Columns > Published on March 7th, 2014

LURID: O Unlucky Man - Christopher Marlowe

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.

It’s 450 years since the birth of Christopher Marlowe, the second-greatest Elizabethan dramatist.  Unfortunately for Marlowe, it’s also 450 years since the birth of Shakespeare.  In death, as in life, Marlowe is perpetually overshadowed by the Bard.

Sharing a birth year with the upstart actor William Shakespeare, the playwright who would go on to eclipse him, first within the London theaters, and then in literary posterity, is perhaps the cruelest twist of fate to beset this most unlucky man.  Had Marlowe been born in a different year altogether, in a more forgiving time, he might have worked more prolifically and peaceably as a writer – and suffered less by comparison to the greatest dramatist who ever lived.  He also might have lived to a riper age, rather than being stabbed in the brain a couple of months after his twenty-ninth birthday.

Despite his short career, we still have much to celebrate about Marlowe, a lot of it of a deliciously lurid nature.  He transformed professional theatre by establishing it was possible for a playwright to make a living by his pen (rather than by a wealthy patron) and he redefined the boundaries and beauty of English blank verse.  On the flip side of his resume, he was an atheist and a known spy, enmeshed in the perilous tangle of the Elizabethan underworld. He began life in obscurity, clawed his way up through a rigid social hierarchy, and ended as an agent provocateur who posed enough of a threat to the government that he had to be removed. He was a born troublemaker whose mastery of language didn’t extend to knowing when to keep his mouth shut.

He was a born troublemaker whose mastery of language didn’t extend to knowing when to keep his mouth shut.

Consequently, the seven plays attributed to him are blood-soaked, provocative affairs, driven by defiant anti-heroes whose rage and frustrations are still relatable in our own century.  His dramas center around conflicts that still divide humanity – racism, corruption, doomed love and ambition – and theatre companies still find it a challenge to interpret the bleaker aspects of his worldview for an audience.  But Marlowe never intended his work to be easy or optimistic.  He was a tragedian through and through, his craft honed through long years of struggle, an outsider (much like his anti-heroes) who remained unconvinced of the beauty of compromise.  Had he lived, he might have mellowed, but his legacy relies purely on the fiery output of his youth.

The Scholar's Yoke

Born in 1564, the only surviving son of a humble Canterbury shoemaker, the young Christopher Marlowe wasn’t a likely candidate for literary glory.  Poets usually emerged from the ranks of well-educated gentlemen who amused themselves by publishing elegantly loose translations of Latin verse, or courtly sonnets.  Those without substantial independent incomes relied on patronage – and behaved and wrote according to their patron’s wishes.  Yet, if a base-born boy was prepared to devote himself to schoolwork from an early age, foregoing the usual roustabout pleasures of Elizabethan youth, there were opportunities for rising through the ranks, as long as the candidate could prove at every turn he was deserving enough, and would play grateful, by the rules.

Marlowe began his education at a local petty school, rote learning his ABCs, Catechisms, and Private Prayers alongside other sons of laborers.  The petty school curriculum was originally devised by King Henry VIII as a way of reinforcing his new national religion, and was reinstated by Elizabeth at the beginning of her reign. Catholic church services were recited in Latin, a language incomprehensible to most Tudor subjects.  With his new Protestant leanings, Henry wanted to change all that.  The petty schools taught boys to read and write just enough English to be dutiful, instruction-taking citizens and churchgoers (fines for not attending church every Sunday could top £20, or four years’ laboring wages).  After a couple of years’ rudimentary education, boys were sent out into the world of work around the age of eight, then to be bound over as an apprentice in their early teens.

Marlowe, however, was on a different track.  He went on to attend grammar school, where he learned Latin and Greek by copying texts out by hand, a laborious and time-intensive process conducive to memorization rather than interpretation.  School days lasted for twelve hours. Boys who made mistakes were brutally beaten.  This mind-numbing system was designed to churn out obedient clerks with excellent handwriting, rather than insightful scholars.

