Sadly, Christopher Marlowe probably wouldn’t have taken such advice. From the little we know about him, and David Riggs’s extrapolations from that evidence, Marlowe seems like a man who would have found trouble in any era, no matter how hard he had to look. He brawled in the streets. He might have been gay, was likely an atheist, and he traveled in questionable circles. Worst of all, he spoke and wrote freely in an age when that was perilous. His mysterious, much-studied stabbing death in a private house in Deptford, during a quarrel with swindler Ingram Frizer, could not have come as much of a surprise to his friends. Anyone courting death in the violent culture of Elizabethan England should not have expected a long engagement.
The son of a shoemaker in Canterbury, Marlowe attended Cambridge on scholarship. In 1587, Cambridge officials hesitated to grant his degree because of rumors that he might be involved in Catholic plotting, but a cryptic note from the Queen’s Privy Council changed their minds. It asked that they award the degree and allay any rumors, because Marlowe “had done her Majesty good service . . . in matters touching the benefit of the country.” Spying? No one knows. The note is the only piece of hard evidence, though Riggs makes a good case for Marlowe the spy from other, circumstantial evidence. And thus began the mysteries that surrounded Marlowe the rest of his life.
About Marlowe the writer, a little more is known. He wrote “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.” In a time when Virgil was all the rage, he translated the politically unacceptable Ovid. In 1587, his first London stage production, Tamburlaine the Great, was a tremendous hit, so he followed it with Tamburlaine the Great, Part II. In the next five years, he had hits with The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, The Jew of Malta, Edward the Second, and The Massacre at Paris, each bloodier than the last.
In the midst of his writing success, Marlowe was dogged by trouble. He was arrested in the Netherlands for counterfeiting, getting off somehow on the excuse that he only wanted “to see the goldsmith’s cunning.” In Shoreditch, he was arrested as a participant in a brawl wherein one of his friends killed a man, and later he was required to post a guarantee that he would not disturb the peace. In Canterbury, he was sued for destruction of property. (Unlike his contemporary Ben Jonson, Marlowe didn’t, so far as we know, kill anyone.)
He consorted regularly with half a dozen or so of Elizabeth’s spies, at least some of whom were double agents. And, if one of her informants is to be believed, Marlowe loudly and regularly proclaimed his atheism, in the pugnacious manner of late-night college dormitory disputants:
Marlowe “doth not only hold [these opinions] himself,” Baines concluded, “but almost into every Company he Cometh he persuades men to Atheism, willing them not to be afeared of bugbears and hobgoblins, and utterly scorning both god and his ministers.”
Under torture, Marlowe’s friend and fellow playwright Thomas Kyd corroborated the accusations:
“It was his custom,” he wrote, “in table talk or otherwise to jest at the divine scriptures, gibe at prayers, and strive in argument to frustrate and confute what hath been spoke or writ by prophets and such holy men.”
Such beliefs were not to be spoken aloud, for any doubt gave aid and comfort to the queen’s Catholic enemies. Days after the accusations, Marlowe was dead after the “great reckoning in a little room,” about which Charles Nicholl has written a whole book, and which Riggs describes—and investigates—extremely well. Was Marlowe murdered by order of the Queen? The facts are complex, but Riggs argues convincingly that “all relevant evidence leads back to the palace.” Within a fortnight, the Queen had pardoned the killer.
Near the book’s end, Riggs asks:
Was the great poet a good man? Firsthand recollections about Marlowe’s character are hard to come by. Nashe counted him “among my friend that used me like a friend.” The printer Edward Blount calls him “the man, that hath been dear unto us.” The satirist John Marston memorably refers to “kind Kit Marlowe.” On the other hand, Kyd’s letters to Puckering assert that Marlowe was “intemperate and of a cruel heart,” a person who rashly attempted “sudden privy injuries to men.”
Riggs attempts to mitigate Kyd’s words, arguing that, having been tortured, he was attempting to distance himself from Marlowe, but Kyd’s description sounds as apt as the kinder ones.
That’s the Marlowe who’s so fascinating: a man of contradictions and confusions and mysteries, living in an era that seems a heightened composite of those qualities. And David Riggs does a laudable job of, essentially, creating that Marlowe for us, making him real and compelling against the backdrop of those times. His brief life and penchant for trouble call to mind the Edna St. Vincent Millay lines, from "First Fig" (1920):
My candle burns at both ends,
It will not last the night.
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!
I've already imagined Marlowe consorting with Claudius, so I might as well pull him out of history again and wonder how he would find our era, when a person with his literary talents has a more clear—and certainly much safer—path. I don’t think I’d like to have been friends with Marlowe, but I’d like to have had other friends who were. That way, I could avoid being dragged into his troubles, but I’d get to see him once in a while at parties. I’d always be kept up on the gossip. And I’m guessing that wouldn’t lessen the mystery or the contradictions one bit. Kit Marlowe would still be trouble.