Unsolved mysteries invite solution. Charles Nicholl agrees that the official account of Christopher Marlowe's death -- the report of William Danby, Queen's coroner -- is suspicious and probably not what happened that day. It states that Marlowe was killed in a fight in the house of Dame Eleanor Bull on the evening of the 30th of May, 1593. The killing, according to the report, was in self-defense by one Ingram Frizer.
Those who try to solve this mystery proceed in time-honoured fashion, amassing the facts, the events as we know them, and constructing a theory which fits those facts. Nicholl, in the first edition of The Reckoning, published in 1992, explained that Marlowe, by Nicholl's reading of these facts, was killed in a struggle between factions. Marlowe was identified with the forces of Sir Walter Ralegh. Nicholl supposed that men acting for Ralegh's arch rival, the Earl of Essex, killed Marlowe when they failed to persuade him to betray Ralegh.
In the revised edition of his book, which has just been published, this theory is out the window. Nicholl now argues that Marlowe was killed because he was caught in the shady dealings of lesser figures in the spy world, people who wanted to prove their value to their handlers. Marlowe was, of course, a spy himself.
The Reckoning is very well researched. The reader almost drowns in a sea of fascinating detail, and the characters who emerge from these conspiracy-filled pages, are vivid and plausible. But ultimately, the new explanation seems to me even less satisfying than the first, because it makes Marlowe's death, if anything, more petty than it was before.
In both editions, Nicholl spends no time at all on the most audacious of theories, that Marlowe did not die that day but was spirited away to live in exile. When I challenged Nicholl on this face to face (as I was interviewing him for "Much Ado About Something"), asking why he did not put this theory to the test, he replied rather tersely that there was a lot of evidence that Marlowe was killed that day, and none at all that he survived. Marlovians dispute this. Nonetheless, taking this to be true, the lack of evidence for Marlowe's survival does not explain why this theory does not deserve testing against the facts.
One could equally say that there is a lot of evidence that Marlowe was killed in self-defense by Frizer, as the official version claims, and that there's no hard evidence that he was murdered. Yet Nicholl believes Marlowe was indeed murdered, and feels quite free to explore this deviationist theory. He even has the subtitle "The Murder of Christopher Marlowe" on the cover of his book, as if this were fact and not just a theory.
So, some questions for Nicholl, evidence which I feel he does not address, facts and plausible suppositions which permit the faked-death theory to be taken seriously.
1. Why does Nicholl give so little weight to the fact that two of the men at the house in Deptford, Frizer and Skeres, worked at times for Marlowe's patron, Thomas Walsingham? This suggests that the planning and the conduct of the meeting might have had something to do with Walsingham and with his interest in and concern for Marlowe. Marlowe was at Walsingham's house when arrested by the Privy Council. Walsingham thus knows Marlowe is in trouble, and, as Marlowe's friend, it is fair to presume that he's taking a keen interest. Also, we know from other sources that Walsingham's regard and affection for Marlowe continued after the 30th of May. In spite of all of this, Nicholl writes, "It is too vague and too easy to put him [Walsingham] up as the schemer behind the scenes." What a curious statement! In other words, we must reject things that seem too plausible.
2. Why does Nicholl not assume that Marlowe has gone to the meeting to act vigorously in his own interests? He is an intelligent man who is in dire straits
and will be doing all that he can to extract himself from the predicament in
which he finds himself. Nicholl delves into the mindset of the others present;
everyone except Marlowe. Why is Marlowe, the key player, left passive and at the mercy of the machinations of others? All Nicholl says of Marlowe's state of mind is this: "Marlowe is under pressure, but he has his own cards to play, his own ends to serve; he is not so tractable to their lures." Nicholl never elaborates on what he thinks Marlowe might have done in his own interests. Marlowe stays passive and unconvincing.