This intensive education was the only way for a tradesman’s son to rise in the world.  Marlowe’s intellectual ambition – and fear of his father’s grinding poverty – propelled him through the system.  A scholarship boy ate beef, drank beer, and celebrated feast days; a much preferable alternative to the shivering misery of a shoemaker’s apprentice. At fourteen, he won a place at the highly competitive King’s School attached to Canterbury Cathedral, where he studied Greek and Latin oratory and poetry in preparation for University. If he fell short on any of the rigorously imposed standards of either academic achievement or behavior, there were a dozen other eager students ready to take his place. As a sixteen year-old, he excelled in ‘making verses’, spontaneously composing hexameter lines of poetry in the style of Virgil or Ovid.  His talent earned him a scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge – and the opportunity for real social advancement.

The Cambridge Years

There were two classes of student at Cambridge.  The sons of poor men, like Marlowe, who were being educated for positions within the church and scholastic hierarchy, and the sons of gentlemen, who were looking for a good time.  This latter group rarely stayed long enough to complete a degree, and, by contrast to the black-clad and repressed scholars, wore bright, ruffled clothing, played tennis and caroused in local alehouses. It’s no wonder Marlowe resented each entitled scion of grace and favor, who needed no more than a smattering of University classes to qualify for cushy, semi-hereditary posts as sheriffs or justices of the peace, while a scholar sweated six years for an MA that would qualify him for the modest living of a parson.

Social resentment wasn’t the only passion swelling in Marlowe’s bosom at Cambridge.  Ever since he left his sisters and mother in the family home, Marlowe had lived and worked in an exclusively male environment. In keeping with common Elizabethan practice, he shared his bed with another unmarried male at every stage.  While the act of sodomy was considered a most heinous crime, punishable by death and mentioned in the same breath as treason and heresy, intimate male friendships were the norm.

This curious ambivalence – at least to modern thinking, which hinges on more rigid categorizations of sexual orientation – lay at the heart of Elizabethan society.  To be chosen as a same-sex bedfellow was a mark of affection and favor.  Regular nighttime companions of powerful men could leverage pillow talk into promotion.  The open nature of Elizabethan bedrooms, with chambers leading into one another and servants accommodated within sight of their masters, meant that sleeping arrangements were rarely private, and such liaisons were carried on with the full knowledge of the rest of the household. 

Men routinely kissed and embraced each other in public, and developed deep emotional bonds along with the physical contact.  Such friendships between social equals rarely drew comment.  It was only when a gentleman crossed an invisible (to us) boundary of class, flaunting his relationship with a base-born serving boy a little too readily, and if there were other hints of his questionable moral character, that accusations of sodomy would begin to fly.

At Cambridge, the Tudor monarchs had thrown out the old Catholic religious texts, and were promoting humanist education.  This meant Marlowe studied Aristotle, Cicero, Plato, and Virgil, who extolled in poetry and prose the virtues of pederasty, framing it as a purer, more profound love than gynerasty (lust towards women), the result merely of inflammation of the loins.  We are what we read.

As a young man, Marlowe, along with his cohort, was steeped in homoeroticism and same-sex affection, and he co-habited with men until his death.  Yet, had he lived long enough to prosper, he would have been expected to court and marry a woman and beget children.  It would be incorrect, therefore, to label him as homosexual according to modern categorization.  Perhaps it’s more useful to situate the writer of Edward II within a more generalized queer culture – he certainly never inhabited heteronormative spaces within his lifetime and this is reflected in the ardent same-sex relationships depicted in his work.

Dealing With The Devil

During his final years at Cambridge, as he studied astronomy, optics (maths and geometry) and cosmography to round out his world-view, Marlowe began taking long absences from college.  By then, he knew that the life of a country vicar (the end to which he had been educated) wasn’t for him, and it was time to explore other career options. 

