As mentioned in Mondays post, this week has a theme dedicated to Elizabethan dramatists! I’m happy to be posting this write up, as I had no idea who Christopher Marlowe was before talking to Chasqui, and can now say I look forward to learning more about him! If you don’t know of him, I hope this write up sparks your interest the same way it sparked mine!
A word from Chasqui,
“First of all I would like to say thank you to Melissa for starting the Tudor Writers’
Circle and for agreeing to include my written piece below. I shall now try to explain
why I have chosen to write on this subject.
Since my long-gone schooldays, I have had a deep interest in both writing and
history, with The Tudor era merging the two. In the 16 th century writing took on an
almost unknown lease of life, producing much literature from those regarded as the
English Renaissance Writers. The most famous of these, William Shakespeare, was
certainly influenced by his contemporary Christopher Marlowe, a poet and dramatist
whose plays were hugely popular in their day and have seen a revival of interest in
more recent times. Little is known for certain of his life which makes it all the more
intriguing but after much irresistible research (still on-going), I have written the
following which is as accurate as my findings allow, with a few of my speculations
included, but I shall be extremely grateful for any corrections or additions, as I have
become deeply interested in the fascinating, if not entirely desirable life, of the man
known as Kit Marlowe. You can contact me via my Twitter account:
@ChasquiPenguin – many thanks.”
(The Life of Christopher Marlowe – A Synopsis with Facts and Speculations)
I have a T-shirt displaying a photograph – of a portrait. While it is presumed to be of Christopher (Kit) Marlowe, the Tudor poet, playwright and leading exponent of blank verse, there is also much controversy over the actual identity of the 21 year old ornately-dressed man depicted. The portrait, by an unknown artist, was discovered in 1952 on a rubbish tip at Cambridge University’s Corpus Christi College, Marlowe’s alma mater. It was in need of much restoration work, but the finished product is evidence of a fine piece of artwork.
Now, you may be wondering why I bought a T-shirt showing a possibly unknown person. The answer is quite simple and split into three parts. First of all, it is the closest I shall ever come to a likely picture of one of the finest English dramatists, and with a quote beside it from one of his most famous plays, “Accursed be he that first invented war” from “Tamburlaine the Great (Part 1)”. Secondly, I have many T-shirts proclaiming my interest in music and comedy but, before this, none paying combined tribute to history and literature and, ostensibly, the intriguing Kit Marlowe. Thirdly, not knowing if this picture really shows him adds to the mystery of the life and death of one of Canterbury’s most famous sons, thus making this T-shirt more exciting to wear!
The clues which point to the possibility that it is Kit are the inscriptions in the top left corner, both in Latin: “Anno dni aetatis svae 21 1585” ( “Aged 21 in the year 1585”) – this would include him, though a university would have been full of young men of the same age. Beneath this, it reads: “Quod me nutrit me destruit” (“That which nourishes me, destroys me”) which was said to be Kit’s motto, and a concept used in his plays, and if events eight years later bear any truth, then this phrase would seem to have been prophetic. As to his appearance, little is known though he is said to have had slim features, brown eyes and long brown hair. The subject of the portrait does conform to this description but whether the description emanates from this painting or from someone who actually knew Kit is unclear.
There is much speculation about Kit Marlowe’s life, though some facts are available. He was born in Canterbury, Kent, and though there is no official registration of his birth (not required then), church records show his baptismal date as 26th February 1564 at St George the Martyr, and back then, with high infant mortality, babies were baptised as soon as possible. He was the second child and eldest son of Katherine and John Marlowe, a shoemaker, was educated, at The King’s School in Canterbury, probably the oldest English school in existence, and gained a Cambridge scholarship which led to his BA and MA achievements. In his apparently short life he penned poems plus seven plays, which have all been performed, and is said to have been a great influence on his contemporaries, including William Shakespeare. In fact, in 2016 Oxford scholars agreed that the two dramatists did collaborate on Henry VI, their names now appearing together on the front covers of the New Oxford publication of all three parts of this historical saga. However, many other eminent academics disagree with this conclusion so whether Marlowe and Shakespeare did collaborate on this or other plays, is still open to debate but it is certain that Kit was something of an expert on British history and Ancient Civilisations.
It is generally believed that while at Cambridge Kit Marlowe was recruited into the shadowy world of espionage by Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I’s “spymaster”, whether willingly or not is unreported. This is borne out by a 1587 letter received by his college from the Privy Council explaining that his lengthy absences were due to his working for the state (though the role in which he was employed was not specified), and thus authorising Corpus Christi College to award Marlowe his deserved MA, this having been withheld due to the inordinate amount of time he had spent away from his studies there.
On gaining his MA, Marlowe moved to London and made a great success of writing plays, which proved very popular with theatre-goers for their strong characters and dramatic content, all but “Edward II” being performed at The Rose Theatre. His repertoire of 7 plays began with “Tamburlaine the Great (Parts 1 and 2)” and were followed by, “The Jew of Malta”, “The Massacre at Paris”, “Edward II”, “Dido Queen of Carthage” and “Doctor Faustus”. He was said to be a part-time spy, which allowed him to devote enough time to his writing, though without this extra job, perhaps he would have produced more plays but had less money!
