19 May 2009

Christopher Marlowe: Poet & Spy

Christopher Marlowe: Poet & Spy, by Park Honan: At the time of his murder at age 29, Christopher Marlowe was the greatest writer in the English language, greater even than Shakespeare, who shared the same birth year of 1564. In the years following, Shakespeare would surpass Marlowe as a dramatist, but Marlowe’s poem Hero and Leander would often be praised through the Victorian era as the finest ever penned in English.

Of course, as the title of this book indicates, in addition to being a writer, Marlowe also served as a part-time spy for the government of Queen Elizabeth. Marlowe’s assignments invariably required him to infiltrate and report on foreign and domestic Catholic threats to the crown.

The author is a professor from the University of Leeds, and the book is what can be expected from a limey egghead. . .it is as dry as the surface of Venus, and I doubt ninety-nine out of one hundred American sheeple would have the patience to read every word of this thing.

One must give the professor high marks for placing Marlowe’s work in historical context, and he does a good, if often laborious, job of analyzing Marlowe’s texts and hi-liting his technical and artistic advances.

For example, commenting on Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, the professor informs us:

The subtle, complex consistency of his portrait, its representativeness of men and women in general, its lack of dependency on moral evaluation, as well as the poet’s use of farce and comedy in aid of tragic effect were all to be gifts to Elizabethan and later dramatists. (p. 218).

Concerning Edward II:

He aimed to give his new play a special authority, or a convincingly developed inwardness in a sustained central portrait, and a more realistic sense of time, and of political milieu, than he had seen on the stage. (p. 295).

In 1592 no more powerfully unified history play had been written for the London stage. Though borrowing from Shakespeare, Marlowe for the moment eclipses him in a fresh, astute development of psychology and in fresh techniques in dramaturgy, including sharply contrasting styles of speech. (p. 307).

But four hundred and sixteen years after Marlowe inked his last lines, here in the PopEater Age, the casual reader (if a Marlowe bio could provoke such a thing in the 21st century) will be more interested in Marlowe the spy and his mysterious murder, rather than in meticulous analysis of:

It lies not in our power to love or hate,
For will in us is over-rul'd by fate.
When two are stript, long ere the course begin,
We wish that one should lose, the other win;
And one especially do we affect
Of two gold ingots, like in each respect:
The reason no man knows, let it suffice,
What we behold is censur'd by our eyes.
Where both deliberate, the love is slight:
Who ever lov'd, that lov'd not at first sight?


Alas, our university professor appears too highbrow to rake the muck of scandal and conspiracy. He declines to remark upon, let alone refute, various of the theories which have risen over the centuries since Marlowe’s murder. He accepts the official State account, yet, strangely, he admits its questionable status. Before presenting the professor’s inconsistent conclusion, we need to set the crime scene:

On 30 May 1593, Marlowe met the spy Robert Poley and two bottom-feeders, Ingram Frizer (Marlowe’s supposed killer) and Nicholas Skeres, at Bull’s rooming house, located just outside London. The reason for the meeting remains unclear. Was Poley, a veteran of various intrigues in Scotland, supposed to recruit Marlowe for an assignment, with Marlowe’s murder being an unplanned result? Or was Marlowe set-up?

Ten days prior to the rooming house meeting, Marlowe had been called before the Queen’s Council, likely due to his reputation as an *atheist.* This was a serious matter back in the 16th century. For example, Marlowe’s fellow playwright and former roommate Thomas Kyd was undergoing torture (the effects of which would lead to his death) in the Tower of London for *heresy* during the days leading up to Marlowe’s murder.

Marlowe’s literary patron, Thomas Walsingham, had also been his intelligence service case officer. Walsingham had a favorable position with the Queen, and may have wanted to distance himself from the *atheist* Marlowe. As it happens, Walsingham was also the employer of the small-time grifter Ingram Frizer, who may have provoked an argument with Marlowe as a *self-defense* pretext for murder. Frizer could have killed Marlowe at the request of Walsingham, or to curry favor with Walsingham, or for any number of reasons. He may not have even been the real killer, as a number of theories hold. He may have only admitted to the self-defense killing in order to cover for the true murderer(s), knowing he would be quickly pardoned by the Queen, as was the case.

Regardless, the official account has Marlowe, Poley, Frizer and Skeres in Bull’s rooming house on 30 May 1593. Here is how our professor understands the resulting events:

When Marlowe came indoors at 6 o’clock, the room was still suffused with daylight. After the evening meal, he lay down because he was disconcerted by events and perhaps hazy with drink. Few men handled situations better than Robert Poley, but judging from the coroner’s report, neither he nor Skeres spoke or intervened when the argument began.