3. Why does the meeting happen at Deptford? Meeting near the Thames
would be very appropriate if one wanted to slip away. It would be like
meeting at the airport today. Yet it serves no clear purpose if the
plan is to murder Marlowe. There is no need to ship the body away for we
are told that he was buried in the local grave yard, not far from the
Bull house. The meeting place, on the other hand, serves a clear purpose
if Marlowe is to escape and another body left as a substitute. (See
Peter Farey's excellent website.)
4. Why, if murder is afoot, does the meeting go on so long and
apparently so amicably? The coroner's report tells of the four men
walking in the garden, taking lunch together and finally having a second
meal together indoors. Why prolong the meeting, and the chance of
discovery, if the plan is murder? The alibi for the killing is a fight
over the reckoning, the bill for the evening meal. This could just as
easily have been concocted to apply to the bill for lunch.
5. Why does Nicholl not read into this lengthy get-together the
strong implication that the men are collectively waiting for
something, something they all agree on, and which can't pay off
until evening? Why does Nicholl not allow himself to speculate about
this waiting mode, and what these four men might be waiting for
together that is of mutual interest?
6. Why, if it is a murder, is it done in the house of a respectable woman, Eleanor Bull, who has connections to the court, and not in more private circumstances?
7. Why are three men required for the murder, multiplying the possibility that someone will talk later?
8. Why are the three men unable to overpower Marlowe if indeed he did fly off the handle?
9. Why does the Queen hastily pardon Frizer, the man who reportedly
kills Marlowe in self-defense? The speed of the pardon is
extraordinarily rapid for the times. Why does Nicholl not speak about
this royal pardon? This is surely consistent either with Marlowe being
saved -- or assassinated by the court, as argued by Prof. David Riggs of
Stanford University in his article "The Killing of Christopher Marlowe."
10. Why does Nicholl not delve more deeply into the fact that Robert Poley, one of the three present, is a highly placed government agent travelling with official letters and that he does not deliver his letters for a week after the events at Deptford? If Marlowe is dead, why does Poley need to go missing for a week. Nicholl tells us that Walsingham and Poley have worked together before. Could they not be working together again on this day? Thus, the three men there are all potentially friendly to Marlowe through Walsingham, and yet this is never discussed by Nicholl.
11. Why are Walsingham's servants or associates, Frizer and Skeres, very rapidly forgiven by Walsingham and back in business dealings with him within a month? You would think they would be seriously out of favour, having killed a good friend of the boss's, and a great poet to boot.
12. Why does no one who looks at this death think about the value Marlowe must have had to his friends and the elite at court? The man was a brilliant playwright. His plays, as Nicholl points out, in no way gave offence. On the contrary, several of them would have been seen as good propaganda by the Queen, in terms of countering the Catholic threat.
We know that Marlowe had been helped out of danger on previous occasions by powerful figures. Lord Burghley himself had helped Marlowe on several occasions. Why the assumption that these people would not do so again --especially since, as Nicholl points out in the new version of his book, most of the charges against Marlowe of atheism were trumped up, manufactured by low-life characters like Thomas Drury, trying to ingratiate themselves with people in power?
Framing Marlowe was surely a game easy enough to see through. Why, then, don't his powerful friends save him from these machinations? A lot has been invested in this man, in his education, in his training as an agent for the Government. A lot of people have watched his development and cared about his advancement. Elizabeth was intellectually adventurous. The people in the dissident circle to which Marlowe belonged, supposedly called The School of Night, were not treated harshly by the Queen on the whole: Ralegh was arrested and released the following year, Hariot and Northumberland left free. It does seem an extreme step for this man of great worth, who had proved himself in so many ways -- on the stage and in the spy world -- that he should be so casually chopped. One can see him being imprisoned or brought to heel in some way. But murdered? That seems unnecessarily extreme.
13. Why is Marlowe buried in an unmarked grave with such haste that none of his friends can attend and pay homage? There are more questions that one could ask. But I hope these are enough to show that Marlowe's death in 1593 is still very much an open question.