“Marlowe’s turn on the world’s stage had ended, but Shakespeare’s was just beginning. Memories were short and history unkind. It was the way of the world.” Deborah Harkness, Shadow of Night.
Christopher Marlowe was stabbed to death in 1593, aged 29. A successful playwright, his Tamburlaine, Doctor Faustus, The Jew of Malta and Edward II were hugely popular and must surely have been inspirational for another aspiring playwright, born in Warwickshire a few months after Marlowe.
Marlowe’s life and works, his early death and the shady circumstances that surround it, provide the perfect launchpad for imaginative portrayals of him in fiction. For no reason other than he appears as a character in four books I’ve read – the latest being the Harkness book quoted above – I’d like to have a look and see what use is made of him.
Partly because of his violent death and the violence within his plays, it’s long been easy to conflate Marlowe’s characters with what little is known of the man, and to see him through those characters. Is he a conservative writer, who ensures Faustus is punished for his presumption and godlessness? Or is he radical, by voicing these opinions in the first place? As Anthony Burgess has him say in A Dead Man in Deptford, “a man can be identified with his creation. Create a villain and you become a villain”. His anti-heroes are ambitious and over-reaching: Tamburlaine aims at world domination; Faustus strives to attain hitherto-concealed knowledge. Louise Welsh’s Marlowe, in her Tamburlaine Must Die, even admits “I like best what lies beyond my reach”.
This obviously makes him – especially given the uncertainty over the reasons for his death (was he a spy?) – a much more interesting figure for writers than Shakespeare, who – though having had many years to create unforgettable characters with whom he could be conflated in the same way – in dying (as far as we know) quietly, a respectable middle-aged figure in Stratford, lacks Marlowe’s mystique.
Something that quickly becomes apparent in fictional portrayals of Marlowe is that wherever he is, then Shakespeare must be, too.
This can mean Kit is bumped aside for priority to be given to Will. Issue 13 of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, “Men of Good Fortune” sees the eponymous “hero”, Dream, meet for his once-a-century drink with his friend Robert Gadling. The year is 1589, and at the next table an eager, frustrated Shakespeare flatters established star Kit Marlowe. Marlowe is withering in his analysis of Henry VI. Dream asks Gadling about the fanboy:
“Who is he?”
“Acts a bit. Wrote a play.”
“Is he good?”
“No. He’s crap. Now that chap there with the broken leg, next to him [Marlowe]. Bent as a pewter ducat. He’s a good playwright.”
Dream takes Shakespeare aside to make a bargain, the results of which we see in issue 19, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, and the coda to the Sandman series, issue 76 “The Tempest”. In the latter, Shakespeare is on the verge of retirement. He has squeezed every experience dry, and used it as grist to his mill. He looks back on his life, wondering if it has all been worthwhile.
“Kit Marlowe was not well loved. He was not a good man; but his Faustus will never be forgot. And he made no bargain with you.”
“You think not?”
Dream reassures him: “You are well loved.”
Shakespeare’s “dull” life is thus contrasted with the brief (perceived) violence of Marlowe’s. In Shadow of Night, Deborah Harkness portrays him as “less mercurial” than Marlowe, and he’s a figure of ridicule. At the novel’s end (spoiler alert), after his rival’s murder Shakespeare amends a note of Marlowe’s. This act is portrayed as a form of alchemy, a key theme of the novel. Shakespeare is jealous of Marlowe’s (alchemist) play Doctor Faustus, and concedes that unlike Marlowe he has “no talent for writing about creatures beyond the limits of nature”, and that “Kit’s choice of metre never made any sense to him”.