Malicious words, between Frizer and Marlowe, arose because of a dispute over the bill, says the coroner. But the inquisition sketches an odd, almost hallucinatory scene. The three men, Skeres, Frizer, and Poley, sit with their backs to the poet, and they remain squeezed together and glued to a bench. Frizer speaks to a wall, and Marlowe on a bed replies to the ceiling. Possibly, the room begins to contract; one might think that the furniture is on the move, for twice, in Latin and in English, Mistress Bull’s long table comes ‘nere the bed.’ Poley and Skeres hear nothing. When violence begins, nobody can move, stand up, shout for help, or even turn his head. The most spectacular, bloody events occur next to Poley’s elbow, but he has no idea that a man is being killed.

‘Is it not odd,’ John Bakeless once asked, ‘that there is nothing to explain why three men could not overpower Marlowe without killing him?’ And yet the coroner addresses just this point: ‘Ingram Frysar could in no way flee’ from a mortal attack by Marlowe. Again: Frizer ‘was not able to withdraw in any way,’ or again, ‘the same Ingram could not withdraw further from the aforesaid Christopher.’ In Elizabethan fights the safest way to draw blood without inflicting serious harm was to reverse the dagger, and pummel an opponent’s scalp with the hilt. ‘If thou dost lay they hands on me I will lay my dagger on they pate,’ says an earl’s agent at Stratford in 1582. The scalp wound, like the threat of it, is meant to confuse or intimidate, but not to kill.

Leaping from his bed, the poet grabbed at Frizer’s dagger, and with the hilt gave him two wounds on his scalp, each two inches long and a quarter of an inch deep. The poet’s ‘rashness in attempting sudden privy injuries to men’ was later noted by Kyd, possibly with reference to verbal injuries; but Marlowe could be violent, and his attack left his enemy free to respond. Poley and Skeres may have pinioned his arms, or simply let Walsingham’s business agent do as he wished. Frizer recovered his weapon and drove it hard at Marlowe’s face.

According to the original report, this blade struck ‘above his right eye’ (super dexterum oculum sum), or just under the thin, bony ocular plate which roofs the eyeball. The dagger apparently penetrated two inches to the internal carotid where it divides into its terminal branches, the middle and anterior cerebral arteries. Modern medical opinion is skeptical of the view that Marlowe died of an air embolus, since the normal pressure in the sinus approximates to atmospheric pressure, as J. Thompson Rowling, a surgeon at Sheffield, has noted. It is hard to see how an embolism would result from a long, thin wound. The likeliest cause of death would be intracranial bleeding from a major vessel, such as the carotid, just punctured by the weapon. This would have left Marlowe conscious for five or six minutes; he is unlikely to have died at once.

Such a detail may catch Poley, Skeres, and Frizer in a lie, since they told the coroner that Marlowe had died instantly—et ibidem instanter obit. With access to details not in the official report, both Vaughn and Beard indicate the poet remained conscious for a while: ‘he shortly after dyed’ or ‘hee even cursed and blasphemed to the last gaspe.’ If the coroner’s report is false in one detail, it may be false or distorted in others.

But as soon as the professor opens the door to alternatives to the official verdict (Frizer killed Marlowe in self-defense), he quickly shuts it, citing as *evidence* of the basic truthfulness of the coroner’s report an account written in 1600 by William Vaughan which only includes additional details that do not seriously jeopardize the coroner’s conclusion.

Especially disappointing is the author’s complete refusal to address the most interesting of all the Marlowe conspiracies theories: Marlowe faked his own death to escape execution as an *atheist* and then continued his literary career as. . .William Shakespeare.

The reason this is so disappointing is the man our professor uses to validate the state report, William Vaughan, appears to be known to *William Shakespeare.*

*Shakespeare* makes use of Vaughan’s record of the Marlowe murder in As You Like It (as well as quoting Marlowe directly). *Shakespeare* likely also had direct contact with Vaughan, as records indicate Vaughan paid for the staging of at least one performance of *Shakespeare’s* Richard II.

Many credible scholarly articles and books have been written on the Marlowe-as-Shakespeare theory, including two interesting recently published works:

Marlowe’s Ghost

The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection

Besides neglecting the Marlowe conspiracy theories, two other major complaints can be made against the author:

1). He doubts the authenticity of Marlowe’s *atheism.* He would have the reader believe Marlowe’s *atheism* was mere *posing* from a literary *bad boy.* It is true Marlowe was a restless genius, as bored by the Elizabethan *Christian* sheeple that surrounded him as a fifth-rate Marlowe, *Marilyn Manson,* was bored by the sheeple that surrounded him in his *Christian* school. So there is a grain of truth in what the author says:

But Marlowe’s reputation as a daring, outlandish heretic or ‘atheist’ stood in the way of finding new sponsorship. . .No doubt, there were obstacles and uncertainties in his temperament, his habits, his jokes and exaggerations, his eagerness to irk and incite comment. (p. 315).

