated box of tricks, and to what end? Why bother to manufacture, plant, and then conceal all of these interrelated documents? The fatal meeting at Widow Bull's sufficed to dispose of Christopher Marlowe. Queen Elizabeth paid her antagonist the backhanded compliment of taking him seriously, as a political agent to be reckoned with. Marlowe's admirers can profit from her example.

Kyd too felt the wrath of sovereign power. After the Queen's agents tortured Marlowe's associate and deprived him of his patron, he wrote to Puckering that he was "utterlie undon without herein be somewhat donn for my recoverie." The following winter, in the dedicatory epistle to his translation of Robert Garnier's Cornelia, Kyd implored the nineteen year-old Countess of Sussex to repair the defects of his work "with the regarde of those so bitter times and privie broken passions that I endured in the writing it." He promised the Countess a translation of Garnier's Tragedy of Portia by the following Summer, but to no avail, for Thomas Kyd was buried in London that August at the age of thirty-six.[22] Like Lord Strange's Men, who vanished in the Summer of 1593, he disappeared leaving scarcely a trace behind. Were it not for a passing reference in Thomas Heywood's Apology for Actors, no one today would know that Kyd wrote The Spanish Tragedy, and was present, with Marlowe, at the conception of professional drama written in English blank verse.

II.

IN THE MEANTIME, one the Queen's servants deftly reworked Marlowe's passing into an edifying moral tale. The scribe who initially prepared the copy of Baines's Note "as sent to her H" simply made a verbatim transcript of the original document. But a second person, writing rapidly and in a different hand, subsequently altered the scribe's text so as to put a new construction on Baines's report. To begin with, the reviser changed the title so that it read "A note delivered on whitsun eve last of the most horrible blasphemies and damnable opinons utteryd by xtofer Marly who within iij dayes after came to a soden and fearfull ende of his life." Since Marlowe died on May 30, and Whitsun eve fell on June 2, this chronology cannot be right. Nicholl plausibly conjectures that the reviser confused May 27, the Sunday before Whitsunday, with Whitsun eve: in which case, Marlowe died exactly "iij dayes" after the Note arrived at court.[23]

Drury reports that when Elizabeth saw the articles of atheism she gave the order to "prosecute it to the fule." This command would make no sense if she were responding to the revised copy in which Marlowe had already been killed. The reviser did not set down to work until Marlowe had been dead for at least a week. By this time many members of the Queen's household and residents of Deptford knew what had happened. Before the month was out, Elizabeth herself would see the full text of Danby's Inquest, including the date of Marlowe's death. It is unlikely, then, that the reviser intended to inform the Queen about anything she did not already know. Instead, his revisions and deletions had the opposite effect: they served to extricate the Queen from the machinations surrounding Marlowe's death, casting her as an innocent spectator in the theater of God's judgements.

The revised text of Baines's Note is the earliest reinscription of the killing within the framework of a Providential narrative. The new title contrives to suggest a cause-and-effect relationship between uttering the damnable opinons and the violent death that came in their wake. "[W]ithin iij dayes after" intimates the swiftness of divine vengeance; the "soden & fearfull ende" refigures the killing into an exemplary spectacle for godfearing subjects. Within the body of the Note, the reviser systematically pruned away any incriminating matter that did not pertain to Marlowe's quarrel with God. He excised the famous line about loving boys and tobacco, the references to John Poole and Newgate, Marlowe's assertion that he had as good a right to coin as the Queen, Baines's offer to produce witnesses, and most important, his recommendation that Marlowe's mouth be stopped. Scholars have supposed that the reviser scored over these passages in order to delude the Queen. But if that were the case, surely he would have prepared a fresh copy rather than a text that had obviously been doctored; the relevant parts of original text are in fact perfectly legible beneath the strokes that the reviser used to delete them. Moreover, what was the point of deceiving Elizabeth? The revised Note provided the Queen with a politically correct version of Marlowe's death. The deleted passages all refer to criminal acts that did not involve blasphemy but which nevertheless cried out for the state-sponsored punishment that Baines envisions in his final paragraph. The excision of this material concealed the quarrel between Marlowe and the court, while the provision of the new title over the blasphemies which remained indicated that Marlowe had died in a moment of casual slaughter incited by divine wrath.

This mythical act of sacred violence was the climax of a cultural narrative that coincides with the span of Marlowe's own life. By making fear the ultimate guarantor of obedience, Calvin and his followers staked God's authority on the impossibility of an open atheism that went unpunished. The handful of ancient blasphemers who had challenged God in public (Caligula, Diagoras, Dionysius) were the exceptions that proved this rule: for, as Calvin put it, no one "ever trembled with greater distress at any instance of divine wrath" than they. The antitheatrical polemicist William Rankins explains why:

[T]he mighty Jehova inkindled his wrath and sent wormes to devoure the guts of this Arius ... And Dionisius Aropagita, for blaspheming the name of God, suddainly sanck into the earth ... The unhappy wife of Job, that willed him to curse God and die, with her children, and all the rest of her substance, was suddainly wasted and consumed ...