In Harkness’s universe, there are four species of “creature”: human, witch, vampire and daemon. Marlowe is one of the latter, a highly unstable being perennially balancing between genius and madness. As Gaiman’s Shakespeare would have it, he is “not a good man”. Marlowe is one of the supporting cast in this surprisingly good sequel to A Discovery of Witches, recently adapted by Sky Atlantic. I say ‘surprisingly good’ because A Discovery is a promising story clumsily told. The prose is wooden and the tone and pacing are all over the place. Hopefully the adaptation (which stars the ever-watchable Matthew Goode) makes a decent job of it, because Harkness’s ideas and storyline are interesting (if owing a little too much to Twilight). Anyway, the sequel is set in 1590s London and if the story arc moves with glacial sloth, at least the period evocation is superb.
This Marlowe is a misogynist – “she’s a woman, isn’t she? Of course she knows witches” – which may not be unrelated to his sexuality (of which more anon). He idolises Matthew Roydon (a vampire, based on a historical poet), who loves the main character Diana (a witch). Marlowe is an opium addict and jealous of Diana; he betrays her to Matthew’s sister (also a vampire).
Once again though Shakespeare figures as a fanboy, and is mocked for it.
“Marlowe’s…drunk as a fiddler, trading verses with that impoverished scrivener from Stratford who trails after him in hopes of becoming a playwright”
From cameo role to supporting character to hero: Louise Welsh’s 2004 novella Tamburlaine Must Die records the last few weeks of Marlowe’s life, until the eve of his murder. A brisk, enjoyable whodunnit, it builds on what we know of his final days and depicts the net closing around the wayward playwright.
But closing around who? Marlowe’s nature is fluid: “My name is Christopher Marlowe, also known as Marle, Morley, Marly, known as Kit, known as Xtopher”. While this is a joke at the inconsistency of Elizabethan spelling, it also provides a key to understanding his nature.
“I felt myself to be two men…There was Kit, creator of Tamburlaine and Faustus. Then there is silent Christopher, watching his progress, calculating how best to hold on to life.”
His sexuality is similarly fluid: where Harkness and Burgess portray him as gay, Welsh posits him as bisexual. There has been much speculation over Marlowe’s sexuality. The line “all those who love not tobacco and boys are fools” is almost wilfully controversial: a provocation. Although J.B. Steane, in his introduction to Penguin’s Collected Plays, states that there is “no evidence at all [for his homosexuality]”, Marlowe’s own writing invites us to wonder about this, as about much else.
And it’s his own writing that has got him into trouble in Tamburlaine Must Die. A pamphlet – which today we’d call racist – has been nailed to the wall of the Dutch church in London and signed “Tamburlaine”. This indeed happened and may, as Welsh suggests, helped hasten the playwright’s end. Marlowe, however, almost certainly did not write it (Welsh’s Marlowe retorts angrily at someone who moans that “soon there will be no pure English left. Just a mix of Blackamoors and Dutch and God knows what”).
Thomas Kyd, author of the highly entertaining The Spanish Tragedy and a former room-mate of Marlowe, is arrested and names Marlowe under torture as author of various blasphemous writings (“vile heretical conceits”), and Kit is summoned to the Privy Council. The questioning he faces here demands all his linguistic skill: any ambiguity will be seized upon, his every word ready to be twisted and shaped to fit a particular profile.
He is released, but the net is still loose around him, needing only drawn tight. He seems almost aware that his time will be short – “I wondered if old age was a goal worth fighting for” – and worries about posterity. He confesses to Dr John Dee that “my work will die with me” but the alchemist reassures him that “we will keep your flame alive and…sow the seeds of your renaissance. Four hundred years hence and beyond they will perform your plays and write your story”.
Indeed. And no two versions of that story are alike. JB Steane, in his introduction to the Penguin Collected Plays, says with a certain resignation that
“There was a time not so very long ago when literary gentlemen [sic] would meet, say “Christopher Marlowe” to each other, and be fairly sure that they were going to talk about the same person…thirty years ago, [Marlowe] was a colourful character, certainly, but a relatively simple one”
What Steane means by “simple” is that before New Historicist critical theory, it was assumed that works of art (in Marlowe’s case, plays) were an “expression of self”. Postmodernism and the ‘Death of the Author’ have made this sort of assumption appear naive.