Impoverished scholars like Marlowe had to submit to some kind of service, with the Church of England, a wealthy patron, or an academic establishment, or starve.  The only option that afforded a degree of independence was to join the government’s extensive network of spies. By the mid-1580s, this was vital work.  There were enemies of the state at home, in the form of recusant noblemen, and abroad, as foreign powers considered reclaiming the English throne for Rome. Paranoia about plots to assassinate the barren Queen and replace her with a Catholic monarch reached fever pitch.  Elizabeth’s response was to send spies to infiltrate Catholic circles, gather evidence on the conspirators, then publicly hang, draw and quarter those quickly convicted of treason in order to deter the rest.

Her best lieutenant was Sir Francis Walsingham, expert diplomat, politician and intelligence gatherer.  He created an underground – and extremely costly – network, ranging from hired thugs to deft rhetoricians like Marlowe, who could argue any philosophical viewpoint they were paid to espouse. Hungry young graduates, then as now, were pressed into service, given funds to travel to Europe and express their suddenly-Popish sympathies in taverns from Rhiems to Madrid.  It was dangerous work. Become too good at posing as a Catholic kingmaker, and be suspected as a double agent, subject to accusations of treason (and risk execution). Not good enough, and face instant eradication by the compromised conspirators.

Marlowe proved adept at spying – so good, that Walsingham didn’t quite trust his loyalties and put him under surveillance for the rest of his life.  But the money was good: it bought the young writer freedom of thought.  For the first time, Marlowe could see beyond the confines of instruction, and could consider using his language skills for something other than the technical exercises of translation and tribute.  His contacts in the murky Elizabethan underworld also introduced him to one of the newer pleasures sweeping lower-class London: the public theatre.

Entertaining The Masses

In 1576, James Burbage built the first public theatre in London (“the Theatre”) in Shoreditch.  Prior to this, plays were performed only as religious spectacle, as courtly entertainment in private homes, or by wandering bands of players at local festivals.  However, after the 1572 Punishment of Vagabonds Act made it illegal to be an unlicensed wandering minstrel (punishment entailed being “grievously whipped and burned through the gristle of the right ear with a hot iron of the compass of an inch about"), acting companies sought the safety of a permanent address.

Marlowe...established theatre as the first form of mass entertainment.

The Theatre was a success, and other actor-entrepreneurs followed, building more playhouses.  An afternoon at one of these new venues proved extremely popular with all manner of Londoners, who found it easy to pick up sexual partners among their fellow playgoers.  High-class women in masks rubbed shoulders with pock-marked prostitutes, and they all ended the afternoon rutting in "stews", cheap flophouses where the ready and willing could find a bed together. The theatre crowd was a fine place to mingle – for pickpockets, prostitutes, revolutionaries and spies, as well as those looking to flirt – and a lot more fun than the other regular gathering-place of the era, the church. 

These new playhouses were desperate for quality material.  Unless the theatres were closed by an outbreak of plague, there were six shows a week, and the actors performed a rotating repertoire.  In the early 1580s, these plays were written by anonymous pens, courtly romances churned out by gentlemen poets unwilling to put their names to low-class entertainment. Marlowe – along with his roommate, Thomas Kyd – scented opportunity.  Here was a unique chance to write original material and be paid well for it, and, more importantly, to have a voice within the prevailing culture that had trained him to think, write and argue in the most skilled and sophisticated manner possible, then expected him to remain deferential on the sidelines, speaking only when spoken to first.

In 1587, Marlowe let rip with Tamburlaine The Great, the story of a Scythian shepherd-bandit who raises an army, destroys all his enemies in the most bloodthirsty fashion, conquers Persia, then Africa and (towards the end of Part Two) declares his disgust with all known gods.  It was a hit. It appealed to the diverse theatre audience on many levels – the gory fight and execution scenes went down well with the groundlings in the pit, the virtuoso use of language impressed the educated, the use of historical examples intrigued the politically inclined, and the seditious, blasphemous thinking shocked and thrilled everyone present.  A huge crowd of people, including noblemen, listened, silent, rapt, to the words of a base-born cobbler’s son from Kent.