Marlowe did like to *irk and incite,* but this does not mean he did not believe his own *material.* Indeed, it would seem rather foolish of Marlowe to deliberately pick such a dangerous act to provoke the Elizabethan establishment. Scores were executed for *blasphemy,* *atheism* and *heresy*. . .a practice that did not end in England until 1611.

The author perhaps intentionally confuses the meaning of *atheism* in the Elizabethan era and that of today. In downplaying Marlowe’s atheism, he cites the playwright’s rather generous views of Islam and Judaism in Tamburlaine. Today, no one would be labeled an *atheist* for only denying certain of the doctrines of Christianity. . .but in Marlowe’s day, anti-Christ doctrine was equated with *atheism.* Marlowe certainly knew this, and our learned professor should know this. Thus, when we review a few of Marlowe’s documented *gibes* at Christ, given the religious tenor of the era, it would seem disingenuous of the author to defend Marlowe against the charge of *atheism:*

Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest.

Christ deserved better to dy than Barrabas and that the Jews made a good choise.

The woman of Samaria and her sister were whores and that Christ knew them dishonestly.

That he was the sonne of a carpenter, and that if Jewes among whome he was borne did crucify him they best knew him and whence he came.

St John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned always in his bosome, he used him as the sinners of Sodoma.

(All of the above from the testimony of Richard Baines, circa 1592).

2). Whereas the author underplays Marlowe’s *atheism,* he seems to strongly overplay Marlowe’s alleged *homosexuality* (it may be both these misestimates are due to the university professor’s bowing to the cultural fads of our day).

On what evidence does the professor judge Marlowe a queer?

From the supposed *homoeroticism* that is said to be sprinkled throughout Marlowe’s writing, such as this passage from Hero and Leander:

Had wild Hippolytus Leander seen,
Enamored of his beauty had he been;
His prescence made the rudest peasant melt,
That in the vast uplandish country dwelt.
The barbarous Thracian soldier, moved with nought,
Was moved with him, and for his favour sought.
Some swore he was a maid in man’s attire,
For in his looks were all that men desire.

And statements such as this, attributed to Marlowe while a student at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge:

All they that love not Tobacco and Boies are fools.

And it is supposed since Marlowe offers a generally sympathetic portrait of the faggot King Edward in Edward II, that is also *proof* of Marlowe’s poofery. Yet I take it more as an example of his literary sophistication, that he does not need to render Edward as a flaming degenerate, as had previous writers done with queer Kings, such as Raphael Holinshed’s sordid take on Scotland’s King James VI.

But if one were to accept Edward II as evidence of homosexualism in Marlowe, one should also then suppose Marlowe was a self-hating queer, as he has *Lucifer* taunt Edward, and then slowly kill him by sodomizing him with a red hot spit. Even our university professor is forced to speculate:

In its ghastly way, Edward’s death mimics a male sexual act. What are we to make of this? Does Marlowe punish the hero for buggery, or punish the excoriating vileness of his own desires, or show the Elizabethan age an image of its own frightful inhumanity? (p. 307).

Marlowe may well have been a devotee of buggery, but there is no record of any *gay* sex, no names of any supposed lovers, so one cannot take it as *fact* that Marlowe was a *sodomite.* Even after spending most of his book assuming Marlowe’s homosexuality, the author concedes Marlowe would have nothing in common with the faggots of our day, the proud and self-righteous brides of the Church of Adam and Steve:

The matter of his sexuality, though, is more elusive, if only because, in a strict sense, there were no ‘homosexuals’ in the realm; homosexuality is a modern concept, and few Elizabethans seem to have thought of homoerotic desire in connection with a distinct personality type, or as giving an erotic identity. Marlowe is called a homosexual today, with some justice, if we think of his plays and his descriptions in Hero and Leander; but the anachronism may be false to his self-awareness. (p. 297).