Anthony Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford delights in its postmodernism, while simultaneously providing the most authentic (a contentious word, I know) rendering of Marlowe’s brief adulthood.
Our narrator, for starters, is unreliable and is happy to tell us as much. “You must and will suppose…that I suppose a heap of happenings that I had no eye to eye knowledge of or concerning” which of course holds true for any historical writing, fiction or non-, though few dare admit it. The writer of fiction is freer than the biographer. Where the latter must constantly speculate (and resort to overusing “surely”, “presumably” and “possibly”), the former has no such concerns. Burgess’s narrator blithely segues from one scene to another by means of “so let us have him riding to Canterbury”.
Who is Burgess’s Kit? As with Welsh, even his name is ambiguous, and provides a running joke throughout: “Christopher. The other name is unsure. Marlin, Merlin, Marley, Morly. Marlowe will do.” This fluidity is not just a consequence of medieval spelling, but is a function of wealth, or lack of it.
“The names of us common people…are subject to change in the process of onomastic circulation. They are fluid stuff. Nobler names are chiselled on stone or stamped on brass”
This Kit is also hot-blooded. His tongue runs away with him when he’s had a drink (and he never just has a drink), and it’s this flippancy which lands him in trouble over and over. He is mercurial, like Harkness’s Marlowe, but indiscreet. Over and over, words get him into trouble: words spoken and written.
Burgess is one of the twentieth century’s masters of wordplay. He was a proselytiser for Finnegans Wake and inventor of A Clockwork Orange‘s Nadsat, and he indulges in it here. This is entirely fitting, given his subject. Renaissance dramatists lived under constant censorship. All plays had to be submitted to the Master of the Revels before performance. In order to speak to the times, the writer therefore had to make full use of the slipperiness of language. Double meanings were seized upon: the average Shakespeare play (for instance) contains dozens of allusions that a modern audience misses not only because what was once topical is no longer so, but because the meanings of words themselves have changed or become fixed in the intervening centuries.
Like Welsh, when Burgess has Marlowe be questioned for his opinions – running the risk of not only heresy but treason – he must be nimble to avoid the linguistic traps that are set for him.
There are repeated suggestions that for all his mouthing-off he will never hang, while at the same time “Kit Kit Kit you will never be free”. But his entire existence is a trap. He has entered the “Service” – he’s a spy, rooting out would-be Catholic troublemakers – and once in, he can’t ever get out. His own actions – and what seems like fate – finally encorner him in the Deptford house where he will meet his end.
Where Burgess’s book differs from the others is that it addresses Marlowe’s craft: the creative act and the sculpting and shaping of an idea; discarding some, retaining others and improving them. In one of the finest passages in the book, Kit arrives at the iambic pentameter as the solution to a problem: “the five to the line was not natural. There were no fives in nature save cinquefoil leaves”. Burgess treats it lightly; in lesser hands this moment – revolutionising English drama – could have been accompanied by ironic foreshadowing or a bolt of creative lightning and come across as risible.
And where in these books Marlowe and his craft are, so also is someone else. Our narrator seems to sense this, too:
“I must now reluctantly bring in the man…his name like all names, suffered a multiplicity of deformation, from Shagspaw to Shogspere, from Choxper to Jacquespere…”
Marlowe and Shakespeare – in contrast to Sandman – here collaborate on Henry VI, with Shakespeare completing it after Marlowe’s death. This also allows Burgess to address the “Shakespeare authorship” question: the supposition that someone else wrote Shakespeare’s plays. The fact that Marlowe has no marked grave merely adds fuel to this particular fire. Absolute bollocks of course, but it has sadly gained traction over the years to the extent that Marlowe’s slab in Poets’ Corner now reads 1564-1593? to allow for the possibility that he went into hiding and wrote Shakespeare’s works. There is no evidence for this at all. Anywhere. The whole idea stems from a form of elitism: an unwillingness to allow that someone without University education could have written the greatest dramas in English literature: “they will not have it that grammar-school boys can write plays. Botch and help when speed is needful, yes, but not sit to write a Tamburlaine”.
