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marlowe: what (little) we know
A brief look at what's known about the life of Christopher Marlowe and the competing theories of how, why -- or whether -- Marlowe died in 1593.

Marlowe's life starts humbly in Canterbury in 1564. His father, John, is a cobbler; his mother, Katherine, is a clergyman's daughter. When he is 15 years old, Marlowe enrolls at the prestigious King's School in Canterbury, and is subsequently awarded a scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he studies from 1580 to 1587, pursuing a Master of Arts degree and writing his first plays.

In June of 1587, the Queen's Privy Council, consisting of the court's highest officials, intervenes on Marlowe's behalf after he is accused of being a Catholic sympathizer -- having been absent from the college and rumored to have been in Rheims, a Catholic stronghold in France -- and the granting of his M.A. degree is put in jeopardy. The Council issues a communique to university officials at Cambridge in which they praise Marlowe, stating that "he had done Her Majesty good service, & deserved to be rewarded for his faithful dealing." Marlowe is soon granted his diploma.

Charles Nicholl, in The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe, writes that the Privy Council's intervention is the earliest record of Marlowe's involvement in confidential government work. Though no detailed account of Marlowe's dealings with the Elizabethan secret service exists, Nicholl, in a chronology of Marlowe's movements at Cambridge, concludes that

after a period of conventional time-keeping during his 'bachelor years,' he becomes suddenly mobile in the spring of 1585. From then on, his attendance is irregular, and punctuated by lengthy absences. It is strongly suggested that this reflects his entry into government service: that he was recruited in early 1585, and that the subsequent absences were missions of some sort, missions which added both to his ill-fame at Cambridge and to his favour with the Privy Council.

Two years after receiving his diploma, Marlowe is imprisoned after a swordfight results in the death of one William Bradley, an innkeeper's son. (Bradley was killed by one of Marlowe's acquaintances.) Then, in 1592, the year before his reported death, he is involved in a scuffle with a tailor that involves a "staff and a dagger." It is partly from these incidents that Marlowe has gained a reputation for courting danger.

There is another side to Marlowe's life, one that led him deeper into danger. At some point he becomes a member of a secretive group of free-thinking intellectuals, sometimes referred to as "The School of Night," which gathered around Sir Walter Ralegh and Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland. Branded as "atheists," a deadly serious charge in Elizabethan England, such free thinkers became targets of Queen Elizabeth's relentless campaign against "heresy" in 1593.

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In early 1593, one of Marlowe's fellow playwrights, Thomas Kyd, is arrested on charges of libel, interrogated, and probably tortured. Under pressure, Kyd implicates Marlowe as the owner of a "heretical" document. The Queen's Privy Council soon issues a warrant for Marlowe to be apprehended. On May 20, 1593, he appears before the Privy Council and is ordered to report to it on a daily basis. Ten days later, Marlowe is reportedly dead, killed in a "tavern brawl," as the story has long been told, at Deptford near the banks of the Thames.

Marlowe's known literary career lasted only six years, from 1587 to 1593. He left seven plays, including (though not necessarily in this order) Dido, Queen of Carthage, Tamburlaine (Parts 1 and 2), The Jew of Malta, Doctor Faustus, Edward II, and The Massacre at Paris. His poem Hero and Leander, unfinished in 1593, was completed by his friend, the poet George Chapman, and published in 1598.

· Marlowe's Mysterious Death

An historical account of Marlowe's death wasn't offered until 1925, when Leslie Hotson, a young doctoral student, discovered in the Public Record Office the report of an inquest by the Queen's Coroner, William Danby, conducted at Deptford in 1593. (See a transcription of the report provided on the Marlowe Society website.) The inquest concerned a fight on May 30, 1593, in which a Marlowe is said to have lost his life. The document says that four men -- Marlowe, Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres, and Robert Poley -- met at 10 a.m. at a house in Deptford Strand belonging to a widow named Eleanor Bull. In one of the rooms in the house, the men passed the time, had lunch together, then walked in the garden. That evening at about 6 p.m., the men returned to the room and had dinner together. After the meal, an argument about the bill (called the "reckoning") broke out between Marlowe and Frizer and "malicious" words were spoken. Marlowe drew Frizer's own dagger and struck him twice about the head. In the ensuing struggle, Frizer regained the dagger and stabbed Marlowe in self-defence, inflicting a wound above his right eye, two inches deep and one inch wide, killing him instantly.

Skeptics questioning this "official" story fall into two camps: those who say that Marlowe did die in 1593, but suspect that he was murdered or assassinated; and those who believe that Marlowe was not killed that day.

Murder or Assassination. In the first edition of his book The Reckoning, published in 1992, Charles Nicholl writes that Marlowe was murdered in a plot involving the Earl of Essex, who was engaged in a fierce factional struggle with Sir Walter Ralegh. In the new edition of The Reckoning, however, Nicholl has revised his theory, discarding Essex and focusing on Thomas Drury, a member of the Elizabethan spy world who had opportunistic reasons for setting Marlowe up, implicating him as an atheist as part of a larger scheme against Ralegh. (Michael Rubbo, producer and director of "Much Ado About Something," offers a reaction to Nicholl's revised edition of The Reckoning.)

Prof. David Riggs of Stanford University, author of a forthcoming biography of Marlowe, has a different theory, hinging on the political and religious context of the period. "My interpretation of the killing is much simpler and goes like this," he writes in "The Killing of Christopher Marlowe." "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."

The False or Faked-Death Theory. Of those who believe that Marlowe lived past that day in Deptford in 1593, perhaps the most influential has been Calvin Hoffman, whose 1955 book, The Murder of the Man Who Was 'Shakespeare', is credited with launching the modern case for Marlowe as the author of Shakespeare's works.

Hoffman believed that Sir Thomas Walsingham, who he alleged was Marlowe's homosexual lover, arranged to fake Marlowe's death and spirit him out of the country, far from the threat of the Star Chamber, Protestant England's answer to the Inquisition. He believed that Marlowe, safely out of England, carried on writing plays, which he sent back to Walsingham. Walsingham would then copy them into another hand and deliver them to a front man in the theater world. That front man, according to Hoffman, was William Shakespeare.

There have been other explanations of what happened, most of which haven't stood up well under scrutiny. For an examination of the various theories, see "Marlowe's Sudden and Fearful End: Self-Defence, Murder or Fake?," an essay by Peter Farey, an amateur historian interviewed by Rubbo in "Much Ado About Something."

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