Indeed. One can imagine one of Marlowe’s well-known violent outbursts should he walk into one of our modern taverns and be called *gay.*

Still, despite these criticisms and the dryness of the text, I appreciate Christopher Marlowe: Poet & Spy for taking me away for a few hours from our vulgar, stupid, dull-of-wit age, and placing me back in an era where one produced one’s own amusements by one’s own wit. Marlowe was caustic, sarcastic, edgy and above all, clever. He had a classically educated, sophisticated cleverness which is sorely lacking in our dumbed-down day. The rag Entertainment Weekly gushed recently as the epitome of modern wit the following lame-ism from a colored celebrity named Aziz Ansari, who typed on Twitter:

Yo @ Snoop—hey I’m working on a woodworking project, can I borrow your nail gun tomorrow?

A dim-wit on Twitter. The garbage of an ignoramus applauded as art in a national magazine. What is this colored boy’s vapid verse compared to:

Some say for her the fairest Cupid pined
And looking in her face was strooken blind.

Christopher Marlowe: Poet & Spy reminds us just how far culture has fallen. . .


  1. No one has the patience to read the classics, walk into any marketplace and hear the pathetic mammerisms of today's youth...such classics as "Yo"...far from the golden age.

    Today's movies, music, and television illustrate precisely how mind numbing and degrading society has transformed into...the youth don't even protest it, they just absorb it within an unquestioning fashion.

    I still appreciate Hamlet, King Lear, and my personal favorite Macbeth. Shakespeare (Marlowe?) has written it in a way that stands the test of time...perhaps these works reveal the corruptable condition that curse the human race since Eve disobeyed God in the garden...

  2. Man, here's a depressing thought:

    In 100 years, *Twilight* will be considered a 'classic.'

  3. I cannot STAND Shakespeare. It is contemptible stuff and I despise it completely. Well, maybe not completely but close enough.

    Frankly, the stuff is dull, the language far divorced from common English of today (or from 100 years ago for that matter). "But it has love and sex and violence and all that stuff!" So does the newest Star Trek.

    And I don't know about Twilight but I do have an idea on the Twilight Zone. TZ should be considered a classic in 100 years.

    And if Shakey is considered a classic today and, say, Twilight is considered a classic in 100 years, what does that say for the condition of Bill's work at that time? How much better was the other stuff?

    This "good ole days" thing is tiresome and largely untrue. Segments of society and art have always sucked when taken in a 20 year span. But looking back at the collective of humanity and its works over the last 500 years, of course the cream of 500 years is richer than the cream of 20 years.

  4. I tried reading Hamlet, but it wasn't until I saw the MelGibson/Glen Close movie that I could follow what was going on and enjoy the story. The same was true with Henry the 5th, which was an awesome movie/story with Kenneth Branagh. Anyway, I suspect Marlowe is probably too daunting for most people to read unless they have an english professor around who walks them through it. Maybe they could make one of his stories into a movie with GaryOldman/JulianneMoore, so we could have a sort of Marlowe for Dummies. Or better yet, have Captain Underpants battle him!

  5. Joey, considering who pulls the strings in Media, I’m surprised we haven’t seen a lavish screen adaptation of Marlowe’s *The Jew of Malta.*

    Sean Penn could play Barabas and Natalie Portman could play Abigail.

    ITP, I read yesterday where Hollywood was dusting off one of the *classics* for a revival:


    Ha ha ha. . .a remake of the *classic* Kevin Bacon film!

    As the Immortal Bard would have said, *it has come to this:*


  6. Footloose has three problems that's caused me to never watch it: It's about dancing, it has Kevin Bacon, and it's about dancing.

    The masses have always been asses. It's one of the few abiding absolutes. One of my favorite writers, HL Mencken, held same nearly 100 years ago. A Second Chrestomathy (posthumously published collection of his works from the Baltimore Sun) is filled with his assessments, mostly negative, of the masses.

    To borrow a favorite term from you, the masses lining up to see Footloose is merely the dog returning to its vomit.

  7. The neo-conservative critics of leftist critics of mass culture ridicule the protest against Bach as background music in the kitchen, against Plato and. Hegel, Shelley and Baudelaire, Marx and Freud in the drugstore. Instead, they insist on recognition of the fact that the classics have left the mausoleum and come to life again, that people are just so much more educated. True, but coming to life as classics, they come to life as other than themselves; they are deprived of their antagonistic force, of the estrangement which was the very dimension of their truth. The intent and function of these works have thus fundamentally changed. If they once stood in contradiction to the status quo, this contradiction is now flattened out.

    -Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, ch 3

  8. I had to read it a couple or three times, but I agree. I think.

  9. In my review of the Marlowe book, I comment on the author's claim that Marlowe is a *homosexual.* I also comment on the Marlowe-Shakespeare connection. In an interesting coincidence, Bishop Williamson has just posted this on his blog:


  10. http://www.marlowe-shakespeare.blogspot.com - all about the Marlowe-as-Shakespeare theory. Awesome!