Evidence is something that Charles Nicholl has examined in impressive depth in his The Reckoning. Subtitled “The Murder of Christopher Marlowe” it’s a forensic investigation into the context, the circumstances and the details of that May evening in Deptford. Burgess’s depiction of the murder is thrilling, and movingly depicted; Nicholl’s treatment – CSI: Deptford, if you will – is fascinating.
He describes the work as “not telling a story but presenting a complex and rather painstaking argument”. Nicholl uses evidence from a huge range of sources in order to map out the complex web of connections that made up the Elizabethan secret service.He tries to avoid taking clues from Marlowe’s own work:
“a play is an artefact, not a personal manifesto…but it is not hard to envisage the man that wrote these plays also turning his hand…to the “secret theatre” of espionage.”
Every name that intersects with Marlowe’s life is investigated, although there is much – at such a distance – that can’t be known (as Burgess says, “the scholarly debating will go on, and other novels will be written, but the true truth can never be known”). Nicholl acknowledges that his work by necessity is a jigsaw with missing parts, and his efforts are “an attempt to fill the spaces”.
Nicholl’s work builds on previous discoveries. For instance, the image (above, and top of page) which everyone assumes to be Marlowe may not be. The portrait is in Corpus Christi College in Cambridge and shows a wealthy young man. It was painted at a time (1585) which could easily make it Marlowe, and studies of Marlowe’s spending shows that while at Cambridge he came into sudden wealth. This coincides with periods of absence; absences which dissuaded the academic authorities from bestowing his MA upon him until they were persuaded otherwise by a letter to the Privy Council.
Marlowe had given ‘good service’ in ‘matters touching the benefit of his country’: this is the fountainhead, the source of all the speculation about his life. The letter is necessarily vague, but can surely only mean (in whatever capacity, and Nicholl illustrates the many layers and meanings of the word) “spy”.
Nicholl delves into the murky undercurrents of the secret service, and dispels any notion that Marlowe’s death was (as has long been popularly assumed) as the result of a “drunken brawl” in an inn. On the contrary, it was in a private house, and while there was indeed a brawl – which the report, hastily written and taken at face value at the time (Nicholl digs into this, too), maintains was over “the reckonyng”, i.e. the bill – the fact that each man present belonged in some capacity to the service adds whole layers of intrigue and mystery to the fracas.
Nicholl’s conclusion is that nobody ordered Marlowe’s death, however appealing a notion it may be to a writer of fiction. It was a decision arrived at on the day as other options were missed (i.e. he was freed by the Privy Council when it could otherwise have led to his silencing). His murder was “a point the day reached, by a process of dwindling options”.
So we have several Marlowes, each contingent on his creator and their “personal manifesto”; and given that the selection here is a small sample of Kit’s appearances elsewhere (M.J. Trow’s Kit Marlowe detective series, for example), there are as many Marlowes as there are writers to bring him (back) to life. The number seems likely to grow: after all, here is a genuine historical figure whose life and works allow him to be both one thing and it’s opposite; whose young death – like those of Chatterton, Shelley and Keats – holds a certain fascination; and whose historical proximity to Shakespeare gives us a proxy, sideways entrance to the world of Elizabethan drama.
Marlowe, Christopher: Collected Plays (ed. JB Steane; Penguin, 1968)
Burgess, Anthony: A Dead Man in Deptford (Hutchinson, 1993)
Gaiman, Neil: Sandman – A Doll’s House (Vertigo, 1990)
Gaiman, Neil: Sandman – Dream Country (Vertigo, 1991)
Harkness, Deborah: Shadow of Night (Penguin, 2012)
Nicholl, Charles: The Reckoning (Vintage, 1992)
Welsh, Louise: Tamburlaine Must Die (Canongate, 2004)