February 22, 2018

The Christopher Marlowe Case

On this day in 1593 Queen Elizabeth's Privy Council issued a warrant for the arrest of Christopher Marlowe on charges of spreading "blasphemous and damnable opinions." Five days earlier Marlowe's roommate and fellow playwright, Thomas Kyd, had also been arrested on similar charges; under torture (apparently a set piece on the rack called "scraping the conscience"), Kyd had claimed that the offending documents in his possession were in fact Marlowe's. While prosecutors prepared for trial Marlowe was allowed out on bail; the day before his scheduled court appearance, and at just twenty-nine years of age, Marlowe was killed in a drunken brawl in Deptford, a dagger through his eye.

Though sensational enough, these facts do not nearly cover the controversial life and death of the poet-playwright who, many say, had the talent of Shakespeare. Marlowe was certainly a drinker, a hothead, and one often in trouble with the law; it is now also known that he had been recruited to be a secret agent while in his Cambridge days. Records show that the same Privy Council which arrested him for blasphemy in 1593 intervened six years earlier to explain to University authorities that Marlowe had cut classes to be of service to Her Majesty on "matters touching the benefit of his country." And it seems that Marlowe died not in a tavern but in a government safe house, in the company of other spies and spy-runners, some of whom had the personality and perhaps the motive to kill him.

Add to this Marlowe's free-thinking, as evidenced by his association with the so-called "School of Night" group, and in such plays as Doctor Faustus. Add also his free-loving, as in such lines as "Come live with me and be my love, / And we will all the pleasures prove." Allow, if you like, the more recent theory that Marlowe's hugger-mugger burial in an unmarked grave was a ruse, and that Marlowe was in a group of spies conducted across the Channel the day after his faked murder, and that he went on to not only write as well as Shakespeare but to become "Shakespeare." In any case, he remains a fascinating figure, as testified by the number of recent books and movies: Dead Man in Deptford, by Anthony Burgess (1995); The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe, by Charles Nicoll (1992); and Much Ado About Something (a documentary film, 2000). Why Angelina Jolie sports Marlowe's motto -- "That which nourishes me destroys me" -- as a sub-navel tattoo still remains, for some, a mystery.

The last moments on earth for Faustus, the nourishing over and the destroying about to begin:
    [The clock strikes twelve.]

    It strikes, it strikes! Now, body, turn to air,
    Or Lucifer will bear thee quick to hell!
    O soul, be chang'd into small water-drops,
    And fall into the ocean, ne'er be found!

    [Thunder. Enter DEVILS.]

    O, mercy, heaven! look not so fierce on me!
    Adders and serpents, let me breathe a while!
    Ugly hell, gape not! come not, Lucifer!
    I'll burn my books!--O Mephistophilis!

    [Exeunt DEVILS with FAUSTUS.]

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