Marlowe – and his friend Kyd, who wrote The Spanish Tragedy – established theatre as the first form of mass entertainment.  A single performance could draw 3,000 spectators, which made the stage a most potent place for mocking the status quo and sowing seeds of dissent.  Incendiary words spoken by actors could, and did, start riots. 

Marlowe followed Tamburlaine with equally lurid material.  Doctor Faustus (1588) tells the tale of the man who sold his soul and gained the world – temporarily. The Jew Of Malta (1589/90) charts the vicious campaign of revenge wreaked on the Christian islanders by wronged Jew, Barabas.  Edward II (1592) is the love story of a king and a commoner, doomed by fate, their joy in one another wrecked by a scheming queen.  The Massacre of Paris (also 1592) addressed recent history, the August 1572 wholesale slaughter of thousands of Huguenots in the French capital by the Catholic king and nobles.

The Final Reckoning

This was all very provocative. Marlowe did not live in an era of free speech, and the Queen’s Master of Revels scrutinized every word of every play manuscript before permitting it to be performed onstage. Nonetheless, a master of subtext and metaphor such as Marlowe could – and did – critique current events and personages in his work, much to the entertainment of the cognoscenti in the audience.  We’ll never know exactly how closely his twin careers as agent provocateur and playwright were intertwined, and some of his characters’ more outrageous (particularly blasphemous) acclamations may have been intended to flush out enemies of the state – at Walsingham’s behest.

Unfortunately, Marlowe himself didn’t know how to draw the line between the larger-than-life characters he created for the stage and his Renaissance Man About Town persona.  He mocked the sacred tenets of the New Testament, consorted with murderers and atheists, and counterfeited the coin of the realm.  Inevitably, Walsingham decided it was time to reel him in and ordered up some incriminating evidence to be used at will.  The spymaster arrested and tortured two men Marlowe had shared a room with, fellow spy Richard Baines and the playwright Thomas Kyd.  Elizabethan torture techniques were crude, but effective, and the prisoners gave up Marlowe as a heretic and therefore indictable enemy of the Church – and Crown – of England.

The subsequent murder of Christopher Marlowe on May 30, 1593, supposedly the outcome of a brawl over a bar bill, causes controversy to this day.  Was it an unfortunate accident, a rivalry over a woman, or a political assassination carried out on the direct orders of the Palace?  Whatever the reasons for his death, Marlowe’s remarkable voice was silenced, Elizabethan theatre was bereft of one of its most colorful characters, and the way was clear for an actor-playwright well-known to Marlowe (they may have worked on Richard II together) to become the undisputed king of iambic pentameter.

The ongoing Marlowe legends are as lurid as the few facts we know about his life.  When, belatedly, he was honored with a memorial window in Westminster Abbey, a question mark was added to his date of death.  When London got too hot for him, did he fake his own murder and flee?  The evidence uncovered by biographers suggests this is not the case, but it’s tempting to think he might have lived on.  As well as the excellent historical accounts of his life written by David Riggs (The World of Christopher Marlowe) and Charles Nicholls (The Reckoning: The Murder Of Christopher Marlowe), various novelists have also delivered their version of the legend: Anthony Burgess’s A Dead Man In Deptford, Louise Walsh’s Tamburlaine Must Die, and Ros Barber’s The Marlowe Papers are all excellent reads and testament to our ongoing fascination with the man.

Had Marlowe lived, and kept writing, his may have been the dominant sesquicentennial (halfway between the quad- and quin- centenaries) of 2014.  As it is, he remains the perfect – and more darkly magnetic –  shadow in Shakespeare’s sunshine day.  If you haven’t read his plays lately, this is the year you probably should.

About the author

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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