Christopher Marlowe was the Quentin Tarantino of Elizabethan theatre. His plays were laced with ultra-violence and audiences often left shaken by what they’d witnessed on stage. And maybe it’s not surprising that this shocking playwright came to a grisly end. On 30 May 1593, Marlowe was murdered at a house in Deptford, south London. But are accounts of his death a tissue of lies circulated by enemies?
Marlowe should be as famous today as Shakespeare, his contemporary. And yet he’s eclipsed by the Bard. But in his own time, his plays packed theatres with their blood curdling scenes. One commentator has compared his work to the surrealist Theatre of Cruelty – a belief that in order to create impact on an audience, a drama has got to be a little bit nasty.
In his plays, when a character gets stabbed, he lingers on stage and discusses what he’s feeling. His famous dramatisation of the life of murdered medieval king Edward II has left us with all the graphic details of the hapless monarch having a red hot poker shoved inside him. I’ll spare you the details! But Marlowe doesn’t. To him, the violence was an essential part of the plot and a way of ramming home the moral of the story.
So when it comes to the untimely and violent death of Marlowe, plenty of commentators down the centuries have shrugged and said in so many words: he had it coming. As if creating violent fiction necessarily results in it leaping off the page at you. And Marlowe’s death has been variously ascribed to his drinking, whoring, alleged spying and his homosexuality. All convenient ways of trivialising a great talent – and almost excusing his murderer.
It’s often stated that the death of Marlowe was the result of a drunken brawl at a tavern called the Bull Inn. Marlowe and a friend, Ingram Frizer fell out over the tab – as we’ve all done at some point in our lives. Though without murdering one of our fellow drinkers!
However, this account is hotly disputed by The Marlowe Society, which says that there was no tavern involved. In fact, they claim, Marlowe was at a ‘respectable house‘ owned by a certain Dame Eleanor Bull having dinner. The other diners included the aforementioned Frizer and they all had links to Thomas Walsingham, a spymaster at the court of Queen Elizabeth the first.
Thomas was the cousin of the now deceased Francis Walsingham who created the queen’s spy network to protect her from assassination attempts orchestrated by the Pope and the King of Spain. Marlowe was undoubtedly keeping interesting company. And he was going to need help from people of influence because ten days before he’d been arrested on a charge of atheism. And this in itself is a bizarre story.
Another playwright and close friend, Thomas Kyd, had been arrested on the same charge after being found to be in possession of an ‘Arian’ tract. Arianism was an ancient heresy going back to the fourth century AD. While being stretched on the rack, Kyd screamed that Marlowe was the real heretic and that furthermore…..he’d stated that Jesus Christ was homosexual. In a document held today at the British Library, Marlowe also apparently joked that holy communion should be smoked in a pipe and that the New Testament was so badly written, he could have done a better job.
This document, known as the “Baines note”, is disputed with some seeing it as an attempt to damn Marlowe’s reputation. Though Marlowe seems more than capable of having uttered such sentiments. And he moved among people who saw themselves as being at the vanguard of a new movement that questioned tradition and divinely sanctioned authority.
So what’s the official account of Marlowe’s death? In the Coroner’s report at the time, it’s claimed a row broke out between Frizer and Marlowe over the cost of the dinner. Marlowe grabbed a dagger and in the heat of the moment stabbed Frizer. He then retaliated “in defence of his life” and struck the playwright just above the right eye, driving the blade in and killing Marlowe instantly.
Not many people believe the coroner’s account. For a start, the evidence came from three men described as ‘slippery’ by one modern expert. Frizer walked free and spent the rest of his life in Walsingham’s service. The owner of the house, Dame Bull, doesn’t seem to have been interviewed for her version of events. And while Marlowe may have been tense, as he contemplated his possible torture and trial for heresy, was he really about to start a murderous brawl over an unpaid bill?
One theory that carries weight is that Marlowe was involved in the queen’s spy network or at least had access to privileged information. He was about to face the rack and a public appearance in court. What might he say in those circumstances? As Shakespeare once noted, a man will say anything under torture. To silence Marlowe, did these rather shady characters lure him to a house in south London and finish him off?
Another view is that he was part of an underground group of freethinkers and humanists known as The School of Night led by none other than the intrepid Sir Walter Raleigh. These gentlemen were creatures of the Renaissance and foreshadowed the Age of Enlightenment. But not everybody in 16th century England thought being enlightened was a good idea – especially the church. Could dark forces have targeted Marlowe to make an example of him?
And then the boldest theory is that Marlowe wasn’t murdered at all. He was a valued espionage asset and had to be disappeared. The whole murder was concocted to make that possible. Some or other corpse was tossed into the unmarked grave while the playwright slipped abroad.