Marlowe’s death is recorded as 30th May 1593, from a stab wound inflicted by Ingram Frizer, during a fight in a house in Deptford (back then this was in Kent, today it is part of South London), not in a tavern brawl, which is the common but erroneous view. However, in 1925 Leslie Hotson discovered the coroner’s report and on examination of the document concluded that it was unrepresentative of the actual facts, providing inadequate evidence of the events alleged to have taken place. He found flaws in it, with a number of important questions apparently never posed, let alone answered, combined with the probably unreliable statements made by Frizer, Robert Poley and Nicholas Skeres who were all present at the time of Kit’s alleged death but regarded as “professional liars”. Within a month Frizer had been acquitted on the grounds of “self-defence”, though there are some reports that Christopher Marlowe was unarmed.
As a result, there is a growing interest in the Marlovian Theory which puts forward the concept that Marlowe’s death was faked and he was secretly taken into exile for his own protection, there having been a series of events which would have made this desirable, not least his awaiting trial for atheism, with a guilty verdict almost certainly leading to execution. Further conjectures have him living in France and Italy, before returning to England around 1595, in disguise, continuing to write, but under a pseudonym, working with William Shakespeare, or even writing all The Bard’s plays. To me the latter seems highly unlikely, though a collaboration between the two may not have been beyond the bounds of possibility, assuming Kit had survived.
Scholars are divided on all this, but it has to be said that the Marlovian Theory raises some interesting ideas to support the fact that Kit did live beyond his 29 years. First of all, Kit was in a “safe house” with members of the espionage ring. He is said to have had an argument with Ingram Frizer over payment for the meal (“the reckoning” – the bill as we say today) and it was during this time that Marlowe, was stabbed just above the right eye – to a depth of 2 inches – dying instantly. Accounts differ, though the coroner’s report states that Kit was laying on a bed when the altercation began. However, if the plan had been to smuggle him out of the house and on to a boat, it would make sense for him to have got a few hours’ sleep before his long journey along the Thames and across the Channel. However, this is entirely my speculation but, on the practical side, the “safe house” in Deptford, South London, owned by Dame Eleanor Bull a respectable lady and member of the Walsingham family, is thought to have been very near the river and it would have been possible to smuggle Kit out, under cover of darkness, and for a boat to take him along The Thames and across the Channel. The mystery deepens!
As to Kit himself, he is said to have been buried in an unmarked grave in a local churchyard. This seems unlikely as he was the most famous and popular writer of his day, and part-time government employee, known to Queen Elizabeth herself. However, today there is a modern plaque on the wall of St Nicholas’s churchyard, Deptford which reads:
Near this spot lie the mortal remains of Christopher Marlowe who met his untimely death in Deptford on May 30th 1593
“Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight” (Dr Faustus)
Whatever the truth, Christopher Marlowe certainly made his mark on English theatre from the late 1500s, coining many phrase which entered the English language, some still in use today, among them, “The face that launched a thousand ships” (Dr Faustus), “sink or swim” (Dido, Queen of Carthage), not to mention “He who sups with the devil has need of a long spoon. I have brought you a ladle” (The Jew of Malta), which is perhaps proof of his alleged acerbic wit. He is also known to have translated Ovid’s “Amores” from Latin into English and Book 1 of Lorcan’s “Pharsalia”, when at Cambridge, and it is believed the former was first published in 1582, under the title “Ovid’s Elegies”.
From the little that is known of him, it strikes me that Kit would have approved of his image appearing on a T-shirt, an article of clothing so far removed from the garments of the 16th century, with the velvets and fine clothing he liked to wear, that he could never have imagined such a fashion item! He seemed to have been a forward thinking free spirit who was the country’s best known dramatist and poet in his day (before Shakespeare’s fame overshadowed him), who lived to write and was always striving for wisdom and knowledge. Perhaps, if he had been part of my generation, with his free thinking, long hair and obvious great talent for words, he’d have been one of the foremost outspoken social singer/songwriters of the 1960s, carving a niche for himself beside Dylan and his ilk, while trying to put the world right with peace and love, alongside well-constructed verses, and given the inscription on my T-shirt, deep-down I think he could well have been an early hippie!
There are memorials to “The Muses’ Darling”, Christopher Marlowe. In the late 19th century Edward Onslow Ford sculpted a bronze statue of the Muse of Poetry (no-one then having any idea of Kit’s appearance) with 4 statuettes, one at each side, and representing actors playing leading roles in his plays. This now stands outside the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury. The King’s School has a house named after its former pupil, and in 2002, a stained-glass window, dedicated to him and donated by the Marlowe Society (who included a question mark next to his date of death) was unveiled in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey, London. The Marlowe Society exists to preserve and promote the writings of their hero and much of my research online has been provided by this well-informed group of literary enthusiasts so my grateful thanks to them.
Despite his possibly dubious lifestyle, it seems that more rumour than fact exists, and Kit may well have been more maligned than is justified, but all in all, I am delighted to wear a T-shirt dedicated to this enigmatic genius and to speculate on whether his talents were curtailed that May evening in 1593 or whether he did live on to write alone, under a pseudonym, and/or anonymously with Shakespeare, Currently, my leanings are 75/25 with the Marlovian Theory and I live in hope that some evidence will be uncovered one day to prove that he did live into old age.
Whether the portrait actually does depict Christopher Marlowe will doubtless remain a mystery for the remainder of Time. However, of more importance is that his plays, poems and translations are still extant today and, as a result, he has left us a legacy of quality literature.
© Chasqui Penguin