Christopher Marlowe put this principle of divine vengeance to the test.[24]

During the months leading up to Marlowe's death, the poet and playwright Robert Greene publicly predicted that God would soon strike down the "famous gracer of tragedians" who espoused atheism. The reviser of Baines's Note worked this version of the killing into the copy that was prepared for her Highness. Four years later the Puritan minister Thomas Beard re-articulated the providential account in his popular book The Theater of God's Judgements. The story appealed to Beard because of its transparent exemplary force. Marlowe had "denied God and his sonne Christ ... But see what a hooke the Lord put in the nosthrils of this barking dogge." Three years later Vaughan related how "one Christopher Marlow by profession a play-maker .... about 7. yeeres a-goe wrote a booke against the Trinitie: but see the effects of Gods justice ..." The divines rejoiced in Marlowe's killing for the same reason that Rankins, John Field, and William Stubbes revelled in the collapse of the Bear House at Paris Garden, a disaster that claimed the lives of several spectators. These occurrences demonstrated that their Lord and Master was, as Greene put it, "a God that can punish enemies."[25]

Shakespeare's only recorded response to the killing of his fellow playwright occurs in As You Like It. Midway throught the play, the clown Touchstone complains that he has been exiled to the Forest of Arden "as the most capricious Poet honest Ovid was among the Gothes," and proceeds to observe that

When a mans verses cannot be understood, nor a mans good wit seconded with the forward childe, understanding: it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little roome.

There are numerous reasons for linking this passage to the death of Marlowe. Since the Bishop of London banned and burned Marlowe's translation of Ovid's Elegies in 1599, the year in which Shakespeare completed As You Like It, the audience at the Globe would have readily grasped the association between Ovid and Marlowe. Shakespeare's only direct reference to Marlowe, Phebe's "Dead Shepheard, now I find thy saw of might, / Who ever lov'd, that lov'd not at first sight?," appears elsewhere in this play. Touchstone's "great reckoning in a little roome" echoes another of Marlowe's magical lines, "Infinite riches in a little room" from The Jew of Malta. Last but not least, Touchstone's allusion to "the great reckoning" that strikes a man dead glances at "le reckonynge" that reportedly led to the death of Marlowe.[26]

Touchstone's ruminations make a further claim on our attention. Patrick Cheney has recently revealed the intricate ways in which Marlowe organized his own career after the example of his Roman counterpart. Cheney brings forward scores of allusions and cross-references in support of his thesis that Marlowe played Ovid to Edmund Spenser's Virgil. Touchstone pursues the Ovidian model of authorship to its frightening conclusion. Ovid was banished to dwell among the Goths because he gave offence to Caesar. In his poems of exile, Ovid repeatedly refers to the two charges against him: a poem (carmen) and an unspecified error that was not a crime. The first offence relates to Marlowe's ill-fated translation of Ovid's Elegies; the second, to the error that brought on the reckoning in the room at Deptford. The force of Touchstone's allusion lies in the parallel cases of art and repression, of the poet versus the prince. In death, as in life, Marlowe followed Ovid's example. In the passage alluding to Marlowe, and throughout As You Like It, Shakespeare permits the clown Touchstone to voice the same anti-authoritarian impulses that motivate the melancholy and satirical Jaques, but only on the condition that he vents his spleen in innocuous jokes. Such was the lesson of Marlowe's meteoric career: the poet who affronts sovereign power cannot expect vindication from "the forward childe, understanding."[27]

· Endnotes

[1]. Charles Nicholl, The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe (London, 1992). The best critique of Nicholl's thesis about the killing is Paul E. J. Hammer, "A Reckoning Reframed: the 'Murder' of Christopher Marlowe Revisited," English Literary Renaissance, 26 (1996), 225-242.

[2].Thomas Rymer, Foedera, 26 (1726), 201; cited in The Writings of John Greenwood and Henry Barrow 1591-1593, ed. Leland H. Carlson (Oxford, 1970), p. 318.

[3]. Charles Littleton, Geneva on Threadneedle Street: the French Church of London and Its Congregation (Ann Arbor, 1996), p. 222; William Allen, An Admonition to the Nobility and People of England (1588), p. 16, cited in Curtis Breight, Surveillance, Militarism, and Drama in the Elizabethan Era (Basingstoke, 1996), p. 157.

[4]. Martin Holmes, "Evil May Day 1517: the Story of a Riot," History Today 15 (1965), 642-50, cited in Littleton, Geneva on Threadneedle Street, p. 6. The Privy Council order of June, 1592 is in E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage (Oxford, 1923), IV, 310-311. For pertinent commentary on this episode and on the provenance of More see Scott McMillin, The Elizabethan Theater and The Book of Sir Thomas More (Ithaca, 1987), pp. 53-73, and William B. Long, "The Occasion of The Book of Sir Thomas More" in Shakespeare and Sir Thomas More: Essays on the Play and Its Shakespearian Interest, ed. T. H. Howard-Hill (Cambridge, Eng.: 1989), pp. 45-56.

[5]. McMillin, Elizabethan Theater, p. 60. For the identity of Hand D see McMillin, pp. 135-160; Peter Blayney, "The Booke of Sir Thomas More Rexamined," Studies in Philology, 69 (1972), 167-91; and the works cited in G. Harold Metz, Four Plays Ascribed to Shakespeare (New York, 1982). For Tilney's order, see Chambers, Elizabethan Stage, IV, 32.

[6]. Arthur Freeman, "Marlowe, Kyd, and the Dutch Church Libel," English Literary Renaissance, III (1973), 50-51 and passim. Henslowe's Diary, ed. R. A. Foakes and R. T. Rickert (Cambridge, Eng., 1961), pp. 19-20.

[7]. Acts of the Privy Council, ed. John Dasent, n.s. 24 (1901), 1592-93, 222. Hereafter cited as APC. Italics added.

[8]. For the vile heretical conceits and the Council's endorsements see the Harleian Manuscripts in the British Library, MS 6848, fols. 187-9. The Council's instructions are in APC, n.s. 24, 222. For Kyd's letters to Puckering, see Harleian MS 6848, fol.154 and MS 6849 fols. 218-19; or consult them in Freeman, Thomas Kyd, pp. 181-83. Jeffrey Masten notes that the italic hand of the vile heretical conceits "is also the hand Kyd uses, in the signed letter [i.e., the letter to Puckering] for emphasis (the word 'Atheist') and for Latin quotations." See his essay "Playwriting: Authorship and Collaboration" in A New History of Early English Drama, ed. David Scott Kastan (New York: 1998).

[9]. The "Remembrances" and the followup report are in Harleian MS 6848, fols. 190, 191 respectively. There are photo-facsimiles and transcripts of these documents in E. A. Wraight, In Search of Christopher Marlowe: a Pictorial Biography (New York, 1965), pp. 354-55. For Drury's letter to Sir Nicholas Bacon, which is at Lambeth Palace, see S. E. Sprott, "Drury and Marlowe," Times Literary Supplement, 2 August 1974, 870 -- hereafter cited as Sprott. My interpretation of the letter draws on Charles Nicholl, The Reckoning, pp. 302-313 and Roy Kendall, Richard Baines and Christopher Marlowe, Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Birmingham, 1998, pp. 486-557. The City's proclamation is in the Journals at the London Record Office, vol. 23, fol 191v.

[10]. See Nicholl, as cited above, note 7. The passages quoted from Drury's letter are in Sprott. For Young and the Tippings see Ethel Seaton, "Marlowe, Robert Poley, and the Tippings," Review of English Studies, 5 (1929), 274-75. Drury's retrospective account in the August letter is deliberately opaque because he was peddling his information about Marlowe and Cholmeley to Sir Nicholas Bacon, who oversaw domestic surveillance for the Essex faction, and did not want to reveal the particulars until assured of his reward. The previous Autumn, with reference to yet another piece of intelligence, Buckhurst had written to Puckering that Drury "was very loth to set down the particularities thereof in writing because it consisted in divers attempts and industries of his own" (Harleian MS 6995, fol. 137).

[11]. Harleian MS 6848, fol. 191, cited above in note 7.

[12]. For the letter by Lambarde, see Staffordshire County Record Office, MS. D. 593/s/4/14/16, as cited in G. E. Aylmer, "Unbelief in the Seventeenth Century" in Puritans and Revolutionaries, ed. Donald Pennington and Keith Thomas (Oxford, 1978), p. 24; T[Thomas] C[Cooper], An Admonition to the People of England (1589), p. 125; Richard Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, II, ed. George Edelen (Cambridge, Mass., 1977), Book 5, ch. 2.2, p. 24; "Of Atheism" from the Meditationes Sacrae (1597) in The Works of Francis Bacon, ed. James Spedding, Robert Ellis, and Douglas Heath (London, 1859), VII, 251; Thomas Nashe, Christ's Tears Over Jerusalem in Works, ed. McKerrow, II, 121-22.

[13]. APC, XXIV, 244. W. R. Jones, "The Court of the Verge: the Jurisdiction of the Steward and Marshal of the Household in Later Medieval England," Journal of British Studies, 10 (1970).

[14]. Baines's Note is reproduced in Wraight, pp. 308-309. The Queen's copy of the Note is in Harleian MS 6853, fols 307-308. Drury quoted from Sprott.

[15]. Danby Pickering, The Statutes at Large from the First Year of Queen Mary to the Thirty-fifth Year of Queen Elizabeth, VI (London, 1730, 423. See R. B. Wernham, "Christopher Marlowe at Flushing in 1592," English Historical Review 91 (1976), 344-345; and Kyd's letter to Puckering in Harleian MS 6849 fols. 218-219, cited in note 6 above.

[16]. Pickering, Statutes, VI, 336. The Writings of John Greenwood and Henry Barrow, 1591-93, ed. Leland H. Carlson (London, 1970), p. 290.

[17]. The Queen's copy of Baines's Note is cited in note 12 above. Nicholl gives a full account of Widow Bull in The Reckoning, pp. 35-38. See the 5th edition of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, ed. Meyer Abrams, et. al. (New York, 1993), I, 749. The one shred of firsthand evidence for this venerable canard is the ambiguous word "reckoning" in Danby's deposition, a document that is based on the testimony of known liars. For the entry in Poley's codebook see Ethel Seaton, "Robert Poley's Ciphers," Review of English Studies, 7 (1931), 140. The warrant of June 8 is in the British Public Record Office in London, Treasury Accounts, E 351/542, fol. 182b. The entire set of warrants authorizing payment to Poley are cited and transcribed in Eugenie de Kalb, "Robert Poley's Movements as a Messenger of the Court, 1588 to 1601," Review of English Studies, 9 (1933), 11-18.

[18]. The Coroner's Inquisition and the writ of certioari summoning the case into Chancery are in the Public Record Office, Chancery Miscellanea, Bundle 64, File 8, No. 241b. For a photo-facsimile and translation of the Inquisition, see Wraight, Pictorial Biography, pp. 292-93. Leslie Hotson reprints and translates the writ in The Death of Christopher Marlowe (London, 1925), pp. 26-27. For the Queen's pardon, see Wraight, Pictorial Biography, pp. 296, 356. Millar Maclure prints the relevant passage from Vaughan's The Golden Grove (1600) in Marlowe: the Critical Heritage 1588-1896 (London, 1979), pp. 46-47. On the Parrys and the Vaughans, see Mary Delorme, "A Watery Paradise: Rowland Vaughan and Hereford's 'Golden Vale'," History Today, 39 (July, 1989), 38-43.

[19]. See Curtis Breight, Surveillance, Militarism, and Drama in Elizabethan England, pp. 127-167.

[20]. For inconsistencies in Danby's inquest, see Nicholl, The Reckoning, pp. 17-21 and Eugenie de Kalb, "The Death of Marlowe," Times Literary Supplement, 21 May, 1925.

[21]. See Conyers Read, Mr. Secretary Walsingham and the Policy of Queen Elizabeth (Oxford, 1925), I, 437; cited in The Reckoning, p. 273.

[22]. Kyd's letter to Puckering in Harleian MS 6849, fols. 218-19, cited above, note 31. Cornelia, trans. Thomas Kyd (1594), sig. Aiir and sig. Aiiiv. Freeman, Thomas Kyd, p. 38.

[23]. The Reckoning, pp. 311-313.

[24]. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. John Allen (Philadelphia, 1936), I, 55-56, 61. David Wooton, "The Fear of God in Early Modern Political Theory," Canadian Historical Association, Historical Papers 18 (1983), 56-79; and David Riggs, "Marlowe's Quarrel With God," in Critical Essays on Christopher Marlowe, ed. Emily Bartels (New York, 1998), pp. 39-58. Rankins, A Mirror of Monsters (1587) sig. G1r-v.

[25]. For Greene, Beard and Vaughan see Marlowe: the Critical Heritage, ed. Millar Maclure (London, 1979), pp. 30, 41-42, 47. For Field, Stubbes and Rankins see Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, IV, 219-221, 224-25, 227.

[26]. Passages from As You Like Like It are cited from the New Variorum text edited by Richard Knoles (New York, 1977), pp. 188-190, which includes an historical account of the commentary on the passage about the great reckoning in a little room. Phebe's allusion to Marlowe's Hero and Leander appears on pp. 212-13.

[27]. Patrick Cheney, Marlowe's Counterfeit Profession: Ovid, Spenser, Counter-Nationhood (Toronto, 1997). John Thibault, The Mystery of Ovid's Exile (Berkeley, 1964).

Copyright 2000 David R. Riggs. All rights reserved. Reprinted with the permission of the author.


home · a fine mystery · a bard in the hand? · what's at stake?
related report: FRONTLINE's the shakespeare mystery · poll: who cares? · quiz · readings & links
join the discussion · teacher's guide · tapes & transcripts · press · credits
privacy · FRONTLINE · wgbh · pbsi

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

Much Ado About Something [home] FRONTLINE
SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

The Rise of ISISOctober 28th

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS